FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH
|“An Empty Seat at the Breakfast Table”||
|By: Ron Brounes||
As has become somewhat customary over the past year or so, a few Saturdays ago I met some friends for breakfast at a neighborhood greasy spoon. Each week we choose a different restaurant to gather, catch up on each other’s lives, and solve all the problems of the world. Unfortunately, one of our friends had been unable to join us for the past few weeks; he had been in the hospital attempting to battle a debilitating liver disease. On that Saturday, on my way to breakfast, I learned that he had lost his courageous fight.
I had known this individual for several years as we were both involved in a number of the same community organizations. I knew him as a passionate and tireless worker, always willing to devote countless hours to worthwhile programs and his important causes. We served on numerous committees together, attended conferences across the country, and even ran in similar social circles. You feel like you get to know someone quite well in these settings, yet until about eight months ago, I had no idea he suffered from this dreaded disease. He simply never mentioned it. I received an email from another friend last November informing the recipients that he was ill (again) and was now in dire need of a liver transplant. A day later I attended the wedding of a mutual friend and was planning to ask some of those closer to him about his health and the severity of his situation. A few minutes after I arrived and took my seat, he walked in and sat right next to me. Despite his pain, despite his illness, he checked himself out of the hospital to attend his buddy’s joyous occasion. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
Over the course of that night and in the months to follow, I learned more about his illness. He always spoke in such “matter of fact” terms, never complaining, never indicating that he was in terrible pain. He spoke almost as if he was fighting a common cold and was simply a bit tired and worn down, but surely would feel better in a day or so. At our Saturday breakfasts, he never dwelled on his situation, but would instead talk of books he read, deals he was working on at work, community projects that were coming up, the conflict in the Middle East, women he was dating, and random movies he saw. (He may be the only other person I ever met who saw and liked “The Tao of Steve.”) By the end of the breakfast, it was easy to forget he was even sick at all. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
A TRUE HERO
Several months ago, he received the liver transplant that he so badly needed. Family and friends hoped that the suffering of the past few years would soon be ending. Unfortunately, complications continued to arise almost immediately after the surgery. And yet, he never stopped living. He continued to work (often from his hospital bed) and was even recognized as a top producer at his real estate firm. He continued to perform his community work, always thinking of others above himself. He came to the Saturday breakfasts (as he was able) and again spoke of current events and just about every topic imaginable besides his illness. He even had a Super Bowl party for friends, despite his need to be in the hospital to deal with his medical complications. Apparently he persuaded his doctors to allow him to leave that Sunday afternoon so he could serve as host for his pre-planned party. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
The last time I saw him was about two months ago at a funeral of a mutual friend’s brother. He was not feeling well and was, in fact, planning to check into the hospital in the next few days to run some additional exploratory tests. Though he would never complain, you could see in his face that he was tired and worn down and in obvious pain. And yet there he was, braving the heat and humidity of a Houston summer afternoon, to express his sympathy and support for his friend and her family. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
He never left the hospital. As the weeks passed, emails from his family and very close friends revealed just how ill he had become. He could simply fight no longer. At his funeral, he was eulogized by family and friends who relayed stories about how he lived. Though he was only 37 years old, he had experienced much more of life than many people twice his age. Despite his illness, he always found the time to enjoy his passions. An avid soccer fan, he attended the World Cup twice and the Olympics as well. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona and traveled to such faraway places as India, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Middle East. In addition to the community groups I was aware of, he also found time to be a Big Brother to a child in need and to deliver food to the elderly as part of the Meals on Wheels program. He was also very involved in the American Liver Foundation. He was described as heroic, brave, loyal, dignified, hard working, and humble. Many people considered him to be their very best friend. We learned that even in those last days, when a doctor would ask how he felt, he would always answer, “Just fine.” Even at the very end, he refused to complain. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
A BETTER PLACE
At the expense of sounding cliché, “the world is truly a better place” because of my friend. He touched so many lives through his thoughtful community minded endeavors and his interactions with family, business associates, and friends. He will be forever remembered for how he lived, NOT how long he lived. In his short 37 years, he saw the world and never let his illness or his ongoing pain stop him from experiencing life to its fullest. He never slowed down enough to feel sorry for himself, but rather used all the positive energy he could muster to help others who he felt were less fortunate. He never complained about the rotten hand he had been dealt (though such words would have been entirely justified), but learned to push forward and persevere long after others would have conceded. That’s just the kind of guy he was.
Above all else, he was a very dear friend to those who knew him best. I have learned much more about him from them in the days that followed his passing. They will never forget how he dragged himself out of a hospital bed to attend their wedding, talked his doctor into letting him host his Super Bowl party, and braved the elements to mourn the loss of a friend’s loved one just days before checking into the hospital for the last time. Yes, the world is a better place because of his actions and will be an even better place in the future because of the examples he passed along to the rest of us on how to live our lives. In the days to come, I will try to stop complaining about matters that are entirely insignificant; I will try to find time to experience my passions and not simply assume there will be time to do so tomorrow; I will try to remember that no matter how down I may be, there are always others less fortunate who can use a helping hand; I will try to realize that no matter how busy I become, I must always find time for my friends and family. My friend taught us all so many valuable lessons in his short life by the way he lived every day. But, that’s just the kind of guy he was. He will truly be missed.