Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hanging With Bob Callahan

Kristen and Bob Callahan are celebrating their 36th anniversary today.

They were 23 when they got married, a year out of college, Bob a Princeton grad, Kristen from Bucknell.

Kristen had to go to work this morning, to her teaching job in the computer science department at Mercer County Community College. Bob is spending some of his anniversary morning talking to TigerBlog.

He called himself a cheap date on his anniversary. Cheap, as in not going out tonight to celebrate.

In truth, every moment for Bob - Princeton's longtime, well-loved former men's squash coach - is a celebration. This is a man with a Stage IV brain tumor, a man who endured aggressive chemotherapy and radiation until he finally had to stop, a man living these days because of his heart, his will, his spirit, his toughness.

And his family, especially his wife.

Kristen went back to work today and needed someone to stay with Bob a few mornings per week. As TB understands it, Kristen asked Kim Meszaros, Mollie Marcoux' assistant, if she could recommend anyone. Instead, Kim emailed the athletic department, and people came running to spend time with Bob, signing up for 90-minute time slots.

TB is here now. Field hockey coach Kristen Holmes-Winn will be here shortly to replace him.

Kristen Callahan said that Bob would be asleep the entire time, but that hasn't been the case. Instead, he's been talking non-stop.

His speech isn't loud anymore, but it's definitely his voice. He is speaking in a whisper, and TB needs to be on Bob's right side, since he can't see much out of his left eye anymore.

TB is glad that Bob has been up. He's said some incredible things.

TigerBlog was struck almost immediately by something that Bob said as he asked about how TigerBlog Jr. and Miss TigerBlog were doing. He asked about TBJ and lacrosse, and then he asked this: "Does your son still play goalie?"

TB would have guessed that Bob never knew what position TBJ said, let alone remember it now.

That wasn't the only thing that Bob said that made TB shake his head and smile. Bob also said this: "I'm a very fortunate man. I don't have any complaints about anything."

Bob Callahan is a man of subtle humor, always has been. He's not going to tell you a loud, wild joke; he's going to say something in which the humor is understated, the punchline not always so obvious at first.

He asked TigerBlog about everyone in the athletic department, by name, by position. He talked about the teams, who was doing well, who was new, those whom he worked with all those years.

After a pause, he said "I'll be back."

TigerBlog smiled at that. Then Bob, in typical fashion, added this: "The alternative isn't much of a choice."

His attitude couldn't be better, and it's been that way through the entire ordeal, back when he first started radiation treatments and described them as "nice," as in "all the people there are so nice."

Now he's downstairs in his house, in a hospital bed where TigerBlog surmises a dining room table once was. There's a twin bed next to Bob's, where apparently Kristen sleeps.

There's no TV in his field of vision. Bob said he doesn't want one these days. He reads a lot, though it makes him fall asleep. He said he wants to write, but he hasn't done so yet. He gets bored too, he admitted.

He talked about his two new granddaughters. He talked about his five sons, each a Princeton graduate, like Bob, a member of the Class of 1977.

He has great recall of events and people. He repeated only one thing, which TigerBlog can't even remember now.

When he asked about all of the people in the athletic department, he said their name and then added a comment about each, which usually ran to "I really like him" or "she's a great person." When he spoke about longtime squash assistant coach Neil Pomphrey, he said that TB should "take him to lunch; he's a life-changingly good person."

He talked about trying to get out to dinner, maybe to the Blue Point Grill on Nassau Street or Acacia in Lawrenceville. So much for being a cheap date.

He never fell asleep, something for about which TB is glad, because it's been great to catch up with him.

Bob Callahan is fighting a brutal fight against an opponent that does not play fair. In many ways, he's already won.

He's still the same guy he's always been. TigerBlog can remember only one time that he ever saw Bob angry, and it was so out of character that he can't help but laugh about it now that he thinks back to it.

Mostly, Bob's tenure as squash coach was marked by overwhelming on-court success, with an unusual combination of a gentlemanly sense of sportsmanship and a fierce competitiveness. He's a member of the U.S. squash Hall of Fame, and he left a mark on Princeton Athletics and the world of intercollegiate squash that few have matched.

Ultimately, the conversation with TigerBlog went back to squash.

TigerBlog has just gotten back to playing after having knee surgery. He told Bob about how his game is progressing.

It was Bob and Gail Ramsay, the women's coach, who got TB into squash 10 years or so ago. They came and watched him play, like parents who were proud that a child was sharing one of their interests, even if they winced more than once at what they were seeing at first.

Over time, TB became pretty good at the game. His regular matches were with Craig Sachson, his colleague in the OAC. Bob and Gail would watch every now and then, offering pointers, making their sarcastically funny comments.

After about 75 minutes of non-stop talk, most of it from Bob, there was a brief lull in the conversation. TigerBlog brought up his squash resurgence.

Bob smiled at that, though in truth he had never really stopped smiling.

"I'm looking forward to getting over there to watch one of your matches with Craig again," Bob said. Then he paused - and added this: "Just like the old days."

Then it was back to the lull in the conversation, if ever so briefly.

TigerBlog looked out at Bob, his friend for more than 20 years, as he lie on his bed. He thought back to the entirety of their conversation, and how sharp his mind is, even as the tumor sits there, above his right ear.

He wished him happy anniversary again. Bob talked about his wife of 36 years, saying how she had a lot on her plate. Then he said that he didn't know how she does it, keeping it all together the way she does.

It was 90 minutes earlier that Kristen had stood on the driveway, telling TigerBlog about she and her husband had first gotten together and how young they were when they got married. She talked about his condition and prognosis, and she did all this in her own usual upbeat way.

In the corner of her eyes, TigerBlog could detect a hint of a tear, just a hint, and he wasn't sure if it was because he was having such a good morning, or because of the situation itself, or because she was remembering when she and her love had gotten together and gotten married, 36 years ago today.

It was just a hint of a tear, and then it was gone. Today isn't a day for tears anyway.

It was a day to spend some time with an old friend. A special friend.

A special man, Bob Callahan is. A special man, in great spirits, fighting today as he always does.

What do I have to regret, he asked? Then he smiled, again.

Then it was time to go. Kristen Holmes-Winn came in, and Bob asked her immediately for pictures of her kids.

TB said his goodbye, and Bob reached out his hand. TigerBlog shook it, but Bob pulled him closer and kissed TB on the back of his hand.

Then he smiled again.

So did TigerBlog. 


Pierre said...

Lovely post, thanks TB

Nassau83 said...

Best column ever! Thanks to TB and his colleagues for their support of and devotion to two people who deserve it - Bob and Kristen!