Au Revoir Mon Enfant

Le Nôtre's central axis of the Tuileries' part...
Image via Wikipedia

“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.

Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring.  The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron.  A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.

I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood.  We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away.  In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.

Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction.  Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure.  It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M.  Paris was perhaps now, or never.

We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.

The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay.  After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877.  The masterpiece         hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.

We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.

I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods.  It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.

We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion.  We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city.  We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.

We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration.   As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment.  I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile.  To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude.  Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.

On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center.  Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.

Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist.  The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake.   Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.

The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car.  Three AM.  It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible.  They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people.  While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day.  Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.

The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France.  He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI.  Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.

As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres.  A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes.  Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.

We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees.  Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.

We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic.  Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.

We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald.  We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.

On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel.  Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.

Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me.  “Daddy, that was the greatest trip.  I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice.  She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.

Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive.  Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?

Priceless….

We’re Still Together

We’re Still Together

 There’s a tree out in the backyard

That never has been broken by the wind

And the reason its still standing

It was strong enough to bend

 

When you say something that you can’t take back

Big wind blows and you hear a little crack

When you say “Hey well I might be wrong”

You can sway with the wind till the storm is gone

Sway with the wind till the storm is gone

 

Like a tree out in the backyard

That never has been broken by the wind

Our love will last forever

If we’re strong enough to bend 

 

Strong Enough To Bend, Tanya Tucker

 In a career that may never be equaled as a basketball coach, John Wooden won a remarkable 664 games and lost a mere 162.  His UCLA teams won 10 national championships in 12 years including seven in a row from 1966-1973.  During this period his teams won 88 straight games.  In his career, he led four different teams to perfect 30-0 seasons.

 If you were to ask John Wooden about his greatest decision in his remarkable career, he would unquestionably point to his decision to marry Nellie Riley, his high school sweetheart in 1932.  Nellie was the center of John’s universe and the person he claimed knew him better than he knew himself.   He once remarked that marriage like sports did not build character but revealed it.  

 Nellie and John were married for 53 years before she died of cancer in 1985.  For the last 24 years since her passing, John Wooden sits down on the 21st of each month and pens a love letter to Nell, his best friend.  According to sports journalist Rick Reilly, there are over 260 letters stacked neatly on her pillow, tied with a yellow ribbon.  Her side of the bed they shared remains undisturbed. When asked by Reilly if he was afraid to die, a then 90 year-old Wooden remarked, “ of course not, Death is my only chance to be with her again.”

 With over a 50% divorce rate in America, it’s even odds at best for couples to make it to the mountaintop together.  The cynics delight in reminding us of just how perilous the path is to the peak of life partnership.  British author Len Deighton once wrote, “the tragedy of marriage is that while all women marry thinking that their man will change, all men marry believing their wife will never change.”

 In any relationship and in life, you are really three people – the person you project to the world, the person you secretly see yourself to be, and the person your partner knows. It’s that last person who is probably the most accurate version of who you really are.  Most relationships get into trouble when the chasm between our face to the world and the person our partner knows becomes too great.  It seems the more we seek to be the same person all the time, the more capacity we have to focus on others which is the essential ingredient to love and the antithesis of self worship.

 It is a paradox of the human condition that we seem to gravitate toward our opposites.  I have a theory that in every relationship, there is an agitator and a fixer. The agitator is an expressive, aggressive and more mercurial partner while the fixer is the moderating influence, the rock, and a steady hand. When two agitators marry, it can be a combustible combination.  When two fixers exchange vows, the relationship may seem the equivalent to watching a test pattern at three am. And, yet while our personal preferences and aggressive or moderate styles bring a rich trousseau to our relationships, the foundations that remain the strongest are built on shared values.  When we see one another for who we are and who we are not – forgiving our limitations and reveling in our possibilities, a relationship breaks out of its chrysalis and takes wing.

 In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king and in love the ability to reflect even momentarily, sometimes prevents us from falling prey to the false positives -the cotton candy rush of self-esteem borne out of immediate physical attraction.  We all learn the hard way that the currents of a relationship change with the trade winds of time – the arrival of children, life events that challenge our faith in one another, illness, success, disappointment and death.  Woody Allen, mused that a relationship “ is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward or it dies.”

