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Wake-Up Call

March 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

Boston+Fire+Dept+logoI was watching news coverage of the death of two Boston firefighters in the Back Bay this week. That’s always a sad situation; it can be easy to take for granted that putting your life on the line is part of their job description every day. My roommate in the 1980s dated a Boston firefighter for a while. We were amazed at the difficult things he was expected to do. I couldn’t even walk ten feet with the amount of equipment they carry and wear on the job — today or back then! Never mind entering a burning building.

During a profile of one firefighter, they said he’s been a Big Brother to a teen for seven years. They did an interview with the boy, and I kind of lost it. I know firsthand how special and meaningful that bond can be, especially to the kid. And it made me think about the impact on Mtuseni if anything happened to me.

I worked with a client a few years back who is an estate attorney, and casually asked about the process of making Mtuseni my beneficiary. His being a foreign national means it’s complex and costly. It wasn’t high on my radar, but even then I’d been feeling a larger sense of responsibility for him and his future. Still, getting him through college was the top priority so I never followed through on estate issues. Besides, who wants to think about that stuff?

Watching this 14-year-old kid talk about the loss of his Big Brother — and the love they shared — was a wake-up call for me. I may not be out fighting fires, but we all know anything can happen at any time. And seeing how Mtuseni depends on me, I would never want him to be left wanting if I was gone. So I’ll add estate planning to my schedule … because when someone calls you “dad,” that’s just what you do.

Thoughts and prayers for the firefighters, their families and that poor teenage boy. Boston Strong.

And if you want to help a kid who needs some support, check out the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization. It will change two lives for the better.


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I saw this Gandhi quote in a comment on a blog the other day regarding the bombing in Boston. Having such a callous, senseless act occur on a special day in a place you love and call home, it’s easy to become bitter and disillusioned about the state of the world.

This put things back into perspective for me. Hopefully it offers some measure of relief and hope for others.

Very sad today after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. That sort of numb, pit-of-the-stomach icky sadness like after 9/11. If you grew up here, the marathon isn’t a race. The marathon IS Boston! You know all the folklore. Like Rosie Ruiz hopping the T and jumping off later to come out of nowhere and “win” the race. Like the infamous “Run for the Hoses” when the April spring temps soared into the 80s. Or the humbling strength of Dick Hoyt pushing his adult son with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair — this year for their 31st time! And of course, the infamous Heartbreak Hill.

Only today was a different kind of heartbreak.

Marathon Monday is special, it’s sacred. It’s Patriots Day, a state holiday marking “the shot heard round the world” in 1775 that began the war that resulted in America. The city’s famous swan boats are back in the Public Garden pond, the magnolias are blooming along Commonwealth Ave, and it feels like spring is really, finally here. And thousands of runners, family and friends come from all over to enjoy one of the world’s most famous marathons, run for 117 years. On Marathon Monday, everyone in the city is a Bostonian.

And a mindless, cowardly, violent act of terror cut right into the soul of this day. With several dead and many injured. I have stood in that exact spot  — at that exact time — in past years. It’s inspiring to see the throngs of “everyday” runners coming down the street for those last few hundred yards, grinning, sprinting, struggling, striving to complete the unfathomable goal of running 26 miles. And it’s the only spot where non-credentialed people can see runners cross the finish line. I’ve been right there so many times. If I didn’t have a big work project I might have been there today.

As always, I watched the entire race on TV today, marveling at the strategy, rooting for an American man or woman to win and cursing those Kenyans and Ethiopians who always win — but in the end cheering them because they are our racers, too. We adopt them as our own and they embrace the city in kind. Then I flipped off the TV and finally sat down to work.

When my phone chimed in the late afternoon, I figured it was Mtuseni. We hadn’t talked all weekend. We were at another sticky point and I didn’t feel like engaging, though I had sent him a photo from the Boston website in the morning showing a South African couple here to run the marathon. Instead, the message was from a friend in the UK, saying, “Please tell me you’re not in the center of downtown now.” I thought to myself, “Uh-oh.” I went online, saw the news, and immediately felt sick. Not today. Not the Marathon. Not us.

I texted her back and said I wasn’t in town and was fine. Then, realizing that Mtuseni might wake up tomorrow and hear about the story and worry, I texted him saying there was a bombing but that I was okay. Being six hours ahead, I expected him to be asleep. But he immediately texted back “Are u serious?”

So Mtuseni and I chatted about the bombs and violence and terrorism. Him in his settlement shack at risk of the elements and worse, and me in my no-longer-risk-free city. I told him that a local newsman said he felt heartsick — a perfect word — and had to explain what it meant. As he said, “WTF is going on people finding pleasure in killing people?” Indeed. And he asked to confirm several times “but you’re okay and safe at home, right?” The same sentiments as those shared today by runners and spectators and family and friends — only this was with my new “son” half a world away. And I assured him I was fine and, as I have many times, said I love him… and that he should go back to sleep.

It feels like a new/old world here again, like after 9/11. Being vulnerable. Anticipating more security checkpoints. Feeling violated and a loss of innocence, yet at the same time a steely resilience. Everything can change in an instant. It can be a car crash, an errant blood clot, a bomb. The lesson that can be carved out of this madness is to be fully present and alive in each moment, and to make sure the people you love know it — whether they are in bed next to you or on the other end of the earth.

And I hope to be cheering at the marathon finish line next year. Whoever did this, you can’t break Boston. We won’t let you. See you in the Back Bay on Patriots’ Day 2014.


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Today Mtuseni’s school had a memorial service for a student. He said she was stabbed in a random crime. She wasn’t a friend, but he’d seen her around campus.

In the three years I’ve known him, Mtuseni has had more experience with death than I’ve had in a decade. In addition to dealing with the murder of one of his college peers…

  • during senior year, he told me a high school classmate “just turned red” and died in a few days
  • last winter, he had to end a MXit chat to go to a service because “someone in the community died last night”
  • at the end of this past semester, the father of one of his friends in the settlement died
  • and this time last year, his older brother Moses was killed by a car

Five deaths in three years. And these are just the ones he’s told me about. I guess this is the reality of living in deep poverty in a country with high rates of violent crime. He seems to take things in stride. Is there any other option? But for a sensitive, thoughtful kid like Mtuseni, it has to create some tough calluses on his heart.

His world is a chess board of risks: Crime and disease. Sketchy taxi vans and epic traffic accidents. Minimal access to health care. No heat or air conditioning or plumbing at home. Smoky kerosene lamps and candle fires in the settlement shacks. I don’t dwell on it; there’s too much good happening with him and we still have a long road ahead. Still, worry has set down roots in the corners of my mind — like some gnarled tree, its bare branches constantly scratching in the dark. Sometimes I ride my bike to escape. Sometimes I inhale boxes of cookies.

Mtuseni said last week that his main goal is to get a good job and to take his little brother and sister away from the settlement. If I could, I would scoop just them all up to come live with me.

For both of us, graduation and a good job can’t come soon enough.


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