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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

When Alex Trebek died in November, I found it hard to stop crying. I usually can’t stand it when people mourn a celebrity as if they’ve just lost their best friend, so why was I so torn up over this? The answer is: Watching Jeopardy! provided a great comfort as I coped with the death of this long-time fan. The question: Who is my father?

It’s been a year since Dad passed away and I’m still struggling with grief. Though he’d been suffering from chronic liver and kidney issues for 10 years and was in a tremendous amount of pain, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. At 74 and 41, we were finally getting along. He stopped attacking me for being a New York liberal and I learned to hold my tongue every time he said, “I think Trump is a good President.” Instead of arguing, we found a safe space in Jeopardy! On my birthday, I chose to spend the day in the hospital with him. I snuck him a piece of cake and we watched his favourite game show.

I loved these moments, even if it seemed like we were on borrowed time. While I should feel grateful for the time we shared, I’ve spent the past 12 months consumed by uncontrollable crying, fits of rage and the never-ending why, why, whys. It was as if I was a boy and my father had been tragically taken away, like something you’d see in every superhero movie.

My state of perpetual grief made me feel stupid and helpless, but all of the things I’d normally do to lift my spirits, like travelling or having dinner with friends, were taken away by COVID-19. Thankfully, I still had Jeopardy! Tuning in every night, I imagined my father sitting next to me with his bag of Werther’s Originals, his face lighting up at the sound of the theme song.

I recalled how Dad insisted we always eat dinner an hour before the show started so he wouldn’t miss a single moment. The holidays were no exception. On Christmas Eve, we were allowed to open one present after Final Jeopardy. Two if we got the question right.

When Trebek was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019, Dad took the news really hard. “He’s a real stand-up guy and he makes the show,” Dad said. “Jeopardy! won’t be the same without him.”

Yet as Dad faced his own illness, watching his “buddy Alex” on television provided hope and inspiration. When my father felt depressed and like he couldn’t go on, I’d say, “If Alex can host a game show every night in his condition, you can get out of bed, take that pill or walk those few steps.” Dad perked up, nodded in agreement and powered through. It was one of the few times he told me I was right. And that made me smile, too.

More than just sharing time in front of the television, Jeopardy! showed me that Dad was more than I gave him credit for.

As a gay kid growing up in a conservative Irish-Catholic family in Yonkers, N.Y., I worried about my parents judging or, worse yet, disowning me. Yet as I grew up, and became a teenager who thought I was so cool because I read Beowulf for pleasure and went to New York University to study playwriting, I became the one who was judgmental and disconnected. My father, a gruff Irish-Catholic construction worker, embarrassed me. I hated that he never picked up a book or went to Broadway shows or museums, even though the city was just 30 minutes away. His diet was all red meat, he drank too much and he’d never seen the world. I spent years wanting him to change, until one day when I was 23 and visited my parents for dinner.

“You’re staying for Jeopardy!, right?” he asked. My mother, an Italian hairdresser, answered for me, then served canned peaches and ice cream in front of the TV.

I felt bored and trapped. Then I started watching my father instead of the show. As a kid, I never realized how Dad got practically every answer, err, question, right. I stumbled over every clue while Dad sailed through with ease. What is The Music Man? Who is Edward VI? What is gingivitis? This must be a repeat, he’s seen it before, I told myself, annoyed. At that moment, I realized I had acted as if I knew it all, but Dad was the one who was truly full of wisdom. We may not have connected on many things but for 30 minutes a day, I’d watch him in awe. No longer trying to compete, I was more likely to take his advice; I was embarrassed by myself and not by him.

That tradition continued when Dad got sick. Visiting him in the hospital, I timed my visits so that we could watch it together. The show still wasn’t my thing – I preferred more lighthearted game shows like Family Feud and Wheel of Fortune, but I loved sharing in Dad’s enthusiasm. I adored how he held on to the nurse buzzer, wanting to press it like he was actually on the show.

“You would totally win if you were ever on the show,” I’d say. Dad shushed me, clutching his buzzer and eagerly awaiting the next clue.

On one of our last nights together, I decided to give Dad a Jeopardy! clue of our own.

“This is the one thing we should have said to one another more often,” I said.

“What is ‘I love you’?” he responded, smiling.

Mark Jason Williams lives in White Plains, N.Y.

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