 Those who have been married for decades do not gild the lily of love.  They talk of constant compromise, trying to avoid taking one another for granted, expressing appreciation, forgiveness, making time, playing the mood music, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, recognizing perfect moments, never forgetting that anything you put ahead of each other eventually comes between you, you and remembering that resentment is liking drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  As these couples hurtle through life and fall prey to life’s ruts and distractions, they always circle back to find one another. “A marriage”, Honore de Balzac mused, “must constantly fight the monster which devours everything: routine.”

Commitment is not 50/50 but in fact two people giving 100%.  When the rate of change outside the relationship exceeds the rate of change within it, the end is near.  Many endure dark passages where they are overwhelmed by excessive responsibility or self-pity and must fight the instinct to abandon ship.  Some idealize relationships and love, wondering why their best-laid plans are constantly sabotaged.  Many make the mistake of comparing their private “insides” to other people’s public veneers.   We cannot resist the invitation when Cosmopolitan asks us to “rate our mate.” We forget what Oscar Wilde assured us when he said “the only normal people you know are the people you do not know very well.”

 And we are still together.  A gentle sigh in the dark of midnight.  A smile across a crowded room.  An extemporaneous moment at a piano recital – rare moments that are only complete when it can be shared together.  There are flash points, disagreements, and tired, lazy shortcuts that lead to hurt feelings.  But most of us find our way back to one another like emotional strays that once fed, keep returning for sustenance.  For all their periodic insanity, we need our relationships.  Perhaps some of our stories are not as romantic as John and Nellie Wooden or New man and Woodward but we all have chapters remaining to be written and common music to left to be made.  Our experiences together are the fine threads in our common tapestry of commitment.  Each couple is its own unique work of art.  And the beauty of that art is always in the eyes of the beholder.

 Woody Allen sums it up best in Annie Hall, “this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”

 

 

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
Image via Wikipedia

To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.

An Affair To Remember

A high-occupancy vehicle lane on Ontario Highw...
Image via Wikipedia

 

An Affair To Remember

The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society. ~ J. G. Ballard, “The Car, The Future”, Drive, 1971.

In 1960’s Southern California, rapid transit was considered ill conceived, inefficient and in many places, nonexistent.  Public transportation was considered by many Los Angelinos to be a painful, high risk last resort – – the bone marrow transplant of travel.  Unlike the great train and subway societies of the east coast, the new cities of the West had less infrastructure and little inspiration to replicate their past lives.  Voters shuddered at the thought of being one of many “trapped in the belly of a great iron beast” commuter train.    Private transportation meant independence. Self reliance was a value coveted by those who had emigrated west in search of escape from what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

 

The American West was now a more mature version its former self.  In the 1860’s, the horse was a prized possession. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was the automobile that defined the individual.   The car not only afforded us freedom but it transformed society.  With the advent of the freeway, suburban flight accelerated.  The person who once lived, worked and served as a strong thread in the fabric of an urban area would now labor all day in a metropolis and conveniently flee the chaos and social obligation for the bucolic white fences of a distant commuter town. Suburbia thrived and urban America began its decline.

 

Los Angeles was hardly a destination, it had no real center. It was a sprawling, ever-expanding ocean of houses, apartments and condominiums.  As residential prices soared, people would increasingly travel great distances to find affordable housing, choosing to comute vast distances to jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries.  Years later, Southern California would spawn a new term, “super commuter” to describe the poor pilgrim who travelled at least two hours each way to work.  This led to millions leading double lives – – content in the bosom of their family each weekend and then reluctantly returning to the clutches of their automobiles each work week. 

 

In age of Aquarius, affluence was a luxury automobile.  One could airbrush their circumstances with the purchase of a Cadillac or full sized sedan.  Fathers drove the “nice” car and would occasionally allow their spouses to drive their vehicle but only under strict supervision.  The matriarch got stuck with a rolling landfill, “ the second car”  that often looked and smelled like a refugee camp.  Like so many of his generation, my father adored his car and maintained it with a pathological zeal.  He scrupulously recorded his mileage and changed the oil more often then he changed his children’s diapers.  He required his sons to clean his rolling palace once a week with a special chamois, “shammy”, cloth made from animal skin no larger than a handkerchief.   Washing the car with the shammy was the equivalent to cleaning the Meadowlands with a toothbrush. He countered that the factory paint job was rubbish and only the soft shammy could preserve the color. Nothing was too good for his four wheeled girlfriend. 

