Friday, January 5, 2024

Andy Young: A stroll, a rose, and a brownie

By Andy Young

Stephen was six months younger than I was, but he was my first-ever “best friend.” Our moms were sisters, and our families lived less than two miles apart.

The two of us played for opposing Little League baseball squads. The closest my team ever got to winning a championship came the year we both turned 12. The good guys, the Hawks, entered the final inning of the final game trailing his team, the perennially powerful Bears, by two runs. A victory would have tied us for the first half title, but with the tying runs on base Steve, a skilled pitcher, got me to make the last out on a pop-up to the first baseman.

I never forgot that soul-crushing moment. He characteristically never mentioned it again.

Another of our childhood pastimes involved writing “Chance” cards for “On the Road,” a Monopoly-like board game one of us had invented. While my brother, most of my male cousins and I competed to see who could invent the most horrific consequences (typical example: “Get run over by steamroller; lose life”), Steve took a different, less gruesome tactic. His most memorably creative cards included, “Take a stroll around the grounds,” “Smell a sweet rose,” and “Have a brownie for dessert.”

Life changed radically for us during the middle of our 8th grade year. Uncle Eddie changed jobs, meaning Steve and his five siblings were relocated from our small Connecticut hometown to far-off Pennsylvania. It might as well have been to Mars, since none of us had ever been there before, either. Our families would visit every summer, but inevitably everyone grew up, even if some of us did so more slowly than others.

As an adult Steve stood out at nearly everything he did. A highly rated chess player, he won several local Scrabble tournaments, and was a wizard at Trivial Pursuit. His skills weren’t just cognitive, either; he also excelled at softball and table tennis. And for those who measure a person’s worth or intelligence by the number of college degrees they’ve collected, consider this: Steve’s formal education ended the day he graduated from high school.

This past Thanksgiving Steve, who rarely consulted doctors, quietly confided to me that he was having some health issues. Those concerns were justified; in early December he learned he was gravely ill. The doctors gave him four weeks.

Steve always hated using the phone, which was why I was thrilled when he called to chat for nearly half an hour the Sunday after he entered hospice care. He reflected gratefully and joyfully about the fun that we’d had as kids, adding that given the life he’d experienced, he had no reason to complain about his current situation.

That interaction convinced me and my two sons to take a Friday off from work and drive five hours south to see him one last time. When we arrived Steve’s body was weak, but his spirit was dynamic. We spent an hour reminiscing about our childhood adventures, and he kindly regaled my wide-eyed boys with several stories (some heavily embellished, others wholly fictitious) about what a great guy their dad was.

I messaged Steve when we got home that night, and the next morning he responded. “Wanted to have a brownie for breakfast,” texted the man with terminal cancer, “but I guess an apple is better for me.”

Twelve hours later he died.

I’ve got one important New Year’s resolution for 2024. Sometime this coming spring, after taking a stroll around the grounds, I’m going to find a sweet rose to smell while I enjoy having a brownie for dessert. <

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