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Grandpa Joe and Secretariat: A Christmas story

This is a story fromGrandpa Joe copy.jpeg Rachel Estrada Ryan. It tells of the love over many years that her grandfather, Joseph Triano, has held for Secretariat. And how before he died he hoped to see the movie about the great horse. I haven't changed a word of her writing.

There's one thing I want to say. Rachel pays me compliments. The fact is, I only did one thing to help Grandpa Joe achieve his dream. I forwarded her e-mail to my old college friend Bill Nack, who is Secretariat's biographer. The movie is based on his book.

This Nack is some piece of work. You will read here about how he put in a request for the pre-release DVD of the film, and then tracked down Grandpa Joe in the Staten Island phone book and called to say the movie was on the way.      

• Rachel Estrada Ryan

OK, so here's what happened. This is the (really) long version. I apologize. I can't think of another way to tell it.

My grandfather went into the hospital on Friday, November 5th. He was very lethargic, more so than usual (he hasn't been in good health for a while), and my grandmother was concerned. Days turned into test-after-test, turned into weeks, turned into a transfer from Staten Island University Hospital to New York-Presbyterian. His vitals were such that biopsy was difficult, prolonging the definitive diagnosis that we all wanted. Finally, we knew. It was metastatic gallbladder cancer. They wouldn't give us a specific timeframe in terms of how long we could expect him to live, but if you Google "metastatic gallbladder cancer"...well.

We had a diagnosis and we also had all the doctors telling us: "There's really nothing we can do for him." We were to be relieved that he is not in pain and we were to watch my grandmother bring him home on hospice. We were to wait, and expect him to die soon.

Interesting part of all this was that my grandfather maintained amazingly good spirits. He's been known throughout his lifetime for his relatively difficult personality--sometimes he's barking at my grandmother and isolating himself socially, other times he's joking, playful, loving, affecting a winsome lilt in his voice. You never really know what you're going to get when you encounter him. Suddenly, however, he was all jokes and smiles, soft, pleasant, compliant. Heart-breakingly so.

He was sent home on hospice the day before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day he was in a wheelchair, oxygen prongs in his nose, but still he was able to make it to my aunt's house for our annual family dinner. On Black Friday, I went with my husband and our three kids to my grandparents' to spend the day with him.

This is when I first heard of his desire to see "Secretariat."

 Bill and Secretariat.jpg

The movie was almost all he talked about during that visit. As I told you in previous emails, my grandfather hasn't been to an actual movie theater in quite some time--instead, he waits for movies to come out on DVD, then gets them from the library. We'd almost convinced him that we could wheel him to a theater and set him up in the handicapped seating section without too much trouble when we realized that the movie was no longer playing in any theaters near us! We looked up when the DVD was going to become available and realized we had a months-long wait ahead. We weren't sure how many more months he was going to have. We started getting nervous.

My family and I went home on Friday night, but my mother stayed on with them until the next day. When she arrived home Saturday night she called to tell me of the rest of her visit. She told me he spent a good deal of that next day remarking on the cuteness of my kids, the goodness of my husband, even reminiscing about me as a little girl, bringing up memories that I never suspected he harbored, things even I didn't remember. The rest of the time, she said, he talked about "Secretariat." He didn't seem to be fully understanding that the movie was utterly unavailable, stuck in that limbo between theater and DVD releases. Or maybe he did understand. Maybe that's what made him so frantic.

In mid-October, he'd seen his beloved Charlie Rose interview Diane Lane and John Malkovich. Ever since that interview, he'd been carrying with him the notion that he would see this movie at his earliest opportunity. Never mind his preceding fondness for the racehorse and its moment in history--there was also *Diane Lane* to consider. (It turns out--and I never really knew this before--my grandfather has a major thing for Diane Lane.) And then there he was, stuck with cancer, stuck dying, stuck in movie limbo.

When I got off the phone with my mother that Saturday night, she left me with this trailing, parting charge: "If there's any way you can figure out how to get him this movie, Rachel...."

I don't think she thought she was giving me a job to do. I don't think she expected there was anything I *could* do. But still, she said it. So I set off trying.


I started on Disney's website. I searched and searched for an email address or a contact form that seemed it'd be heading to the right department, but found none. Finally I located a snail mail address. I opened a Word document and started typing, then stopped halfway through. I needed a better idea.

This is when you came to mind, Roger. And all because of Chris Jones and his profile of you that appeared in Esquire earlier this year. I read that article after a link to it appeared in my Facebook news feed. To say that I was moved would be a gross understatement, but suffice to say my reaction mirrored that of many readers. I hadn't known that you'd been thus stricken, that you'd been through surgeries that took away your ability to talk, eat, drink. I hadn't known any of that, and then, suddenly knowing it, I cared so much. I felt so much for you, I cared so much about you. A little part of your story lodged itself in my heart, and I immediately started following you on Twitter. That was that, for many months, just you and the hundred or so other people who I follow trickling down my Twitter feed. I discovered that you have a very good sense of humor, I discovered that you often respond to your followers...I discovered that you are at your computer just about as much as I am (which is to say--A LOT).

It was suddenly so clear: "Who do I know who 1) has connections in the movie business and 2) might be so moved as to actually help me help my grandfather?" Roger Ebert.