 

Dad preached that how one maintained their car spoke volumes about their self discipline, respect and personal hygiene. An unattended dent or scratch was a sign of moral and financial decline. We did not realize it but we were at the tail end of a golden age of transportation where cheap gasoline and an endless horizon line of superhighways, freeways and expressways beckoned Americans to drive everywhere.  We were a society of open spaces and vast distances.  The long scenic stretches of American interstate such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway symbolized the unrealized potential of a nation still growing into itself.  To a Southern Californian there was nothing more satisfying than driving one’s car – – to the store, to work or just down the driveway to get the mail.  Everything was accomplished with one’s motor vehicle. 

 

Our passion for automobiles may have been brought on by excessive exposure to the sun, lack of rain or attending one too many Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and The Bandit movies.  Our need to drive everywhere and often by ourselves, was seen as a birthright and a necessity given the vast distances one needed to travel between planned communities and urban centers.  My theory on our obsession was simple – – half of us may well have been conceived in the back seat of a ‘59 Dodge Lancer.  Whatever the impetus for our relentless preoccupation, we were initiated at an early age to believe that four wheels trumped two legs. At birth, we were handed a pacifier and a Match Box or Hot Wheels racing car.  Those infants that did not choke on the toys, graduated to watching Speed Racer cartoons and riding go-carts.  We had more bootleg copies of Motor Trend than Playboy and spent hours debating the superiority of Mustangs over Cameros. Yet, our amorous obsession eventually became an unhealthy addiction.

 

The energy crises of the 1970’s shocked us and confirmed our deep dependence on our cars and the dark, narcotic sold by exotic sheiks that fueled them.  We drove, drove and drove more.  We jammed our roads so much that we created pollution called “smog“( smoke and fog) which when inhaled made you feel like you had smoked five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes.  We had “smog alerts” at school and were told to stay indoors because of poor air quality. We determined that we must wean ourselves from our transportation habit.  We promised to abandon this destructive affair with cars for the honor of energy conservation and the environment.  We grudgingly got rid of our two ton concubines and launched a generation of economy cars that consumed less gasoline.  We watched as HOV lanes condemned the solo driver to sluggish traffic.  Secretly, we despised these changes longed for our beloved Rubenesque, full figured vehicles who were now transforming into waif-like, Twiggy compacts.  We loathed taking Amtrak and Greyhound. We convulsed under automotive abstinence.  We walked, took the train and carpooled.  It was a dark time in the Force for the motor headed Jedi.

In the 90s and into the new millennium, we quietly rekindled our affair of consumption. As with all serial recidivists, we could not stay away.  We did not want to think about the consequences of fossil fuels.  We ignored the signs of global warming.  We rejected the Kyoto treaty. We tolerated what we felt were egregious pump prices of $ 1.75.  We denied that we were actually undermining ourselves.  We went back to purchasing massive gas guzzlers and rationalized that tougher emission standards and engineering advances had again made the affair possible.   

But suddenly, the jig was up.  The world went sideways and we were caught en flagrante dilecto with big cars and no protection.  Most of us can no longer even fill our car at the gas station as the pump is programmed to cap out at $75.  There’s no avoiding the truth.  We are going to have to leave her for good this time and return to tin cans and public transportation.  We may even lose GM and a few other enablers along the way. For this reformed Californian, it’s still all a little inconvenient.  Yet, I know it’s only a matter of time before there is standing room only on every train and I am cramming my oversized body into an undersized Mini, Prius or hybrid.

It’s finally over but we had some good times, didn’t we?  It was an affair to remember….. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mikey’s Song

imagesLet children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.  John Muir

It was a gorgeous Indian summer day when I heard the news that Mikey Czech had passed away.  It was the kind of day Mikey Czech would have loved – warm, breezy and perfect for New England Patriots football. Mikey was 11 years old and had been battling a brain tumor for months with extraordinary courage and resolve.  Over the course of the spring and summer of 2008, Mikey had become his generation’s Johnny Gunther Jr. demonstrating with every step, breath, treatment, and remarkable milestone, that the size of one’s body has no relation to the size of one’s heart.

