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Sept. 9, 2007
Redskins 16, Dolphins 13
My mom is sweating me big-time. The home opener is about to start. I am sitting on the couch, trying to soak in the pre-game. And there she is. Just staring at me, pushing football snacks as if the kitchen were her very own Frito-Lay showroom.
There’s the wheel of smoked cheese, perspiring on its blue plate like an old man’s forehead in July. There’s the bag of whole wheat veggie chips. There is the promise of low-calorie cookie bites.
Mom had started campaigning days earlier. She called with her pitch. She begged. She said Dad wants me to come over, too. Her résumé sparkles with cajoling credentials: Jewish mother of 34 years, raising three children; serious time as an elementary school teacher convincing spoiled kids to play right with paper and paste.
Her art lies in voice modulation. She is great in nag mode—it is her cruising altitude. I didn’t stand a chance. I had to show up.
When the game begins, Mom stands with arms crossed, against the kitchen counter, still trying to talk. About what I don’t know. Up on the TV, the Redskins defense resembles a bunch of trapeze artists, flying all over FedExField, forcing Trent Green to toss bad balls.
Mom doesn’t wait for the huddle to ask questions like: Who are the Redskins playing? What’s the score? How much time is left? She can’t help it. She’s a rookie.
She’s never hosted a Redskins game.
Mom comes from a family where Sonny was God and sipping from flasks at Griffith Stadium was sacrament. Yet the allure of the burgundy and gold somehow has eluded my mother. The screen might as well be blank. The game holds nothing for her. Fifty-three players, and Mom can’t name a single one.
The Redskins were the domain of her mother. For a decade, I sat next to my grandmother and gave ear to her analysis, ate her lavish spreads, and braved all of it: Norv Turner’s depressing face, the Gus Frerotte headbutt, Jeff George’s bad attitude, Steve Spurrier’s undeserved hype, and the ultimately disappointing return of Joe Gibbs. The Redskins compiled a record of 73 wins, 86 losses, one tie, and two playoff victories over my 10 seasons with Nana.
But it didn’t matter that our Sundays were often spoiled by bland offenses and Swiss-cheese defenses. In her company, Redskins watching had been elevated to a responsibility.
We followed our team. I followed Nana. No matter where she was living—whether it was her old apartment, where my mom grew up, or an assisted living place or a hospital room—I was there for the games. We always expected our team to prevail. I always wished her one more season, maybe even one more Super Bowl victory.
Now I can divide my history with the Redskins into two eras: games with Nana and games without Nana. She died at 89 on Aug. 3 of this year, eight days before the first exhibition game. After all those seasons, I am a homeless Redskins fan without my armchair quarterback.
Now I drive to one of those new planned neighborhoods in Rockville. I share couch space with my dad. Every five minutes, he has to shoo my mom away. But truth be told, Dad harbors loyalties to a team some 45 miles up 95. He doesn’t quite believe in the Skins.
Into the second quarter, with the Redskins occupying a 3-zip lead, my dad declares that the first team to score a touchdown will win the game. The Dolphins promptly dance into the end zone with four ticks left in the half.
Dad is already tapping out the lead to tomorrow’s Wilbon column.
I sit frozen on the couch. It’s only the end of the first half. At least that’s what Nana would have said, between sips of ginger ale. It was always ginger ale. Except when it was always Arizona iced tea.
Tradition has a funny way of sneaking up on you. For three or four hours each week, we watched a lot of bad football, a lot of the Fox robot, and a lot of patriotic truck commercials. After it was over, we ate a cheap pizza. It didn’t feel like a tradition until it stopped.
Mom is beaming. “I have ginger ale,” she says. It is in the garage fridge, a two-liter bottle—not the Canada Dry mini bottles Nana kept. It lies on its side like a fish.
“Is it flat?” I ask.
Mom denies it. How she can tell, I don’t know.
I know that it is old ginger ale. I recognize the bottle. It is ginger ale left over from the days after Nana’s funeral.
