Spring is in the air, fragrant and glowing with possibilities.
For our family, spring invites renewed reflection of a former life that was both full of promise and fraught with formidable challenges.
It was the first day of spring 14 years ago—March 20, 2003—that our 15-year-old son, Harrison, was wheeled in for open-heart surgery, his third. But this time would not be the charm.
As much on his mind as the operation was that same day’s opening round of March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournament. A rabid and knowledgeable sports fan, Harrison was rooting for the Orangemen of Syracuse University, my alma mater.
March 20 of that year also was the day the United States invaded Iraq. Exercising his uncanny knack for wry one-liners, the astute Harrison wrote in his diary, “I only hope Saddam doesn’t disguise himself as my surgeon.”
March 20 also happens to be my birthday. When the office of pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Thomas Spray at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told us that was the first open date, our family grabbed it as a good luck charm.
We were looking for all the luck we could pluck from thin air. Due to Harrison’s abnormalities, the mortality rate for this procedure was 15 percent, three times the typical rate of less than 5 percent. Not that we had a choice: the surgery was necessary for him to have any shot at survival.
Despite being born with a rare and undiagnosed form of dwarfism, Harrison’s attitude throughout his brief but bountiful life was “size doesn’t matter.” And he proved it—repeatedly and gloriously. In the classroom. On the playing field. On stage. In his way with words. In his outsize personality.
Harrison packed a lot of fight into 37 inches of height. He taught me a lot about life, about courage and about not complaining of things inconsequential.
Job 1 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 diminutive height.
Trying to outwit Harrison was like trying to block Shaquille O'Neal, who is pictured—along with Hakeem Olajuwon—hoisting Harrison in a cherished photo I took at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
I like to think Harrison made me a better person. His strength made me stronger. When I held him in my arms, he carried me.
In his secret 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.”
My son kept his promise 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 that year.
Harrison’s mom, Elyse, his sister, Elissa, and I continue to be blessed by Harrison’s indomitable spirit, 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. When you lose a child, you gain the privilege of helping others in the name of your loved one.
We are fortunate to be affiliated with the Yorktown Athletic Club, to have received support over the years from the Yorktown Police Benevolent Association, and to live in a caring and generous community where so many friends and neighbors generously support the grass roots work of our foundation.
I would not have wanted my son to be anyone but Harrison.
Apar Foundation Fundraiser: On Friday, April 14, a golf outing at Putnam National organized Yorktown High School alumnus and lacrosse star Ryan Froats and other classmates who grew up with Harrison, will help raise funds for the Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Foundation. Greens fee $125. Hole sponsorships $125. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text 914-275-6887.