To Be Thankful

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 25) – For those dreaming of a white Christmas and living here in southern Ontario, Mother Nature has come through. For those simply dreaming of a life without pain, it is a completely different story – one that snowflakes cannot heal.

I was starkly reminded of this, in the past week, while reading the compelling autobiography of Canadian boxing legend George Chuvalo. Though every grown person lives with a measure of pain and sorrow, Chuvalo has endured unspeakable tragedy. His story was well documented even before the book came out this autumn: How a virulent combination of drug abuse and suicide took from him three sons and a wife. I’ve had the privilege of meeting George several times and I’ll never be able to comprehend how he manages to drag himself out of bed each morning – let alone charm people with dazzling wit and a luminous smile. He is an extraordinary tribute to the human soul.

YES, WE’RE HAVING A WHITE CHRISTMAS HERE IN TORONTO.??

Toward the end of the book, Chuvalo succinctly outlined his every-day existence – again, one that most of us cannot even imagine:

Today, I’m still damaged goods. My remaining kids, Mitchell and Vanessa, are damaged goods. You can’t lose a mother and three brothers and not be damaged.

When I wake up in the morning, I think about the kids I don’t have anymore. Losing three sons and a wife is like having a wound that never heals. You take medication; try to keep it clean; free of infection… but it never gets better. It’s always there. Little, everyday things like watching TV; reading a book or speaking to an old acquaintance can remind me of what I lost, so there’s a weird kind of dichotomy in my life.

I only know who I am and what I feel. I go through hell every day – but that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy my life. It doesn’t mean I don’t turn to mush when I see my grandchildren and they tell me they love me. They mean the world to me and when I see them, I go nuts.

If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that nobody can survive without love. I’m blessed to be surrounded by people who care about me, and that’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me motivated to do anything.

“… I know it sounds corny, but I always tell kids they should kiss their parents every night before they go to sleep. It’s a simple gesture but it just kind of re-establishes the way we feel about each other… When I talk about having that in our lives, some of the kids undoubtedly think, “Oh yeah, love – you’re not going to bore me with that stuff, are you?” But, what else is there? When you have to face adversity – and we all do, from time to time – you need to draw strength from the people that care most about you. And, you have to feed off what you feel from others, too. Loving other people gives me strength, and other people loving me gives me strength. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.

“… If I didn’t keep fighting, it would be like my sons and my wife died in vain. And, I don’t ever want to feel that way.

Chuvalo ends with CONTACT: www.fightingagainstdrugs.ca 

GEORGE CHUVALO’S COMPELLING AUTOBIOGRAPHY.

The concluding passage in this book offers startling perspective.

I look back on a year that included a marriage separation; having to live – most days – without my two children (Shane and Lauren), and the continued search for gainful employment. But, do I feel sorry for myself?

Absolutely not.

To me, life is infinitely more about celebrating what I have rather than what I’ve lost. I am thankful – every day – for my children; my soon-to-be ex-wife who gave me those children (and will therefore continue to be loved, regardless of circumstance); for having a vibrant, healthy father at 80 years of age; for maintaining the wisdom left to me by my mother, who will be gone 18 years on Jan. 1… and for my own health.

Some of you may know that I’ve had Crohn’s Disease since I was 17. Crohn’s is a largely misunderstood and incurable inflammation of the small intestine that can flare up at any time without warning. When it does, it stops me in my tracks with unbearable stomach cramps, vomiting, and an urgent need to visit the hospital. I remember how frightened I was upon learning of the diagnosis in my late-‘teens, yet I have never since allowed it to govern my life. Had I done so, traveling for 17 years as a hockey reporter at THE FAN-590 would not have been conceivable. Logic reminded me there are doctors and hospitals in every city and that potentially enduring a flare-up was part of my existence. Only once – while with the Maple Leafs for a game at Boston in November 2006 – did Crohn’s interrupt my work.

And, that’s a story unto itself.

If you’ve ever wondered about fate, consider that in all my years going to Boston for hockey games, I stayed at a hotel near Logan Airport (either the Hilton or Embassy Suites). From Logan, it was an easy ten-minute taxi ride to the TD Garden through the Sumner Tunnel and “big dig” (as the city’s underground network of roads is referred to). For some reason – on this particular visit in November 2006 – I chose to stay at a Hampton Inn & Suites hotel in the Crosstown neighborhood of Boston. During the Leafs-Bruins game, I began feeling stomach discomfort that steadily increased to what was undoubtedly a flare-up of Crohn’s. I battled the pain to complete my post-game radio work then went back to the hotel and wondered if it would subside. It did not.

Directly across the street from my hotel was the Boston Medical Center. Remember, this was the one and only time I had not stayed at Logan Airport. In a teeming rainstorm, I sprinted from the hotel to the hospital and remained there for four nights. You figure it out.

Five times since March 1976, my stomach has been opened from sternum to as far down as the surgeon can go without performing a sex change. Small portions of intestine have been removed in a procedure known as Ileocecal resection. After one such operation (in 1993), a staple joining the two portions of healthy bowel came loose, causing an anastomotic leak in which bowel contents spilled into my abdominal cavity. I endured six months of infection and fever before corrective surgery was performed at Mount Sinai Hospital here in town (by non-peril surgeon Dr. Zane Cohen). It was the most difficult year of my life.

Hospital stays have long provided me perspective. During one such visit, I shared a room with a teen-aged boy undergoing chemotherapy. The balding youngster would reach for a curved basin into which he could relieve his nausea… for about ten minutes, or until the next wave arrived. I quickly disdained any self-pity.

These are moments that come to mind during the Holidays – when we should all pause for reflection. I’m happy to tell you that more than seven years have gone by since my last struggle with Crohn’s. That could change as soon as I finish this blog, but it doesn’t faze me.

If George Chuvalo can still be thankful for what he has, shouldn’t the rest of us follow suit?

Merry Christmas.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

TWITTER: BERGER_BYTES

FACEBOOK/LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [TORONTO ON]

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