I can pour out a cup and try to forget it is Shiva ginger ale. The game goes into overtime. A 39-yard field goal gives the Redskins a rare overtime victory. These aren’t Nana’s Redskins.
Dec. 8, 1940
Bears 73, Redskins 0
My grandmother, Marian Barker, had a love for the Redskins ever since the team moved from Boston to Washington in 1937. Her brother, Sam, bought a season’s worth of tickets that first year. They were hooked.
In her early years, Nana lived with her parents and brother in Youngstown, Ohio. My great-grandfather owned a stand outside of a sheet and tube plant. He sold candy bars, tobacco, chewing gum—anything the workingman needed. A union stalwart, he extended credit to workers. When the workers couldn’t pay, he folded his business. The family relocated to a house at 5407 13th St. NW, lured by relatives promising work with a liquor distributor.
In the mid-1930s, Nana got a job as a bookkeeper at a sporting goods store downtown. Game days were spent in the stands at Griffith Stadium sitting among men in ties, long coats, and big hats who were smoking cigars and taking nips. Nana did not indulge in such vices.
Women dressed in their Sunday best. Nana didn’t particularly like dressing up. Nana just liked pro football.
Nana was among the 36,000 in attendance for the greatest debacle in Redskins history—the 73-0 loss to the Chicago Bears in the 1940 championship game. Her faith didn’t waver.
She married Michael Abrams, a civil engineer, had two children, moved to Silver Spring and then to Chevy Chase. The Redskins relocated to D.C. Stadium, later named after Robert Kennedy. Nana was there for the opener in ’61.
In 1967, my grandfather secured season tickets through a contact in the building trades. His floor man had a relative who was high up in the team’s organization and could get him a few seats. Later we had as many as six. For all the home games, Nana could see her beloved Sonny Jurgensen in person.
Marian Abrams was not like most mothers. Her son, my Uncle Mark, recalls his friends marveling. “They thought it was great,” he says. “While their moms on Sunday would be shopping, her Sundays would be spent with us in front of the TV set or going to the games.”
On the day my brother and I were born, Nana was at a game. It was Jan. 14, 1973—the day the Redskins played the undefeated Dolphins in the Super Bowl. My grandparents were sitting in the bleachers of L.A. Coliseum. We were seven weeks early and seven hours before kickoff. I’d like to think it didn’t matter that the Skins lost 14-7.
Later, Nana had to compete with six grandchildren for tickets. She always picked the division games to see in person, especially the Dallas game. We had the first four seats in Row 8, Section 125 of RFK Stadium, a close-in end-zone spot where the noise pounded you in the chest. The floors were loosely bolted metal and great for stomping. Nana would make as much noise as anyone, whether jolted by a bad call, roused by a defensive stand, or elated over a Riggins touchdown.
In my grandfather’s home office, they hung Redskins pennants from triumphant seasons. Every new car got a Skins bumper sticker.
Nana’s last drive to see the Skins was 1997, for the first game at what is now called FedExField. She reported back her displeasure. Too many steps, too much walking, she said. And that was that. She no longer had an entire city of fans to watch alongside her, so she started packing her own place with a capacity crowd.
That was me. Whether I’d arrive seconds before kickoff or 10 minutes into the first quarter, Nana would always be calm in her bright sweater and Liz Claiborne pants, white Reeboks, her dark blond hair Aqua-Netted in place. Her face would be all cheeks.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Nana would say.
We then would make our way to the den where the big TV was. She would sit down in her white-leather recliner, and I would take the other chair, another white-leather recliner that didn’t quite match. It was my grandfather’s chair. Long before he died in 1986, he had gone almost completely blind. On the big plays that required a little more color commentary than the announcer had given, Nana would take over and narrate the action on the field.
The den was long and narrow like a railway car. The TV was tucked into a berth between a series of wooden cabinets, containing old vinyl and a small fridge. The white counter top displayed dusty teardrop-shaped bottles of liquor.
The den was where I got to stay up late watching Love Boat as a kid, the place I skidded away from in sock-feet when Fantasy Island got too scary. This is where chopped liver was served on Yom Kippur.
