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Alex Trebek was there for me on one of the worst days of my life — and every day | Opinion

'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek died on Sunday of pancreatic cancer. I'll miss his calm, steady, reliable presence.

The host of "Jeopardy!", Alex Trebek, rehearses for an upcoming January 2011 show featuring a trivia showdown against an IBM computer in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Trebek died Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020; he was 80. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
The host of "Jeopardy!", Alex Trebek, rehearses for an upcoming January 2011 show featuring a trivia showdown against an IBM computer in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Trebek died Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020; he was 80. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)Read moreCarolyn Cole / MCT

On March 7, 2019, longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek announced he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I remember the date because it was one of the worst days of my life.

I flashed back to that moment on Sunday afternoon when my phone pinged to tell me that Trebek had died after more than a year of battling his illness.

On March 7, 2019, I’d received a similarly sad alert on my phone about Trebek’s diagnosis. At that moment, I was sitting in an ICU waiting room while doctors worked to save my sister’s life.

» READ MORE: Alex Trebek, long-running ‘Jeopardy!’ host, dies at 80

ICUs are bleak places. They create odd bedfellows, people who wouldn’t normally be in the same place at the same time but are joined by the exhaustion and worry of sitting vigil over their sick loved ones. No one wants to be there. There’s rarely any talking, except for people whispering updates into cell phones or asking directions to the bathroom.

As we all sat there that day, staring at our phones and the walls, everyone in the waiting room got the same alert about Trebek’s cancer.

There were gasps. People started talking about him, about Jeopardy!. It didn’t last more than a minute or two, but it was one of those rare moments when everyone, regardless of what divides them otherwise, cares about exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.

Everyone in that room had plenty to worry about and pray for that day, but I think we all spared a prayer for Alex Trebek.

» READ MORE: ‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebek reveals setback in cancer fight

During scary times — like a suddenly sick relative — it can feel as if the world has turned upside down. I don’t mean to conflate my relationship with or concern for my older sister with my feelings about a game-show host, but to be fair, I’ve known them for the same amount of time: Trebek has been on TV every night of my life. Whether or not I tuned in, I, and everyone else, always knew where to find him. He was always there, a constant, someone you could count on good days and bad.

In a moment when I was already sad and scared and worried, it was jarring to think of someone as omnipresent as Alex Trebek dying.

And weirdly, it was also comforting, just for a moment, to think of someone else. When you’re in the middle of an intense situation, like rushing to the ICU to see a loved one, your thoughts tunnel rapidly into one unstoppable drumbeat of: Let it be OK.

To have that drumbeat broken by news is healthy. It reminds us that there is a world outside of the problem we’re currently facing and that the world is marching on even as we’re grappling with an extraordinary challenge. This is part of why I love news. News — even bad news — unites us as people. And in that moment, I was relieved to be united with people, even if it was about a TV game-show host being sick.

My sister got better, and for a while, it seemed Alex did, too. We watched Jeopardy! in the hospital and at home during the long year of her recovery. I hadn’t watched it too much as an adult, but it was on every night of my childhood. And it’s become a part of my evening routine many nights again.

» READ MORE: Alex Trebek struggling with 'deep sadness' with cancer treatment, but remains optimistic

When the world feels broken and insane, Jeopardy! is a reliable comfort. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you can hear it blaring from hospital and nursing home rooms every night at 7 p.m.

It’s calming to see Alex up there every night, asking questions, cracking dad jokes, keeping things on track. The formula of the show makes it predictable. There’s no reason to feel anxious while watching.

In a strange way, Alex Trebek was there for me in a terrible moment. I’m thankful that my reason for being in the ICU worked out OK, and I’m glad that Alex got more time after that first sad announcement. I’ll miss him, and I’ll remember him. But most of all, I’m grateful to him, for always being there when we needed him.

Erica Palan is The Inquirer’s deputy opinion editor.