It wasn’t Valentine’s Day that upset me yesterday. It was the Daytona 500.

Michael went into mourning between the last NASCAR race of the season and the first one. He would tell me, all through January and February, how long it was until the Daytona 500. It was a holiday in our house. He would load up the snacks, lay down on the couch and he would be grinning from ear to ear….he would watch all the interviews later and the Dave DeSpan show (sorry Dave if I spelled that wrong, I never really watched you but Michael was a HUGE fan).

In 2001 Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed at Daytona. He was Michael’s favorite driver. Michael raced cars and motorcycles and he said that his style was very much like Dale Earnhardt. Judging from the way he drove, I absolutely believed he drove like the man they called “The Intimidator.”

They were 3 weeks apart in age, had the moustache thing going and had a very similar attitude about life. So when Dale Sr. was killed at Daytona, Michael was bereft. We bought him, for all of the succeeding birthdays, Father’s Days and Christmas, at least one Dale Earnhardt Sr. item. We even managed to combine his passions. Nick bought him a Dale Earnhardt Sr. pool cue. He hung it up on the wall and no one was allowed to touch it.

Of course I never liked racing. I used to call it “hillbillies driving to the left” and Michael used to just look at me like I was a jerk. Which was okay because I was being a jerk. And it became a running joke between us. I did sit down and watch some races with him but I thought them boring.

I also bought him tickets to a few NASCAR races. I went all out and bought the VIP seating with the pit passes. From the race he went to in 1997, all of his pictures are of Dale Earnhardt’s car. He went a couple of other times and he had tickets to his long-awaited attendance at his favorite track, Dover, when he had his seizure. When he emerged from his brain surgery a few weeks later, one of the first questions he wrote on the napkin (he couldn’t speak because he had been intubated) was “Can I still go to the race at Dover?” When I told him the race had come and gone he looked more upset over that than the fact he just had brain surgery.

About 50 percent of the things in the basement are NASCAR memorabilia including model cars (about 500 of them).

Last year he was in and out when Daytona started. I remember thinking that it was a sign that he wasn’t his old self. And for the rest of the race season he only made it all the way through one race. It was one of the barometers that I used to judge the quality of his life. He loved his family and being around us but his fishing, pool playing and racing were his solo pursuits most of the time (he involved the kids in all 3 but they were his first loves).

I remember trying to keep him on chemotherapy and he didn’t really want to be on it any more. One of the clues that he gave me that his life quality wasn’t good was the nodding off during the races. It seemed like it was all he had left and he couldn’t really enjoy it. When he was well, he used to comment and grouse and talk during the race, the interviews and talk back to the Dave DeSpan show later on. For him NASCAR was very interactive. When he got sick he would just stare at it mutely. It killed me to see him so passive.

I remember when Michael was turning 50. He was cranky about it but he noted that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been 2 months shy of his 50th birthday when he died. It was probably the only time I heard him really comment on life and death. He said, “Well I guess that what could be worse than turning 50 is NOT turning 50.”

Michael was 57 when he was diagnosed and had just turned 58 when he died. We each thought we had a lot more years together. Ten, twenty or thirty. But we didn’t. I always imagined us being little old people together. I never imagined it would never happen.

So yesterday was the first Daytona without him. The first racing season I can’t tease him about watching people drive to the left. Daytona was always a holiday for him….something he loved. I know that it would have trumped Valentine’s Day but that would have been perfectly fine with me. We probably would have gotten some food and hung out. But there would be no question that we would NOT be going out during the Daytona 500. And that would be okay with me.

I don’t know NASCAR that well (unless the driver was someone Michael loved or hated) and I certainly am not interested in it….but when Daytona comes up or one of the other races he held dear (Talladega, Bristol Under the Lights, Dover and Loudon New Hampshire where he raced), I will feel sad.

He would have loved that Dale Earnhardt Jr took 2nd place yesterday. I didn’t watch it yesterday because his absence would have been too huge for me, but this morning I couldn’t help but look up the results.

There are some “firsts” I know that will throw me and make me sad. And then there are others, like Daytona, that jar me and it surprises me.

I feel as if I’ve come a long way, but there are still miles to go.

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