“Did you read Kornheiser’s column?” Nana often asked
“No, I missed it,” I would say. Because of this question, I would now be required to read his stuff.
Nana would pile the snacks on her little roll-top desk and a table within easy reach.
At first, these snacks were simple: a can of mixed nuts, specialty potato chips, a bag of Hershey’s Miniatures. The miniatures were mainstays. Every night before bed, Nana would eat one of each—Krackel, Milk Chocolate, Special Dark, Mr. Goodbar.
There was ginger ale in the fridge and Eggos in the freezer. There was microwave popcorn for the second quarter. There were always tubs of ice cream for the third and fourth quarters, and then postgame Domino’s. That was the extent of Nana’s cooking.
There was to be no changing channels during the commercials. Nana refused to miss a single play. At this point, there were few good plays, only Gus Frerotte’s flailing and Norv Turner’s fruit-leathery neck turning color from peach to pomegranate.
Nana did not care. When some misguided friend called, the phone conversation was short.
“Hello,” Nana would say, drawing out her greeting. “I’m watching the game with Jason.…Call me later.”
“Who’s winning?” the friend would ask.
“Who do you think? They are. The other team.”
“How are the Skins playing?”
“Lousy.” Lousy was one of Nana’s fav-orite words.
On very few occasions, I would bring up the idea of turning the game off if the score was way out of reach. I was not used to four full quarters of misery. Nana would look at me like I was crazy.
“You know,” Nana would say, “I went to the Chicago game. The one where we lost 73-0.”
I would lose this argument every time.
Sept. 17, 2007
Redskins 20, Eagles 12
My brother, Todd, calls the day of the Redskins-Eagles game. There’s a problem. We are supposed to watch the game at our parents’ house. But my sister’s second tattoo has been discovered.
My mom got upset. Dad got loud.
“I bet you they’re gonna bail. Maybe not. Maybe Dad doesn’t care that much about Emily’s tattoo,” Todd says.
I call home for a scouting report. Pretty crappy, Mom says. Really crappy.
I call Todd. By then, I’d made plans to watch the game at a friend’s house. Joe’s an Eagles fan. I don’t think I’ve watched more than one game with a fan of the opposing side. But I don’t have a TV. I don’t want to watch the game alone at the office. I can’t be picky.
Without Nana, where to watch the game is subject to last-minute changes. We become assholes. There is a lot of pre-game fighting between Todd and me about where to watch this game. He will call me a “fuckwad.”
At Joe’s, I notice right off that the TV is not loud enough. But my friend tries hard, turning his kitchen into a frozen pizza factory. He seems excited to take part in my Redskins-watching, like he’s helping my mourning process.
Yet Joe seeks a high five for the Eagles’ D. He also calls at least 32 holding penalties against the Redskins before Todd arrives midway through the first quarter.
With 9:40 to go in the third, Joe falls asleep on the couch. My brother and I do not know what to do. We stare at my friend, listen to him snore, and silently insist the Redskins hold their 10-6 lead.
“Should we leave?” Todd asks.
“No,” I say. We’re staying until the end of the game.
Sept. 19, 2005:
Redskins 14, Cowboys 13
During every game, Nana would always want the Redskins to go by her playbook: They must elect to start on defense, they must play superior special teams on returns that recall the Mike Nelms heyday, and they must at least try to injure the opposing team’s quarterback.
In 1998, the Redskins ignored Nana on both sides of the ball, starting 0-7 and finishing 6-10. Nana and I watched all 16. There are very few highlights. The reel could consist mostly of Darrell Green quotes about the need to return to playing real Redskins football.
In the offseason, Nana had an emergency triple bypass. She spent many weeks doing chest exercises on her living room couch with a special pillow. She had to stick to a new heart-healthy diet. The doctors said nothing about the health risks of watching a Norv Turner-led team.