I was 14 years old when I read the book, Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther Sr, who chronicled the battles of his son Johnny Gunther Jr., as he valiantly fought a brain tumor.  The memory of this best selling novel written in 1949 remains with me to this day and changed my perspective on how each of us can achieve meaning in our fragile lives.  Not unlike John Gunther Sr, Mikey’s dad Steve Czech chose to chronicle his son’s battle via emails to family and friends giving and drawing strength from the community and the humanity that seemed to arise out of every “How’s Mikey” moment.

I followed young Master Czech’s story with keen interest and smiled as Mikey became a beloved accidental celebrity. A broad audience of concerned friends, family and acquaintances regularly gathered inspiration from his progress following treatments and were amazed at the extent of outreach, well wishes, support and prayers that he received from the farthest reaches of the world, from celebrities, athletes and dignitaries. Mikey became a surrogate son to many of us who followed his brave journey. At 11 years old, he was near the age of my own boys and it was only by one degree of separation that I realized it could be me sitting in a pediatric chemotherapy wing waiting for my child.

I watched Mikey fight hard.  He downplayed with his parents and sister Sydney the disabling effects of his chemotherapy and radiation.  He insisted on walking the several blocks to and from the hospital where he was receiving his treatments.  He dreamed of getting back to play baseball and football with his friends.  He threw out the first pitch, kicking off the 2008 New Canaan Baseball season, returning to play and graft back easily on to the huge oak of friends that shaded him and gave him strength.  I was so pleased to see kids in the community aware and rallying unconditionally in their support for Mikey –writing letters, sending cards, creating a massive banner and wearing Stay Strong wrist bands.

Throughout this long journey across a pitched black ocean, the Czech’s family ship kept taking on new crew, people wanting to lend a hand, offer a hug or just take a turn on the helm to let the family grab some shut-eye.  Mikey became every man’s child which is what every church, synagogue, temple or mosque strives to inculcate into its congregations – – that every child is our child, that no man is an island and that we are given the capacity and emotional bandwidth at our creation to care for everyone.

For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, 
The black minute’s at end, 
And the elements’ rage, the friend-voices that rave, 
Shall dwindle, shall blend, 
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, 
Then a light, then thy breast, 
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, 
And with God be the rest. 

Robert Browning

Mikey’s passing is devastating – – for his family, his friends and his community.  As a father of three children, neighbor and fellow member of the Czech’s community, I find myself unable to even comprehend the magnitude of the family’s loss.  I arise each day, first and foremost, a father who adores, loves, shapes and mends his children.  I have come to believe the true definition of joy is watching someone you love obtain happiness and that despair is the inability to trade places with that person you love to ameliorate their pain. It’s times like these that we look to Heaven for answers and we ask questions  – lot’s of questions.  Most often, we simply ask why?  However, if Mikey were here, I am certain he would be pleased that he brought people together and he would want us to celebrate his life.  He would probably explain that he has just run ahead of us into that deep mysterious wood around the trail’s curve.  He’s checking it out and he’s laughing as he shouts back, “ it’s beautiful.  I’ll just wait for you guys to catch up.  Bring your baseball glove!”

Mikey’s Song

You’re just a bit ahead of me

Exploring all there is to see

I can’t be sad to see you run

It’s who you are.  You are my son

 

It’s better when you’re by my sleeve

But I accept that you must leave

I’m supposed to take the lead

To clothe, to love, to teach, to feed

 

But you so full of life and spirit

You love the trail and never fear it

You made me more a man each day

Watching the way you lived and played

 

But now I’m in a shadowed place

I’ve lost my way, can’t see your face

The fear sets in, this path is wrong

And then I hear your happy song

 

It’s rushes waving in a breeze

The way the snow rests soft on trees

A single star aloft in space

The wind’s caress across my face

 

Our hands can’t touch but you are there

I feel your breath and smell your hair

Your song tells me you’ll be all right

Until the day we reunite

Mikey’s Song, M. Turpin