Spring is in the air. This is the time of year we’ve awaited for months. Spring is fragrant with possibilities, with renewed spirit, with romance. If you Google “songs about spring,” the search engine will shower you with 142 million results. There’s much to sing about as we warm to the therapeutic balm of Mother Nature.
For our family, spring brings a flowering of intermingled memories and emotions. It was 13 years ago on March 20—the vernal equinox—that our son Harrison went in for his third open-heart surgery, at age 15.
It was the first round of the NCAA college basketball tournament, “March Madness.” Harrison was rooting for my alma mater, Syracuse University. But, being a pragmatist in matters of sports—which he knew more about than anybody I know—Harrison’s completed bracket didn’t show the Orangemen as the last team standing.
As the front page headlines of March 20 newspapers trumpeted, it also was the day the United States invaded Iraq. Exercising his ever-present gift for the wry one-liner, Harrison wrote in his diary, “I only hope Saddam doesn’t disguise himself as my surgeon.”
One more thing about March 20. It’s my birthday. When the office of pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Thomas Spray, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, gave us several choices of when he could perform the procedure, we held it as a good luck charm that the first date offered was March 20.
We needed the good luck. The mortality rate for this complicated operation (an indicator of how many patients do not survive) was 15 percent, three times the typical rate of less than 5 percent. Yet, we also were told the surgery was necessary for him to have any chance of survival.
The elevated mortality rate was attributable to the form of dwarfism Harrison was born with, a condition so rare it could not be precisely identified. One hypothesis was that his was the same condition as that of diminutive TV actor Herve Villechaize, who played Tattoo on “Fantasy Island,” and also of Josh Evans, a teenager who played Timmy on the soap opera “Passions.”
Harrison’s attitude all along, though, was “size doesn’t matter.” And he proved it. In the classroom. On the playing field. On stage. In his way with words. In his outsized personality.
When he emerged from surgery, Dr. Spray stood at his bedside and said, “You’re a champ”—just like Rocky Balboa, one of his favorite characters, along with Tony Soprano, James Bond and Don Corleone. Harrison shared with them all a combative spirit and a steadfast refusal to let anyone get the better of him.
Harrison packed a lot of fight into 37 inches of height. He packed a lot of life into 15 years.
He taught me a lot about life. Job one of any parent is to guide children safely through their formative years. Less acknowledged is how children shape us, and hold us accountable for our actions.
Harrison was a champ with a punchline always at the ready. He didn’t suffer gladly the slightest indication that I was patronizing him for his height.
A box office clerk at a ballgame looked at him and said he could get in for free, so I told the clerk Harrison’s age so he would charge us for his admission. (I wasn’t about to play games with my son’s self-esteem or teach him to be anything but ethical.) Looking up at a sign above the box office, Harrison casually informed me, “That’s okay, Dad, because you’re old enough for the senior discount.”
Trying to get the better of Harrison was like trying to defend Shaquille O’Neal, who can be seen hoisting Harrison in a priceless photo I was lucky to capture at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
I like to think he made me a better person. His strength made me stronger. When I knelt to be face-to-face, he lifted me. When I held him in my arms, he carried me. I cannot imagine my son being anyone but Harrison.
In his diary the night before surgery, Harrison wrote that he was confident the risky procedure would “give my dad a refreshing birthday gift wrapped in flesh—a son’s healthy heart.”
He did just that by giving not only me but all who knew him the gift of a lifetime: His. And, wouldn’t you know it, with Carmelo Anthony leading them, and Harrison watching over them from his new skybox, the Syracuse Orangemen went on to win their only NCAA basketball championship in 2003.
Harrison’s mom, Elyse, his sister, Elissa, and I continue to be blessed by Harrison’s presence, thanks to the town ballfield in Yorktown named for him and the Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Foundation that benefits families and young people in recreation and education.
We also are fortunate to live where so many in the community generously support the charitable work of our foundation.
On Good Friday, March 25, a golf outing at Putnam National organized by Yorktown High School alumni, led by Ryan Froats and others who grew up with Harrison, will help raise funds for his foundation.
On Saturday, April 2, Yorkville Sports Association is hosting the Apar Pro Bowl, a flag football fundraiser that also is supporting our foundation. For information on either, contact email@example.com or 914-275-6887.
The most novel homage is that a Westchester author, David Aboulafia, is modeling the character in his next book, “Text Message,” after Harrison—in both name and characteristics.
It makes perfect sense. If Harrison taught us anything, it’s that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar, also known as Bruce the Blog, is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a certified Google Partner agency. Follow Bruce the Blog or Hudson Valley WXYZ on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.