Nana hated Norv Turner. She saw loser written all over his pocked face and deep in his shaggy dog eyes. These are not the eyes of a coach with a killer instinct. Because of this, Nana had a not-so-secret love affair with Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
Nana was not an X’s and O’s nut. But she did have an instinct for grasping when the team had lost its way. She would always call the right play, even if the coaches on the field never bothered to dial her up on their headsets. The play never involved a screen, a 2-yard run up the middle, or a checkdown pass 5 yards short of the first-down marker. Every play Nana called would result in a first down or a touchdown.
After a short run into the playoffs in 2000 with Brad Johnson under center, Nana moved into a smaller apartment, one that provided meals and an assisted-living option. She hated the communal meals, which required eating with strangers, and worse, men. She was not into bingo.
I hated this place, too, for what it did to our game-watching. There was now a cramped TV room. It was nothing like the den with its secret drawers and big-window view of leafy Chevy Chase. It barely had room for Nana’s jumbo TV. We had to share space with the treadmill.
“Did you see that?” I asked Nana. “They just dragged Jeff George. And we let them.”
The Cowboys had just abused our quarterback.
Nana rolled her eyes in disgust. What are we going to do, Jason?
We could do only one thing—have a good meal. We would shun the building’s dining hall and hit up one of our favorite Italian places for white pizza and spaghetti. As the season wore on, Nana was too wiped out to leave her apartment, and I was tasked with getting takeout. During our meals, we would talk about the game and then everything else.
By 2001, Nana got a bigger apartment at the Irene in Friendship Heights. Our cheering section gained a new member—my brother Todd, who moved back to D.C. from Atlanta.
Todd introduced screaming at the TV.
At home, Nana was not a screamer. She may have muttered “shit” one time during our first three seasons together. But she enjoyed Todd’s exhortations at 0-5 and then 8-8. Nana was a quick study of the high-five. There was nothing sweeter than being able to high-five your grandmother after a Stephen Davis touchdown run.
Even in this era when the team was stocked with mediocre players, players with names like Banks and Gardner stitched across their shoulders, Nana always sided with the men on the field. Especially if they were complaining about coach Marty Schottenheimer. She intuitively saw him as a grumpy field general who brought nothing to the team except boot-camp style practices and dull offensive schemes. Nana hated Marty Ball.
During halftime or after games, Todd and I would play the way Nana wished. We’d dash across the street to an empty parking lot and throw the football around. We’d always urge each other to keep going deeper and deeper—even if our balls would wobble hard into tree branches or bounce 5 yards short. We wouldn’t leave until we both caught spectacular last-second corner-of-the-end-zone Hail Marys.
When Steve Spurrier took over the following year promising miracle plays of his own, Nana believed. But there were few long balls and fewer victories. In nearly every game, she was disappointed. She would develop a not-so-secret wish that Donovan McNabb would start wearing the burgundy and gold.
“How are you feeling?” Todd and I would always ask as we shuffled in on Sunday.
“Lousy,” Nana would say. The game would be on super loud. Nana would be curled up in her chair in her red-velvet sweat suit, ginger ale and pills at her side. She would half-yell that it was her stomach or her feet that were bothering her. We would still have to lean in to get the rundown of these latest medical trials.
Todd and I would then ask for a diagnosis of how the Redskins were playing.
“Lousy,” Nana would say.
The rest of the game would be filled with the sounds of disillusionment. Nana would complain about the offense’s string of three-and-outs. Todd would start yelling at me for not yelling at the TV.
There was nothing we could do but politely suggest to Nana the idea of maybe getting healthier snacks. After a few games and several rounds of cautious nudging on our part, Nana produced bags of Pirate’s Booty, soy chips, pretzels, raw nuts, hummus, and Smartfood popcorn in a corner of her kitchen counter. Nana would even start to drink soy shakes during the week.
None of our innovations helped the Skins. In 2003, we sat in the pits of our chairs and watched a Spurrier team go 5-11. But even after bad games—like the 24-7 loss to the Bills, a team boasting what was then the worst offense in the NFL—Nana would stay positive about the following week.
As we would shuffle out of her apartment, Nana would say: “All right, see you guys next Sunday.”
