Friday, January 22, 2010

Eddie's First Birthday Cake

MY PURPOSE HERE is to pay tribute to a friend of mine. This friend, whom I have known since we were both about seven years old, deserves as much. For he has suffered, and he is still shouldering the burden of this suffering. That is not something that our society typically finds worthy of its salute. But I am a member of this society, and furthermore, I once upheld an oath to defend it in uniform. Thus, if I say this man has earned my salute, I do not employ the term lightly.

My friend happens to be an Italian-American, with a common first name and an ethnic last one. But since I do not want to use either, I’ll give him a loaner. We’ll call him Eddie. Eddie Moscone.


To Eddie, a word. I offer you an apology, because I assume this writing will make you uncomfortable. You told me once that certain types of accolades accomplished as much. But my apology, while sincere, will have minimal effect. Because the truth is, as a writer, I find this necessary. When I am grabbed by something that I feel, for whatever reason, I need to understand; thereupon do I employ my pencil in the service of that education. For this lesson, you happen to be the instructor. Let’s not forget, also, that you are an educator by profession. So I am optimistic that you can forgive me for milking your hard-earned wisdom for my own further comprehension of life – especially if I promise to apply what I learn somehow in the context of our sustained friendship.


From the beginning, as far back as I can remember, Eddie has shown a certain kind of fearlessness. An anecdote from our early years in suburban New Jersey will demonstrate what I mean.

Among the numerous things he does well, Eddie is a talented musician. He’s been a fine trumpet player since we were in fourth grade. I know because I played trumpet, too, for a time. Every year we had to audition to see what chair assignment we would receive for the trumpet section. I only bested Eddie once – and that, I learned later, was because he had missed his audition entirely. Beating Eddie was never truly within the limits of my talent.

Yet as good as he was at the trumpet, I remember in fifth or sixth grade he began to show interest in other instruments as well. This stayed with him, for today Eddie is a high school Marching Band Director. He started to take lessons in percussion with the elementary school music teacher in addition to playing the trumpet. Eddie did this on his own; I remember thinking he was nuts. But then the day arrived when the entire band was in full rehearsal, and the director, Mr. Decker, kept stopping the performance in one particular number because of the ineptitude of one unlucky fellow in the drum section. There was a critical percussive segment that was being repeatedly flubbed.

Frustrated, the teacher told that unfortunate drummer to step aside and let one of his peers literally take a whack at it. When that guy tried it once or twice and also failed, Mr. Decker told him to get out of the way, and had the next drummer try. In this manner, with the situation more or less out of hand, the entire drum section was dispensed with. No one could play the part.

Then Mr. Decker seemed to have a small epiphany. “Where’s Eddie?” he shouted. Eddie needed no more encouragement. He got up, laid down his trumpet, strode over and played the part correctly. He spent the rest of that number on the drum, and then returned to the trumpet section, which had pretty much fallen down as well in his absence.

That, readers, is Eddie. I do not know if he made a lot of friends in the drum section that day. But he knew he could do what needed to be done, and showed no hesitation.

Indeed, Eddie seems to have approached so many things in his life, throughout the years, with a quality that falls somewhere between a preposterous swagger and authentic bravery. I can think of innumerable examples, from the mundane to the momentous, but they all speak to this same quality.

When we were still elementary school kids, Eddie was a kind of celebrity, because at some point he (or his mother and father most likely, but he received the indispensable schoolyard cred), had established a tradition of throwing an end-of-year party for his entire class. Consequently, part of the ritual towards the end of the school year was to track down Eddie on the playground in order to ask who his teacher was for the following year. This was huge, because he was hosting these events way before most of us were ready to attend “boy-girl” parties. That’s Eddie.

Eddie is a natural athlete, and possesses individual courage as well as team leadership skills. He was a terrific swimmer in high school; a sport which requires both stamina and guts, for the water is a difficult arena to conquer. His love of baseball spans his entire lifetime. In college he tried out for volleyball, something that was never an organized sport when we were in high school, and quickly became a standout. As an adult he has coached children in sports for years – particularly young girls, which I find astounding. But then, Eddie has never exactly had a fear of girls. That’s Eddie.

