The news should not have hit me like a train, but my awareness of Alex Trebek’s serious illness didn’t prepare me for the announcement of his death Sunday. When the charismatic host of Jeopardy announced early last year that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, my interest in the quiz show was reignited and my husband, Les, was glad to join me in front of the TV each weeknight at 7:30. It was welcome relief from so much time spent apart (though together) playing mindless word games on our individual phone devices. During the past 18 months, I’ve been surprised to realize my own knowledge of science and 11-letter adjectives, but less surprised to witness Les’s knowledge of all things sports, government and history.
During a commercial break once, I shared with Les the story of the time I had the unexpected good fortune to meet Alex Trebek in person. It was 1996, when I worked as a radio personality. Our show had been invited to spend a week at Walt Disney World in Orlando for a media blitz to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The Magic Kingdom was dripping with celebrities of all genres (one of Alex’s favorite words), several of whom were scheduled to meet with us for live interviews and photo ops. But my chance encounter with Alex was different. My co-host and I were walking back to our media table when we spotted Alex heading straight toward us. He seemed distracted but was gracious to stop and say hello when we called out his name. After about 10 seconds of friendly banter, he said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’m chasing my kid!”
The same “kid” is 29 today and runs a restaurant business. It’s astonishing how quickly the time goes.
The reason my heart feels so heavy is that I’m aware how rare a person Alex Trebek was, and how much I would like to be more like him. When Les and I became faithful fans of Jeopardy last year, we marveled at how upbeat and steady Alex appeared to be, despite his dispiriting diagnosis and what we’ve since learned was unbearable pain, even as he cheered on the record-breaking streak of Jeopardy champion James Holzhauer last year. I have great respect for the man who did not allow the seriousness of his illness define him. He did not feel sorry for himself and didn’t want our pity, either. He could have removed himself from the quiz show to focus on his health and recovery, but he stayed because he loved what he was doing. In interview after interview, Alex expressed his gratitude for all that was good in his life—his wife, his children, joy in his work—and assured the rest of us that he was not afraid of death. He was truly a class act to the end.
I cannot help but notice the stark contrast of my own attitude at times, especially during this year of chaotic inconvenience, and for me, that’s really all it has been. I’ve griped about not finding my favorite brands in the supermarket, lamented the loss of our travel plans and cancelled concerts, and moaned about not having an end in sight to the pandemic. In those moments of self-pity and complaining about what I’m missing, I am rejecting gratitude and perpetuating my own despair.
In 17 days, our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving, which should be less a holiday than a mindset. Yes, the world is insane all around us, that’s not in dispute. But it is within my power to shift my focus to celebrate what I already have—my health and my husband and our sweet pets. Les and I are grateful that we have not suffered physical or financial setbacks during a time that has taken a tremendous toll on so many others in our community, our nation and our world. I’m thankful to realize that though our table will be much quieter this year for Thanksgiving, we have each other and plenty to appreciate.
The producers of Jeopardy issued a statement yesterday, and assured that there are enough pre-taped episodes to run until Christmas. It will be bittersweet, to say the least, but we will watch.
Rest in peace, Alex Trebek, and thank you for the inspiration.