Percival Harkness Granger was born in Ithaca, N.Y., six days before the end of World War II, and four years and 10 days before me. He was Type A from the get-go, incessantly banging his head against his crib in his sleep until padding had to be installed.
In high school in Oklahoma, where we moved in 1953, he was class president, youth court judge, student council president, a letterer on the track team and—well, you get the picture. He went to Harvard on a scholarship (one of two Okies in the class of ’67), and then moved to New York City to become a playwright.
Along his way, he wrote scripts for CBS Radio Mystery Theater and a few television movie screenplays, ultimately having a number of his plays produced on and off Broadway. The best known of these was Eminent Domain, which was staged at Circle in the Square. To pay the bills, he wrote for the soap opera As the World Turns. Trying to break into the movie business, he flew frequently to Los Angeles.
His lifestyle as an adult was a glorious, joyful iteration of his crib head banging, and he wouldn’t—and couldn’t—have lived any differently. On Tuesday evening, Sept. 8, 1992, I played music for a St. Anthony Park Community Council banquet. I got home around 8:30 p.m. and was just settling down with a Scotch when the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law, MariElena, calling me from New York City to tell me that Percy had had a heart attack.
I caught the first New York flight out of Minneapolis the next morning and, 16 hours after playing for friends and neighbors in the basement of the St. Anthony Park United Methodist Church, I stood at my brother’s bedside in the intensive care unit of St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.
New York City had always been a scary place for me: On my first visit there in 1967, I stayed at the midtown YMCA and barely left my room, and I had rarely returned since then. (My trepidation was sufficient that, in 1973, I turned down an offer to join the staff of National Lampoon magazine, for whom I had been freelance writing, because I would have had to move there, opting instead for the more placid environs of the Twin Cities and the relatively more staid positions of performer and writer for Garrison Keillor.)
Percy had stayed up all that Monday night working on a rewrite of a play, The Dolphin Position, which was to open in two weeks at Primary Stages Theater, on West 38th Street. He played squash with his older son, who was to start high school the next day, then hopped on his bike and tore across town to deliver the script. As he rolled up in front of the theater, he suffered a massive coronary and crashed into a parked van, ending up unconscious on the sidewalk. After numerous attempts by paramedics, his heart restarted, but 27 minutes had passed, and he suffered diffuse anoxia.
He regained consciousness but came back as a different person, with only brain stem skills and limited ability to communicate or recognize people. My sister-in-law converted his study into what was essentially a hospital room, and there he lived for the next four years. During that time, I visited every few months (coming to love New York in the process) to take care of Percy so MariElena could have a break. On March 10, 1997, my only sibling had another heart attack and died.
We look for explanations for awful events. We say that everything happens for a reason, but I’m not a religious man, and I believe that secular chaos defines some events and that there are concrete, earthly reasons for others. Percy’s death was a combination: He lived a wild, short, amped-up life and got very unlucky on a beautiful fall morning.
We try to learn from tragedy, and the lesson I learned from this one will stay with me forever.
Three days before his heart attack, Percy and I had spoken on the phone about his plans to come to Minnesota to spend time at a cabin we co-owned. After the call, I became concerned that I had said something that made him think I didn’t want him to come. I called him back the following night to assure him that I did, and that I loved him and his visits, and he in turn assured me that he had not thought any differently.
All was well between us. Had I not called him back, I would have been haunted by the thought that I had hurt his feelings and had forever missed the opportunity to set the record straight.
Since that time, I have tried to keep my accounts clear. I communicate with people whom I worry I have hurt or offended. I try to apologize for wrongs I feel I have committed, and I strive to compliment people for their good deeds and qualities. It may sound corny for me to say that every time I do these things, I think of my brother and that phone call, but it’s the truth.
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and son and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.