In our family, this week brings with it not only the promise of spring, but the moist remembrance of 18 springs ago that is cause for pause, reflection, pride, gratitude, and eternal love.
When Elyse’s and my son and Elissa’s brother Harrison needed his third open-heart surgery in 2003, the first available date offered us by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was March 20. We took that as a divine sign of providence. It’s my birthday.
Philly is the city where Harrison sprang to life in 1987 in Pennysylvania Hospital, where Rocky Balboa’s son also was born, in the movies. Oddly enough, upon arrival, Harrison even had a bit of a shiner under one eye.
Fifteen years later, it also seemed serendipitous that we had returned to Harrison’s birthplace for a critical, even risky, operation. It was the onset of spring, and the opening round of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, with Harrison cheering on his dad’s alma mater, Syracuse (which went on to win its only championship). Elsewhere, as that day’s newspaper headline declared, the U.S. had just invaded Iraq. The world was up in arms and our world was spinning at dizzying speed.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” wrote 19th Century poet Alexander Pope.
In that spirit, tethered to the oxygen tank that let both him and us breathe easier while he was quarantined in our Yorktown Heights home for the prior 11 weeks, Harrison walked purposefully through the hospital to his appointment with destiny, full of the same combative spirit as his Philadelphia soulmate of the silver screen, whom he idolized as an underdog hero.
TINY AS TOM THUMB
Where our son and Rocky were not at all alike, though, is in physicality. The rare form of dwarfism Harrison had was never fully identified, but it stunted his growth short of even the legendary Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum fame.
What we—and anyone who ever met him—grew to greatly admire is a fortitude, self-esteem, and quick wit that made his 37-inch, 37-pound frame almost an illusion.
Thanks to Harrison’s passion for sports—he played basketball in Yorktown Athletic Club among peers virtually twice his size and was a sportswriter—I learned the inner strength it takes to hold your head high even when low to the ground.
Thanks to his canny insights and way with words, I learned—when he addressed classmates as a speaker at the 2001 Mildred E. Strang Middle School graduation—“Dreams do not come easily, but if you stretch enough, nothing is out of reach.”
BIRTHDAY GIFT PROMISE
Starting a secret diary the night before his surgery, we later discovered Harrison expressed characteristic confidence by noting that the next day he fully expected to “give my dad a refreshing birthday gift wrapped in flesh—a son’s healthy heart.”
Less than 24 hours after writing those words, Harrison emerged from the operating room with his dad’s birthday gift pulsing proudly.
Our elation would quickly be cruelly crushed. After sudden cardiac arrest on March 21, the best efforts of a befuddled team of six doctors surrounding his bed were not enough to revive my birthday gift, or its bearer. Harrison was gone.
At first, you only can wonder forlornly if hope, as Pope poeticized, ever again will spring eternal. You feel nothing but utter despair. “What are we going to do?” wept Elyse, the rock of our family, as the shock set in after an ashen surgeon apologetically delivered the paralyzing news.
All I could do was bid my son goodbye, as I slumped over his lifeless body in the ICU, keening helplessly, raging against reality. If, as we like to say, life isn’t fair, why should death be?
At 12 years old, Elissa found herself an only child. Struck by the catatonic mask of mourning that replaced my face in the days following her sibling’s death, she asked her mom, “Will daddy ever be happy again?”
HEALING AND RESURGENCE
She and Elyse are the life-affirming answers to 12-year-old Elissa’s plaintive question.
Just as spring always returns, so, somehow, does the prospect of healing and resurgence. It is a gift in itself for us to be swaddled by a community teeming with compassion for others, where our son’s vibrant spirit inspires a local charity founded in his name, which also is affixed to an eponymous town ballfield.
At the foot of the flagpole at Harrison Apar Field of Dreams in Yorktown Heights, a dedication plaque is mounted on a post that is the same three-foot height as Harrison. It’s built that way to remind kids and adults alike that the true measure of a person is not in inches, or in material trappings, but in heart and soul and character.
As the rites of spring are renewed, I revel in the return of kids like Harrison to that and every other field, making the joyful noise of bat on ball and giddily cheering on their teammates.
For our family, that’s the cherished legacy of a little person with an outsized influence on those he will continue to touch far beyond his brief but eventful sojourn in this mortal world.
For 4,000 days, from March 2003 until we moved out of our house in February 2014, every night before turning in, I’d go to Harrison’s room to flick on the light switch, then flick it off.
That was my way of signaling to Harrison that his light still shines.
I draw sustenance, too, from choosing to believe that Harrison knows he came through on that March 20, 2003, birthday wish for his old man, by giving not only me but all of us the gift of a lifetime: His.
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com; 914-275-6887.