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Impossible Dreams

October 5, 2009

“And the world will be better for this/ That one man, scorned and covered with scars/ Still strove with his last ounce of courage/ To reach the unreachable star. “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, Music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion

 

I must have been stuck in a daydream on the last day of September. As I often do when things don’t go my way, I got flustered and frustrated when I couldn’t focus, jumping from one thing to another at work. When I learned on an email from my health insurance provider, Aetna, that blood tests taken at Henry Ford Hospital were out of network and not covered, I nearly lost my mind and called my insurance rep to help.

            I was more focused on the last day of September being the last day of our company’s fiscal year, a day to ship out everything we could and collect every past due invoice possible. I forgot that September was also Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month until I got an email update about Noah’s “serious decline.” Diana, his mother, wrote that Noah became almost unconscious as his methadone was increased because of the severe pain in his right leg and foot. Steroids were increased to three times a day and Noah’s doctors started giving him liquid morphine as well. “This has been ridiculously difficult to watch,” she admitted. “Last week, he was up and walking and talking everyone’s ear off. This week, he can’t hardly get out of bed.”

            Noah’s hospital, C.S. Mott, was the setting for more heartbreak in the last few weeks: Shauni, a fellow Neuroblastoma child with Noah, died two weeks ago and Alissa, a 9-year-old with a brain tumor, passed away last week. And Carson, another Neuroblastoma patient, “is declining at a more rapid pace than Noah,” according to Diana. She wrote, “Can anyone ever truly prepare you for the loss of your child?”

Who can be prepared for the worst, especially if we live our lives, hoping for impossible dreams?

            I was skeptical of hopeful fantasy after reading the news about Noah and his fellow kids with cancer. Then, I read about the Michigan legislature once again ready to shut down because they couldn’t agree on a budget. How do I stay positive after reading about the demise of GM’s Saturn brand and the loss of more jobs? How do we stay hopeful in the midst of trillions of dollars wasted by the federal government while 500,000 people a month lose jobs?

            “Have a little faith,” Ken Brown told us while introducing his partner in radio, Mitch Albom, later that evening. Judy and I were fortunate to get tickets for the charity book-signing at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, introducing Mitch Albom’s latest book, Have a Little Faith. During the hours before, I was frustrated, sad, angry, and had very little hope for anything. Then, Mitch Albom walked up to the mike with one-legged Anthony “Brother Cass” Castelow, and his daughter, Myracle. Cass told us in a soft voice, when he was a petty thief and homeless, he was given a home and fed by Henry Covington, also a former drug user and thief, and how his life completely changed since then. My troubles earlier in the day seemed to disappear and became unimportant.

            Judy and I went with friends Tony and Holli to get a signed copy of Mitch’s book, hear Ernie Harwell and other guests, listen to Anita Baker, laugh with Dave Barry, and contribute to some worthy causes as well. We got backstage passes which allowed us to get a few appetizers, a goody bag with a signed book and two Anita Baker CDs, and allowed Tony to walk up to Dave Barry and tell him, “I am a big fan and have read most of your books” to which Dave quipped, “I have written most of my books.” Quicker than a speeding punch-line, I thought.

            After we got to our seats, we heard Ken Brown and then Cass Castelow followed by Mitch asking Pastor Henry Covington and Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel questions about faith. Have a Little Faith is a book about Mitch being asked to give the eulogy for his childhood rabbi as well as the story of a former drug dealer and convict who “preaches to the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof.” As the book jacket describes, “Albom observes how these very different men employ faith similarly in fighting for survival: the older, suburban rabbi embracing it as death approaches; the younger, inner-city pastor relying on it to keep himself and his church afloat.”

            Another man of faith took the stage and received a thunderous standing ovation. Former Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster 91-year-old Ernie Harwell, now with inoperable cancer, told stories about his early days. He mentioned Jackie Robinson stealing home for the first time and his favorite all-time moment in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series in which the Tigers finally scored and beat Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals. He also talked about his faith, his love for his “Appalachian American” wife, Lulu, and his appreciation of his long life. “I don’t know how many days I’ve got left, but let me say this,” he said in his unforgettable tremulous voice which we heard for most of our lives, “I praise God because he’s given me this time.”

The lights came on so Ernie could see just some of the thousands of Detroiters who loved him. As Ernie spoke, I looked at my cell phone to see that Detroit took a critical lead in the battle against Minnesota, 4-2 and then 7-2. I could picture Ernie calling the game but when Ernie said, “I can really know…whose arms I’m going to end up in, and what a great, great thing heaven is going to be,” Mitch Albom wrote, “a shiver spread from my chest to my fingers” (“Ernie’s words still make a night magic,” Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press, October 4, 2009). “It is one thing to read about belief, but it is another to witness it in the face of death, spoken in a calm, serene voice….when delivered that way, how can faith not be a beautiful thing?”