When Joe Gibbs returned, Nana lit up like we had already won the Super Bowl in a blowout. I read an AP brief and immediately dialed her number.
“It’s a miracle!” Nana shouted. “I can’t believe it.”
Nana loved everything about Joe Gibbs except his play-calling. On defense she would always say politely, “A sack or an interception would be nice.” Those were rare.
Nana finally got what she wanted on the Monday night of Sept. 19, 2005. With less than four minutes left, the Redskins were down 13-0 against the Cowboys. The rest of the game was Brunell tossing miracle bombs to Santana Moss. The passes looked fudged, as if guided by God.
I wasn’t at Nana’s side. Todd was. I only heard the screaming over the phone.
“Can you believe it?” Nana screamed to Todd.
By now, Nana had stopped reading the newspaper. The papers would just pile up at her door or on one of her living room sofas, her favorite sports columnists going unread. But when the game was on, no matter how late, Nana was in the moment.
Oct. 7, 2007
Redskins 34, Lions 3
The folks at Union Jack’s in Bethesda have their own Redskins-watching traditions. I arrive late, right in the middle of halftime. When Nana and I talked Skins, we had our own language. Now I am surrounded by Cooley jerseys, and X-and-O heads half gone on $4 Bud Lights. Nana never played Madden.
I take my Bud Light and utter excuse-me’s around the wide bodies. I’m desperate for an empty and safe seat. I feel like I am 5 years old, and this is my first experience watching an NFL game. I spot two guys in golf shirts who are clearly middle-aged. Safe.
14-0 becomes 14-3, Skins on top. One of the guys says: “14-3 is better than 14-7.” I can handle this level of sports talk.
I realize from the voice that this is the Sports Talk 980 post-game host, a regular presence on my car ride home from Nana’s. I can’t wait to call my brother.
There’s an empty seat next to mine. In a moment, I look up and see the massive outline of former Redskin Rick “Doc” Walker. One of his mitts sparkles with gaudy Super Bowl diamonds. He takes a seat, a cigar stub still in his mouth. He plays with it. Twists it between his teeth.
Walker gets a pitcher of unsweetened iced tea and a plate of mini-burgers. I get to shake his hand. I slow-sip my Bud Light, scared to leave my mouth agape in front of the legendary Hog.
Between plays, Maryland football is discussed. I have nothing to add to this conversation. All I know is the Skins and have only memorized Nana’s analysis.
“Their special team play has been the most consistent of any of the…” I offer at one point.
I am drowned out.
I repeat my overwhelming insight. I get not much more than a head nod from the table.
It is 27-3 with 3:06 to go. The Skins are really executing out there. The radio guy gets up to prepare his post-game. Walker says he wants to see if the Skins will score 30. When they do, on an improbable Carlos Rogers interception and sprint into the end zone, I think this is my time to add my 1 cent of fan expertise.
I approach Walker, hoping to strike up some chatter. I tap his hunk of a shoulder. I think about muttering something like, “Think you got your 30 points.” And then I actually mutter it.
Walker’s eyes remain on the TV. His cigar remains in his mouth.
Aug. 13, 2006
Bengals 19, Redskins 3
In our years of Skins fealty, I imposed one rule on Nana: I would not watch any exhibition games. I would call her. I would go through a rigorous post-exhibition-game breakdown with her. I just would not sit during the last of the summer’s heat in front of a TV pondering the intricacies of a meaningless contest.
But in the summer of 2006, Nana had spent much of her time away. She had gotten a nasty stomach infection. There was June inside Sibley Hospital. There was July inside Suburban Hospital. And then August cooped up in Sibley again. I had to break my rule on the first exhibition game.
The hospital room was dark except a light at the head of her bed and the TV glow. Her private nurse Joyce (a Cowboys fan but still dedicated to Nana) sat in a spare chair by the trash can marked with orange-and-black hazard symbols. We no longer had to wear masks and gloves.
