Garth Brooks, a Giant Neurosurgeon, and the Night Emily Almost Got Drunk for the First Time

Garth Brooks, a Giant Neurosurgeon, and the Night Emily Almost Got Drunk for the First Time

I just learned that my friend Emily died in October; she was 26. I’m using only her first name here, not to protect her identity (follow the link for that), but to avoid Google-bombing her memory with a story about the night I helped her almost get drunk for the first time.

I met Emily when she was an undergraduate student at Harvard; I was a resident tutor (in other words, an RA with a Ph.D.) in her dorm. She was a minor celebrity when she arrived at our dorm, having survived life-threatening brain tumors that appeared when she was a young child and ultimately took her sight as well as partially paralyzing her. Emily’s survival story was so remarkable that during her freshman year, the Boston Globe profiled her in a series of articles.

I had several meals with Emily in the dorm’s dining hall. We talked a little bit about school—her continuing health challenges meant that staying on top of her course work took unusual perseverance—but mostly we talked about Garth Brooks. Emily loved Garth Brooks, and could talk in encyclopedic detail about his life and his music. Brooks had repaid Emily’s fandom with generous attention, including personal visits and a signed guitar. When he released his box set, Emily bought seven copies, because seven was Garth’s lucky number. I’ve never been a Garth fan myself, but I’m all in favor of passionate pop-culture obsessions, so when I’d talk with Emily, I’d always make a point of asking her what was new with Garth Brooks. She always knew.

Eventually, in spring 2007, Emily’s health problems forced her to move back home and take a break from school. On her last night in the dorm, she sent a late-night e-mail to the dorm’s listserv, inviting people over for drinks. I crossed the Quad to pay a visit and say goodbye.

Given the spontaneous nature of the event, it turned out to be a small gathering. Specifically, there was Emily, there was me, and there was a guy from the neighboring dorm who’d met Emily when he was hired to read her books aloud to her. When I arrived at Emily’s room, it was lit as bright as day: Emily still had some sight, she explained, but she could only see large things in bright light. Accordingly, the photos depicting her heroic neurosurgeon—in a clown costume, if I remember correctly—and a pet were poster-sized.

There under the giant brain surgeon, Emily gestured towards a formidable amount of alcohol: brand-new bottles of gin, vodka, and other spirits, as well as various mixers. None of it had been opened yet. The other guy was holding a stack of paper cups and wondering where to begin.

It wasn’t just another night of drinking, Emily explained: it was to be really her first night of drinking in the sense of having more than one or two drinks. In part because of health concerns and in part because the opportunity had never really presented itself, Emily had never been drunk: that spring night was to be the end of her lifelong sobriety streak. Her parents didn’t know about it, and, she told us, weren’t to know.

Her choice of drinks, she explained, had been dictated by—that’s right—Garth Brooks. We had there in front of us the makings of every drink ever mentioned in any Garth Brooks song. We decided to start with piña coladas, as mentioned in Garth’s 1997 song “Two Piña Coladas.” Emily cued up the song, and we set to work.

Challenge number one was that there was no ice. I found some suitable vessel and went down to the dining hall, where as I filled the bucket I was shot knowing smiles by undergrads who always liked seeing the grad-student tutors hitting the bottle. I suspect they had no idea what an unusual party I was supplying.

When I returned with the ice, Emily and the dude were trying to figure out how to open the can of coconut milk. The pineapple juice had been easy—there was a pull-tab—but the coconut milk required a can opener, and the friend who’d taken Emily to the store had failed to consider that batteries would be required for the successful operation of the battery-operated can opener she’d picked out because she thought it would be easier for Emily to use. So I set to it with a key, bashing a hole in the can of coconut milk while Emily browsed drink recipes on her computer—its voice synthesizer robotically intoning drink names like “Fuzzy. Nipple.” and “Sex. On. The. Beach.”

Finally I freed a trickle of coconut juice, and we mixed three Dixie-cup piña coladas. We sat there drinking them in the bright room, Emily rapt as she listened to the Garth Brooks song and explained the origin and meaning of its lyrics.

When we finished our piña coladas, we were ready to move on to the next round—but Emily decided to call it a night. The party atmosphere wasn’t really there, and she decided she’d prefer to just mellow out and listen to Garth on her own. She couldn’t keep the booze, lest her parents find out about her would-be inebriation, so she divvied it up between us. Until I finished that handle of gin, every time I brought it out I’d tell the story of Emily’s piña colada party.

We said thanks and goodbye, and that was the last time I saw Emily. I actually met Garth Brooks this summer, at a red-carpet event I was covering. I should have told Emily about it. She would have been glad to know.

Jay Gabler