CNN: When my mother was sick, Alex Trebek led us out of heartbreak

November 10, 2020

Learning of Alex Trebek’s passing this weekend, I had the sense of losing a beloved relative. This man I had never actually met played such a significant role in my life and its unbearable losses — somehow his end made me remember so much other mourning that I was forced to stop mid-step to bear it.

It is now up to me to offer a tribute in death to a life that helped me and those I love manage so much grief.

In 1984, when I was 10 my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer at the age of 33. That same year, Alex Trebek began hosting “Jeopardy!” Even before the lumps my mother felt growing each month earned the name of breast cancer, his was a sacred name in our two-bedroom, two job, one single mom, one daughter household. 

When Trebek spoke, no one, including visiting neighbors, talked, at the risk of incurring my mother’s wrath after an eight-hour-day at the phone company and a few more hours selling Tupperware. His show was her quiet time. A moment when her life, which had swerved from promising academic star to college dropout who married for love then divorced for sanity, hadn’t gone off track and her luminous intelligence could shine unimpeded and for all within ear’s reach to enjoy.

But cancer turned Trebek from rule into religion. By the time I turned 11 and 12, Alex was our favorite man of the house. By then, he had settled into his hosting groove and my mother’s fight against cancer had turned into a daily bout with a cornucopia of medication, brain radiation and spinal taps.

My mother never complained; indeed her pale skin, brightened by the pigment of Estee Lauder cosmetics, offered the only “tell” to her true condition. She would not allow us to feel sorry for ourselves, instead pushing me always to, as she said, “look life in the face” and sharing with me her constant hope for “a little more time.”

And always, always, she turned to Alex for comfort. With my grandmother, who moved to Maryland to help take care of my mother and me, looking on from the wooden armrest of her chair a foot away, my mother and I would sit on her hospital bed, she lying with her legs in front of her under a light hospital sheet, me rolled up into a ball, my head propped up on my elbow close enough so I could feel my mother’s warmth, and at precisely 7 pm we would all yell “Jeopardy!”

My job was to hunt down the remote and turn on the wall-mounted hospital TV hung high above us. If we missed even a moment of the ringing sounds of “This is Jeopardy,” we would all groan and blame each other for the tardiness. We all knew without saying it that Alex was to be savored, a high point at a low time, and he and we had not a moment to squander.

Together ,we would sit on that metal-ringed bed there at the National Institutes of Health, nurses passing by, waving good night, and, for 30 uninterrupted minutes, forget everything — all the needles, all the blood tests, all the dwindling hope and the long odds — to simply watch the board and yell out answers. Whatever else happened in our day — mine at school, my mother’s at chemo after cancer forced her to stop working — Alex would be there.

He would share with us the same reassuring smile he always offered, the one that said all would be fine and he would see us tomorrow, and we would believe that as long as he showed up on the screen, we would be there to watch in real life. After all, his presence felt permanent, it made our trip through cancer feel temporary, as if illness couldn’t take us that far from normal life; after all, Alex was there with us the same as he had been before.

Alex Trebek gave us something no one else could: normalcy amid anguish and a mental recess amid emotional exhaustion. His calm erudition and steady hand had the healing power of a soothing, magical balm that offered a half hour power of forgetfulness and ease.

I will always be thankful for the man who led us into “Jeopardy!” and out of heartbreak each night.