Nana was pale in her hospital bed, which was at its flattest setting. In other words, not ideal for Redskins watching. The only thing that appeared eaten on her dinner tray was a bowl of broth and a cup of ice cream. Todd and I didn’t exactly approach her; we circled her, scrunching up our 33-year-old bodies to keep from doing harm. We just laid our heads at her side.
Nana was asleep.
Nana, the game’s about to start. Look—the kickoff.
We moved the wall-mounted TV so that Nana could see it better. We inched up the volume just a bit. It didn’t matter. Nana would not be able to hear the play-by-play anyway.
Nana watched for a play or two.
Todd and I half-pretended that she was still awake for a solid quarter. Then we quickly said goodnight. We would do a lot of pretending that season.
By the start of the real games, Nana was at a rehabilitation place called Manor Care in Potomac. She needed to learn to walk with a walker (again) and get used to the idea of physical therapy as part of her everyday routine. We still had our Sundays.
Todd and I would walk down the halls of Manor Care, where every room was open. The Redskins game blared from each room’s TV at top volume, whether the patients were asleep, on meds and oblivious, sipping water from plastic cups, or waiting for who knows what.
Deep in her room, Nana would always be up and ready. We would sit in Manor Care furniture and watch the Skins on Manor Care’s TV. There were no Manor Care football snacks.
During an early-in-the-season game, I was alone with Nana.
“Jason,” she said. “I’m having trouble following the game. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“OK,” I said. “Anything you don’t understand or want me to explain, just ask me. I can narrate the game. It’s easy.”
We blamed the meds. We had no reason to suspect the meds. But we did. We would attempt to play back all her old insights. Or at least scream a narration of the bigger plays. We were not very good with this task. I found it very uncomfortable to yell at my grandmother.
Todd’s yelling at the TV got a Manor Care nurse’s attention. She came rushing into the room looking to see if Nana was OK. She was not on the floor. She was in her chair. Todd explained it was just the game.
In October, Nana was strong enough to move back to a new assisted living place, Brighton Gardens. It was part of the Sunrise chain. It had a fat dog that camped out in the elevator.
In this place, ordering a pizza could create chaos. I was charged with the post-game reheating, which required a walk through the dining hall. A man wanted to know if the pizza was for him. He was not quiet about it. Others just stared blankly at the pizza box. I had to beg the cooks for the oven space.
Snacks were no longer a big part of the game plan. We were down to microwave popcorn and Activia. Nana always had a pre- and post-game apology. I would tell her it was no big deal. We would start leaving hungry. It was still no big deal.
Nana appeared almost back to form. Though she had stopped dispensing advice to the Skins, she could still high-five, and she could still get annoyed when her team found another way to lose. Todd anointed Portis and Cooley as our favorite players and Nana approved. She still expected us every Sunday, even if she didn’t say it.
This time we would say it.
Nana did not finish out the season. She got sick in early December and ended up in the ICU. She made it back, this time to the floor of the nursing home where she learned all over again how to feed herself and brush her teeth and take those first steps with a walker.
There were no more games. Now we were there, along with other members of the family, not just on Sundays but all the time. Now there were flash cards with simple words and simple exercises with plastic baby toys. And the displaying of family pictures to see if she remembered who is who. She knew her dentist’s and hairdresser’s names right off. She knew most of us some of the time.
One evening last January, we asked her, “Who is your favorite football team?”
Nana gave an annoyed look, puckering her lips and rolling her eyes just to be dramatic and silly.
“The Washington Redskins?” we asked.
“That’s a stupid question,” Nana said. I thought she was bluffing.
Jan. 14, 1973
Dolphins 14, Redskins 7
Among all of the Redskins memorabilia tucked away in boxes, one item sticks out. It’s a faded photograph. There is Nana in black oval shades, dressed in a yellow collared short-sleeve shirt and yellow-and-white pants; she’s clutching a soda cup, and in her lap is either a purse or a set of binoculars. My grandfather is seated next to her, in what appears to be a light blue collared shirt and dark slacks, a Redskins pennant unfurled from lap to chest. They might be wearing Redskins buttons the size of drink coasters. Both look at the camera, proud and happy.