            How does anyone follow the most loved man in Michigan? You don’t, which sportscaster Bernie Smilovitz who subbed for Joe Dumars, admitted, wondering why Nelson Mandela wasn’t called instead of Bernie. Yet, he was a breath of humorous air, as both Mitch and Bernie told about their love of Detroiters. They also told stories about Bernie’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, and how humor has helped them survive. We could imagine Bernie’s mother with her thick eastern European Yiddish accent criticizing a restaurant’s food, saying it was worse than in Auschwitz. Oy vey. Don Rickles would have been proud of her.

            Another example of someone who personifies faith is singer Kem, once homeless, drug-addicted, and destitute, who has been clean for 19 years. A complete unknown, he self-financed his first album in 2003, “Kemistry,” which became certified Gold. After Kem sang a song and talked to Mitch, Mitch’s friend and comic author, Dave Barry, was brought out for some more laughs and talk about their band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, and the night that Bruce Springsteen joined them onstage and told them if they’d get any better, they would just be “another lousy band.” After they played with the help of the “I am my Brother’s Keeper” choir from Henry’s Pilgrim Church, Anita Baker closed the night by singing an unbelievably breathtaking, no-instruments-no-back-up-singers rendition of “The Impossible Dream” from the Man of La Mancha.

            The Tigers had just won the game and were one or two wins away from winning the American League Central Division. This turned out to be one great night, the night that brought a full house and raised money for S.A.Y. Detroit, A Hole in the Roof Foundation, I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries, and the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit’s Jewish Assistance Project (more info for all on www.mitchalbom.com). It turned out to be one of the most moving, funny, and inspiring nights I have ever witnessed.

After listening to the amazing journeys that Henry and Cass went through from homelessness to sacredness, it’s hard to see the homeless of downtown Detroit the same way again when walking from the Leland Hotel to Comerica Park or Ford Field. Mitch, Henry, and Cass mentioned how everyone is perilously close, especially in a struggling economy, to becoming a man without shelter, lost on the streets. It is our obligation to look at everyone as one of God’s children, all worthy of respect, and kindness.

            The next day before work, I read on the 1st page of the USA Today that regulators have found high concentrations of acrolein, a chemical once used in weapons that is a byproduct of burning gasoline, wood, and cigarettes, outside 15 tested schools around the country (“EPA finds toxin in air outside 15 schools,” Blake Morrison and Brad Heath, USA today, October 1, 2009). Although the average school has levels at least 100 times higher than what the government considers safe for long-term exposure, the worst school was Spain Elementary School in Detroit.

            After the Time cover story about The Tragedy of Detroit this week (“Detroit—The Death—And Possible Life—of a Great City,” Daniel Okrent, Time, Sept. 24, 2009) which mentions that Detroit’s unemployment rate is 29% compared to New Orleans’ 11%, it’s hard not to feel “unbearable sorrow” about the city of my birth. After reading about the toxic chemicals outside Detroit and other cities’ school children and knowing that a five-year-old son of a friend is in agony, soon to lose his life, all I felt like doing was to “right the unrightable wrong.”    

            It’s wonderful to lose oneself in a daydream, imagining Brandon Inge hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th in the World Series, leading Detroit to an incredible upset win, while his biggest fan, Noah Biorkman, watches on TV, miraculously healed, the tumors all gone from his body. It is great to imagine the Motor City returning to greatness and the unemployment rate cut in half. But we can’t live on impossible dreams.

            When Anita Baker sang, “To be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause,” I realized that what I normally worry about and think is important is really nothing and that what’s important is “to bear” the awful truths “with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”

            We don’t need miracles. We just need to care about the strangers we don’t know. We need to give and help charities that are dedicated to making the world better. When Mitch Albom gave a plaque to Ernie Harwell, dedicated to the new Ernie Harwell Playroom at the S.A.Y. Detroit Family Clinic, how could you not feel overwhelmed and wanting to help? When he displayed photos of the first-ever free medical clinic solely for homeless children and their mothers which included all of Ernie’s sports memorabilia which he donated, how could you not feel grateful?

            “This is my quest,” Joe Darion wrote for Don Quixote, “To follow that star, No matter how hopeless, No matter how far.” The stars aren’t that far away now. We can just take a few moments and give our time and money to help the homeless and the needy and the young children who, sadly, soon “will lie peaceful and calm.”

It is not impossible and it is not a dream. “The world will be better for this that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star.” With the help of life-givers such as Mitch Albom and Henry Covington and Rabbi Loss and Ernie Harwell, we can still reach out to the unreachable stars.

After lowering our arms down to our sides, we should not turn away from those who need us. When someone is reaching out to us with his outstretched hands, all we have to do is give a little help.

It takes one little mitzvah to make a big difference.

 

 

Have a Little FaithMitch Albom MarqueeMitch and Cass

 

           

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