I immediately crafted an email. I wrote so quickly that I failed to realize that my Apple Mail application had frozen a few hours earlier. I hit "send" before saving the draft. And guess what? Nothing happened. The email didn't send, and it didn't go to my Outbox, and it wasn't saved in my Drafts folder, either. It simply vanished, the screen froze, and I had to restart my computer.

In the time it took my computer to reboot, it occurred to me that I might want to investigate whether you even LIKED "Secretariat." I Googled your review, and that's when I discovered another serendipitous connection between you and our movie plight--not only did you have cancer, and would hopefully understand my grandfather's situation, but you gave the movie four stars and you were old college buddies with Bill Nack?!?!? I couldn't believe it. I started another email with even more enthusiasm. I was convinced that if anyone was going to be able to help us with this, it was going to be you. I'm pretty sure I told you as much. It just seemed meant to be.

I'll try to glance over the rest of this, since I trust you know most of the story from here on out. You wrote me back three days later. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw your name in my inbox. Sadly, on that particular day, my grandfather was back in the hospital for a blood transfusion and a tap on his belly to ease the pressure of the building fluid around his tumors. He was not feeling well at all. I called him in his hospital room and I gasped over the phone, "Roger Ebert! Roger Ebert wrote me back! He's going to try to help you get the movie!" Meanwhile, this was the first he'd heard of me even asking you (I was too embarrassed to go around announcing that I emailed you for help--I told only my husband and a close friend). He was tired and confused and I got only a, "That's nice. Very nice. Here, I'm going to give the phone to your grandmother."

Grandma Mary.jpeg

So. That was that for two whole weeks. I'd almost put it out of my mind. I sent him the other movie you recommended, "Ruffian," but it was reported back that he'd been unable to stay awake long enough to watch the whole thing. My grandmother said she liked it. She said it was "nice." The whole thing was looking like it was going to be a "nice" story. I could say I tried, and things would go on as usual. Grandpa said maybe he'd try to read the book, though it seemed almost impossible that he'd ever regain the clarity of mind and extended alertness necessary to read such a long work.

Then, at 2:27PM on Tuesday the 14th, I checked my email during a business meeting. There was a message from a "Lee, Sharon" with no subject. I clicked on it, and this is what it said:

"Hello Rachel,

Your letter touched a lot of folks from the film and your request has come to me for handling.

On behalf of Disney, I would like to inform you we will be sending a copy of SECRETARIAT for your grandfather Joseph R. Triano.

Please send me his address as soon as possible.

Happy Holidays! Sharon"

I flipped out. Bill Nack had sent your e-mail out there! I ditched the rest of my business meeting (after blurting out the whole story about Grandpa, you, the movie) and ran home, making calls on my cell phone the whole way. When I called my grandparents this time, my grandfather was feeling much better, more alert. The fact that I'd been in contact with you had been explained to him thoroughly by that point. It was a wonderful conversation. I wish I would have recorded it. He was so excited. That winsome lilt of his was in FULL effect.

I got off the phone with them and was soon distracted by a business phone call. That conversation was interrupted by a call waiting beep, but I didn't click over as I didn't recognize the phone number. I checked my voicemail after I hung up. Disbelief multiplied with more disbelief--I was treated to a two-minute long message from Bill Nack, who explained his role in sending my message to Disney, his delight at hearing that Disney was indeed sending us a screener, and the fact that he'd just gotten off the phone with Mary Triano (Grandma!) after discovering my grandfather was the only Joe Triano in the Staten Island white pages.    Us.jpeg

Three days later (the day before yesterday--Friday the 17th), I got another email from Disney saying that they'd gotten UPS confirmation that the package was at my grandparents' front door. Thanks to my husband, I was able to jump into our minivan and battle my way through Long Island traffic to get to him. My grandmother didn't tell him the package had arrived--she let me give it to him when I got there. It turned out Disney had also sent a hat, a T-shirt and a pin (a replica of the one Diane Lane wears in the film). He took each item out of the box and turned them over in his hands, slowly, one by one. He read over every word on the DVD's cardboard sleeve, even the small print. We kind of just sat there for a while, taking it all in, smiling and shaking our heads.

Then we watched the movie.

I have videos that I'll send to you following this email, of his opening the box, of his reactions after watching it. After the credits concluded and before I started the camera, we just sat and stared at the screen for the longest time, just me and my grandparents, in silence. I almost can't say if I liked it. This was not just a movie. I don't think "Secretariat" will ever be just a movie for me. You ruined it for me, in that way, Roger. You made it into something more than it could ever really be, something magical, something transcendent, an object of my love for my grandfather. The fact that this horse lived, and died, and did something wonderful in became both a universal truth and a specific one, as if pinpointing this very Joseph R. Triano, of Staten Island, New York, who has lived, and who is going to die, and who made me possible, me and my mother and my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my children. All his life he has been wonderful only if and when he wants to be--but I can tell you, those moments are worth the wait. He kissed me on the cheek that night, something he hasn't done since I was a little girl. It was 31 lengths and more. I am just so damn glad this happened. Thank you.


Grandpa Joe and Rachel THEN.jpg

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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