It’s the 1973 Super Bowl shot, the one taken the day Todd and I were born. Oddly enough, George Allen’s team was favored.
If I stare hard enough, I can ignore the photo’s tiny size, its overexposure, the unflattering pants, my grandfather’s silver sideburns, and just see the moment completely full of promise. I have nerded out on this photo hundreds of times.
This photo has power. It is Redskins history, family history, and my history—a crucial date to go along with the other crucial dates. It makes my grandparents royalty.
It also gave me serious playground bragging rights. As soon as I could pee upright, I exploited the timing of my birthday. It’s what I told every new kid who braved the slide, turned their backyard into a football field, blew snot bubbles into their finger paint. They got an earful:
“I’m a twin. I was born on the same day the Washington Redskins played the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl…”
I was a fan since birth and would never know any better. I learned to cuss from our end-zone seats. I juiced up on the mob dynamics inside the taco-meat-smelling elementary school cafeteria—leading frenzied chants of “Dallas Sucks!” Our school never so much came near chaos than during rivalry week.
I grew a pink plastic hog nose. My wardrobe grew championship tees. My bedroom gained a Joe Theismann autographed poster and a series of Wheaties boxes and commemorative Coke bottles lined up like trophies.
I could say good night to a Redskins puppet perched on my nightstand. In my piggy bank, I could count up my one treasure among the Passover silver dollars—a pinch of real RFK turf. My brother and I had harvested this piece of field after we beat Minnesota in the Jan. 17, 1988 NFC championship game.
The talismans had stacked up. But they were kid stuff. After those got packed away, and I moved into adulthood, Nana was there to show me how to be a grown-up fan.
Nana approached every game expecting her team to win. She did not phone 980 AM to berate her team. She never said a bad thing about Daniel Snyder.
In my last conversation with her, I tried to hype the upcoming season. Nana had moved again—this time to a house devoted to caring for the aged. She had her own room. But nothing else. Games would have to be watched in a darkened communal room filled with rows of recliners and snoring.
I told Nana I was looking forward to watching games with her at the new place. I played up the jumbo flat-screen TV. She had finally gotten a hearing aid that she would actually wear. The Redskins were going to be good this year. I think she just smiled.
Nana got sick on the seventh day of the Redskins’ training camp. It was the mean infection again, the one that turned her blood bad. She had started throwing up and was rushed to Shady Grove Hospital’s emergency room. That night, she lay unconscious, hooked up to the familiar wires and breathing tube, surrounded by pings and beeps, and the whoosh of the breathing machine.
The next day was quiet in the ICU. Uncle Mark and I hovered, rubbing Nana’s hand and indulging the notion of another recovery. We left thinking that maybe Nana would beat this latest thing. The doctor had talked about taking her off the respirator in a few days.
But her nurse kept hinting that it was a bad sign the way Nana was fighting that breathing tube. I had come to know too much about hospital cafeteria pizza, hospital cable TV options, and hospital parking fees. And I knew too much already about Nana’s heart and its performance rating. Her heart had been pumping at 15 or 20 percent capacity for a year. It was always 15 or 20 percent. At that capacity, Nana could fight the breathing machine for only so long; the nurse was right.
Nana died that afternoon, on Aug. 3, some 40 minutes after Uncle Mark and I had left her side in the sunny ICU.
At Nana’s funeral, we sang the first verse of “Hail to the Redskins.” Then we buried her with the 2007 schedule.
I have settled into a new nonrhythm on Sundays. I am resigned to watching games at my parents’ house on a TV at medium volume, listening to my mom talk on the phone and my dad complain that the team is no good while he reads the newspaper. Sometimes he changes the channel during commercials.
My brother and I don’t watch together much anymore. I lost the football we used to throw around. Our conversations about the Skins and the games are short and perfunctory. I want to change the subject to anything else.
If you take away Nana, you take away much of the appeal of those Sundays. We were more fans of Nana than of the team.