As much as either of my parents, Eddie was instrumental in teaching me, and my twin brother for that matter, how to drive. He’s a half-year older than we are, so he had his driver’s license six months ahead of us. I distinctly remember him picking us up in his beat-up Buick on spring and summer afternoons, taking us to schoolyards and parking lots, and letting us drive his car around. That year he had a cassette of Tribute, with Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes, in the tape deck for what seemed like eight months straight. I cannot think of Ozzy, or hear the song “Crazy Train”, without remembering Eddie’s Driving School for Obnoxious Twins, which seems appropriate. But he seemed to enjoy helping us learn to drive as much as we enjoyed the chance to get behind the wheel. That’s Eddie.

When we got to college, and everyone started to go their separate paths, there was always a generous measure of lip service around visiting one another at our respective schools. Some of these reunions took place; most were mere talk. Not with Eddie. My brother and I attended the same university in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Eddie attended a small college in northwest Pennsylvania. In our freshman year, there he was in the spring, visiting us at our campus, dressed out in his varsity volleyball jacket, already fully immersed in team sports.

At some point, though I don’t remember the year, we did return the favor. Later on, during the summers, we’d reconvene with high school pals; more promises were made; few were kept. But I am able to mentally fast-forward to early 1992 when, going into our final semester at college, my brother and I returned to an apartment we shared off campus. We arrived about a week prior to the start of classes. Eddie’s schedule was different; he had more time before he had to begin school again. Did he spend it putzing around our hometown?

All I remember is slouching around that dingy one-bedroom hole with my brother on a dreary winter afternoon and hearing a sudden pounding on the door. We opened it together, to be confronted with a vision of our old pal standing there with a cruddy baseball hat on, both hands out Italian-hug style, and a smoking pipe clenched in his ridiculous, Cheshire-cat grin. That’s Eddie.


Alas, readers, but at some point one must put aside childish things, as St. Paul has written. I would be the first to admit, and do so here, that in the case of myself, my brother, and Eddie, we have not quite learned to do that. Nonetheless, time marches on, and men have a way of acquiring responsibilities. Marriage, for example, if they are fortunate. And who among us, do you suppose, was the first to take on so daunting and momentous a change of life?

Eddie married his college sweetheart, a lovely and gregarious woman, in 1994, tackling this institution well in advance of the rest of his mates. My brother was his best man. Eddie, I can write without any juvenile intention whatsoever, has always loved women. In his wife, he found the nucleus of this mighty love, and with what great and typical eagerness did he launch himself into domesticity! In my memories of his wedding, I can still see him casually striding from table to table with his hand at his young wife’s waist, asking if people were enjoying themselves. When the question was returned, he answered, “I am having an absolute blast.”

Thus did Eddie (and his beloved) enter into the deeper, more exciting, yet sometimes treacherous waters of adult life, in the same manner in which he enters into just about everything – head first. They leaped into the marital fray, engaging in its necessary push and pull, flexing and building up the muscles involved in the complex acrobatics of love and compromise and the sacrifice of oneself and, sometimes, one’s own interests. So much the better, for the strength of their unity was soon put to the test.

In 1996 their first son arrived, but was born with a gaping hole in one of the chambers of his heart, requiring almost immediate open heart surgery. Unless one has endured it themselves, or worse, one can only imagine the helplessness and terror that must have seized the two new parents as they placed their fragile infant in the hands of surgeons.

Their prayers were answered that time; their son today is almost fourteen, and healthy. But their union had been carried into the forge and duly hammered in a white-hot flame. They came out of the experience further bonded. At that time, Eddie commented to me one night on the phone, “You think you know how to love somebody…” His voice trailed off, failing to complete the thought, but his meaning was clear. One’s love acquires its true gem-like beauty and hardness only when compressed under the weight of adversity.

Before most of his peers, again, Eddie learned what this kind of love requires of a man. But as all of us come to know eventually, overcoming one obstacle that seemed too large does not exempt us from further trials. For in 2007, Eddie’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thus began a prolonged, roller-coaster-type battle with this terrible illness, the daily casualties of which I cannot describe. I have no idea how difficult each phase, or even each daily skirmish, was for Eddie or for his wife. To my own discredit I was often fearful of even discussing it with him, because I did not know how to offer consolation, and felt, regrettably, too uncomfortable to try.

