We stood in his driveway in the fading New Mexico light, exchanging goodbyes, when Nick Charles said something I will never forget. He said: “I wish I knew you before.” His eyes glassed over then, rain on a window pane, and that was the moment when I came closest to crying. There were numerous other moments of crying and near-crying throughout that day because we both knew exactly why I had come. Nick was dying. And I had come to write his obituary.
“I hope I gave you what you needed,” he said as we tried to stretch out the moment. It’s a strange thing to write about someone who has spent a life writing about others. Nick Charles was the original sports anchor on CNN. If you are of a certain age, you will certainly remember him and Fred Hickman reporting the sports day every night. Keith Olbermann would say that Charles basically invented the cable television sportscast. But, more than his ability to animate sports highlights, more than his talent for passing along the news and color of the sports day, Nick prided himself on his writing.
Nick: “Do you know what you’re going to write about me?”
Me: “No, not yet.”
Nick: “Will the words just come to you?”
Me: “I don’t know. I hope so.”
Nick: “I’ll bet they will. I love it when words come to me.”
He had grown up poor in the inner city of Chicago. His father was a cab driver and distant — Nick actually called him “my old man.” Nick said that his boldest memory was of shivering under the covers at night when the heat in their home had been turned off. Those bitterly cold nights inflamed his imagination. They inspired a vision — a certain kind of man he wanted to become, a vision unlike anything in his reality. He would listen to opera. He would read the classics. He would dress well and be seen. He embraced Paris. He loved sports, but not so much for the competition or the records or even the drama. He loved sports for the human stories. He loved boxing most of all. He watched men who came from nothing walk into boxing rings alone wearing nothing but shoes, trunks, gloves and the fear, pain and ambition that their childhoods wrought. “I think I know how they feel,” he said.
He wanted to give me a story to write. Nick was generous that way. “You came so far to see me,” he kept saying. “You have so many other things you could be doing,” he kept saying. He wanted so much to make my job easier, that was the writer in him, that was the journalist in him. He kept trying to think of ways to push along the story. But we would find our conversations drifting on to other topics that seemed to have nothing at all to do with the reason for my visit. We talked for a while about the Barbie movies our daughters watched. We talked about mutual friends and whether or not they were happy. We talked at length about Mike Tyson, who connected with Nick (“We are not so different,” he said). We talked about how we grew up, and what was important to us as kids, and whether or not we had stayed true to ourselves.
Nick would every now and again stop and say, “But that’s not why you’re here,” as if these fascinating turns were just wasting my time (“You came so far to see me”). The story was the story. He had found out in December that the bladder cancer that ravaged his body had won. He had fought hard, but the doctors — like trainer Eddie Futch to Joe Frazier at the end of the Thrilla — told Nick that the fight was over. He knew then, knew as few of us ever know, that he was going to die in the next few days or weeks or months, but soon, too soon. He was not going to see his beautiful 5-year-old daughter Giovanna grow up. He was not going to grow old with his beautiful wife Cory. He was not going to see Paris again.
“But, no regrets,” he said, the words just coming to him. “I’ve seen Paris.”
And then we would be off again talking about great boxing matches we remembered and the taste of good calamari and the way people consume the news these days. We walked around downtown Santa Fe in the early afternoon, Nick leading a tour, and every few steps he would stumble into me, and I would hold him up for a second, and we would continue on, neither of us saying a word about that. We stood in front of his living room window overlooking the Sangre de Crlisto Mountains in the late afternoon, and he talked about New Mexico sunsets, and he breathed heavy, his body sagged, but he did not stop. He did not want the afternoon to end. He was not ready for night.
We talked about the pain — which sometimes felt unbearable — and the exhaustion which often felt worse than the pain. He talked about being in bed and feeling like the blood had been drained from his body and knives stabbed at his brain and almost everything in him wished to be dead. But there was always something, a tiny something — a light, he called it, or a splash of faith — that pushed on. He wanted to see his daughter’s smile again. He wanted to hear his wife’s voice again. He wanted to listen to a song again. What song? That changed from time to time. But he wanted to hear it.
Nick: “Why did you become a writer?”
Me: “I’m not entirely sure how it happened.”
Nick: “I know what you mean. I sometimes wonder how any of it happened.”
We had not prepared a goodbye. There seemed no reason to prepare one — I did not know Nick Charles before that day we spent together, and he did not know me. I had exchanged an email or two with him. We had talked on the phone twice. But we were not friends, not even acquaintances. I wanted to write about him because his story touched me. He allowed me to come because he was touched I cared enough to call. This business of storytelling is a curious one. The relationship between a writer and subject can be intense and involved. And then, generally, it ends.
Only, this turned out to be something more. Because we both kept noticing how similarly we felt about things. Little things. Big things. There were recognizable words in each other’s sentences. There were corresponding twists in each other’s stories. Nick kept saying how he felt this connection to me and we should have been friends years earlier. That was there, unquestionably, but it was not something guys often say to each other. Then: Nick had put that sort of hesitation behind him. “I don’t have time for the bullshit,” he said in one of his most direct moments. “I just don’t. I’m dying soon.”
So the goodbye turned out to be agonizing. Nick kept repeating the directions from his home to the airport, though my GPS system was visible through the windshield. He kept asking if I had enough, and if I could stay a bit longer. The day I had spent with Nick was not depressing — I have had a hard time explaining that to people. There were moments of extreme sadness. Seeing his little girl, so much like my own little girl … talking with Cory and seeing how strong she tried to be for him … driving by a cemetery and hearing Nick talk about how he had considered being buried there … yes, there were moments of overpowering heartache. But mostly, it was uplifting. It was inspiring. We laughed a lot. Nick Charles became my friend.
And then, before I left, he said those words: “I wish I knew you before.” I nodded and walked to the car. There seemed nothing else to say. I backed out while Nick watched and waved. I turned out of his driveway and Nick walked to the edge and watched me drive down the street. I saw him in the rear view mirror. A little while later, I saw Cory driving back home, and she stopped next to my car and rolled down the window.
“Thank you,” she said. “Nick was really happy today.”
Nick Charles died on Saturday. He was 64 years old. We had exchanged emails since that day we said goodbye. The last words he ever wrote to me were: “Get home to your family and squeeze them tight.”
* * *
Nick and Cory have started a charity with World Vision to fight child labor in the Philippines. They both said that in lieu of flowers, they would like for people to donate to the charity. I will pass along more information about it.