But Eddie, of course, could not – and would not have anyway – distance himself from this fight. He stayed true to his commitment, the one that’s right there in the marriage vows. He took up the mantle of caring for, by then, their three children, while his wife suffered; he also, incredibly, maintained two jobs and coached young people throughout much of the year, every year. He remained by his wife’s side throughout her unimaginable pain and despair, right up until she died, just before Easter in 2009, at the age of 36.

The next time I saw Eddie, which was the first time in many months, was at his wife’s wake. It was the very same day he himself turned 39, a final irony. I met my twin brother on the way in to the funeral home, and we both entered the viewing room in a stunned silence. When we saw Eddie, neither one of us knew what to do; we both grabbed at him in the same moment and were overcome.

Eddie – a bigger man than either of us – put one arm around each of our necks and said, “Come on, guys.” That’s Eddie.


Now it is nearly a year later. In a few short months, Eddie will turn 40 years old, and of course, later this year I will follow.

I have kept in regular contact with Eddie – far better, I admit to my own shame, than I did while his wife was dying. Interestingly enough, a huge part of this has been achieved through Facebook, a sign of these particular times that is regularly dismissed as frivolous. Yet it has played an indisputable role in Eddie’s grieving process. He chats frequently and openly on the site; he has even had numerous exchanges with my wife, who has come to know and love Eddie better as a consequence. It clearly helps him endure some of the pain of his beloved’s premature death. How can that not be considered a good thing?

Indeed, it was Facebook that led to these words. A short time ago, Eddie posted a photograph to his page on the site. It seemed unremarkable at first glance. It was a birthday cake – simple, chocolate-brown, serviceable, but nothing spectacular. Some wobbly cursive letters in red icing spelled out the simple message HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAN. The occasion was his second son’s 9th birthday. Isn’t that fun, I thought.

Then I read Eddie’s comment on the photograph. He said it was his “first” birthday cake. “Yes, I am proud of myself,” he wrote. The picture coupled with the comment, coming almost one year into Eddie’s life as a widower, hit me like a ton of bricks.

For twenty years, most of my adult life, I have been writing creatively. And I know from that experience that one of the hardest things to execute in literature is a consequential short story. They’re easy to read, fun to enjoy and discuss, but damned near impossible to write. The very best ones, by writers with genuine talent, are great not because of head-shaking twists and turns in the plot or million-dollar vocabulary words. The truly great stories are impressive because they contain small moments of gravity. They draw attention to simple things, easy to overlook, but with so much unspoken truth compressed into their tiny packages. But trying to concoct one of those moments, those extraordinary details, where it did not exist before is a skill that I truly believe takes a lifetime to master.

Eddie’s first birthday cake, captured in an ordinary photograph, is that kind of detail for me. If I had come across it in a short story, it would have reached off the page and grabbed me by the throat. If you want to know why I explain it this way, I can only say that writers tend to be insular, and a little obsessive in their attention to detail. Almost everything, for us, is initially understood in a literary context. But I’m not trying to turn this into a writing lesson. I know it’s larger than that.

I’m also not trying to lionize Eddie specifically because he threw himself into a role he did not have to fill before. I can practically hear him telling me not to do that. The circumstances of his life now are such that he is the one who must bake the birthday cakes, if anyone is going to do it. He had to make that cake. You don’t just let a child’s birthday fall to the wayside, uncelebrated, because he has lost one of his parents.

So I’m not writing to say my friend Eddie is some kind of hero or candidate for sainthood for baking a cake. What I am saying is that he has shown the way, once again, a man might behave if he were to find himself in the same situation. A man in his shoes could go out and hire a nanny. He could ease up on his workload and lay off trying to help others. Or he could withdraw, start drinking, feel sorry for himself, alienate people; he might completely crack up. If he did any of these things, or even all of them, I think most people might at least understand why.

But there is another thing a man could do, too, if his life took this unexpected turn. He could rise up, accept the challenge, and face the future fearlessly.

Have I not shown that, in many ways, Eddie Moscone has been living his whole life this way? Thus, might I also conclude that even something as seemingly “small” as planning, preparing, baking and then presenting his very first birthday cake, in order to celebrate the young son he brought into existence with the wife he has lost, is in itself an act of bravery?

As I have written, Eddie has had a courageous soul from the start. He is capable of withstanding this devastating loss, as he is proving with every new day. For now there is precious little left for him to fear.

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