Yesterday, God sent me the final message. "You better not take life for granted--never again."
I knew God was telling me something, but I wasn't sure exactly what, when I read the sad news yesterday that Federal Judge Mark Kravitz has ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. That means that, at age 61, Mark's days on
Earth are seriously numbered. Some people leave 1 year, others 8, after diagnosis. The average is 3 years. It appears Mark plans to continue his judicial role until he no longer is physically able. The disease does not affect thinking or the ability to read, but Mark is steadily losing upper body strength.
This tragic news feels like a disembodied voice calling out to me from the Heavens. "You did the right thing by leaving your law practice. You're doing the right thing by dancing as much as you can, enjoying life in ways you didn't know were possible for a man with as many New Years Eve celebrations under his belt as you have. Keep on writing. Take care of Susie, but don't stop taking good care of yourself. Stop beating yourself up for the things I let you and that devil in you do but you better not even think about doing again. I've cut you some slack for that stuff because I've got other special projects in store for you to do for The Good Team. But I've sent Tom Cloutier, John Cashmon, and now, Mark Kravitz your way to make darned sure you never again take for granted your one chance at life, which I, God, and I alone, gave you. And I alone have the right to take away, if I so chose. If you EVER think about killing yourself, like you were thinking all last fall, I may just take you back into my Steroidally Pumped-Up Arms and actually wash you away in a flood, or strike you dead with lightning, or a heart attack, or some other dreaded disease like the ones you wished you'd been dealt, last fall, when you still were so ashamed of your severely depressed mood that you wished you'd had a clear-cut physical illness to tell your friends and family was the cause of your despair." The voice of Jahweh Himself. The sound of "I am what I am."
"I'm warning you, Dutcher," the voice thundered, "I've got more in store for you in this one chance at life I've given you, and you better never forget it." And with that, the voice disappeared.
I was left alone to ponder what assignment this arbitrary God was imagining he had in mind for me to carry out for Him. And furthermore, that quiet philosophical voice in the far reaches of my cerebral cortex insisted on reminding me that I had no way of KNOWING if the voice I claimed to be hearing was actually a voice, or a figment of my imagination, and, even if the former, how did I know IF it was the voice of God? How would I even know what the voice of God sounds like, even if I heard it?
The typical course of the disease which Mark Kravitz has is grim:
"Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a form of motor neuron disease caused by the degeneration of neurons located in the ventral horn of the spinal cord and the cortical neurons that provide their afferent input. The condition is often called Lou Gehrig's disease in North America, after the famous New York Yankees baseball player who was diagnosed with the disease in 1939. The disorder is characterized by rapidly progressive weakness, muscle atrophy and fasciculations, spasticity, dysarthria,dysphagia, and respiratory compromise. Sensory function generally is spared, as is autonomic, and oculomotor activity. ALS is aprogressive, fatal, neurodegenerative disease with most affected patients dying of respiratory compromise and pneumonia after 2 to 3 years; although occasional individuals have a more indolent course and survive for many years.
Mark is a much more successful, prominent, accomplished lawyer than I ever was, but our lives are remarkably parallel in important ways. Both born in 1950. Grew up in Philadelphia. Graduated from Wesleyan University and Georgetown University Law Center. Pursued our legal careers in Connecticut, he with a large firm in New Haven, I with a small firm in Middletown.
Because I started kindergarten at 4 1/2 years old, I was a year ahead of Mark in both college and law school. We weren't close friends, but Wesleyan was a very small men's school in the late 60's when Mark and I were in college, only a year apart, so we knew who the other guy was. Mark was unmistakable because he had a full head of very blond hair, and very blue eyes. He was also taller than I.
And Mark was a much better student. He graduated magna cum laude from Wesleyan. At Georgetown he not only got onto law review because of his excellent grades but, like Barack Obama at Harvard, Mark became the top editor of the law review. I was cum laude at Wesleyan, had to fight for a position on the law journal at Georgetown by winning a writing competition against the other people who also wanted to be on law review but didn't have the grades to make it without further effort.
After law school, Mark gained a coveted position as law clerk to a federal appeals court judge in Philadelphia, on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, just under the U.S. Supreme Court. He then returned to Wiggin and Dana to practice appellate law in New Haven. Several years later, Chief Justice William Rheinquist tapped Mark to serve as one of the Chief's law clerks. This plum position immediately elevated Mark into the top echelon of American lawyers.
Mark was in great demand to handle appellate cases around the country. Over the years, I'd meet younger lawyers who had worked for Mark in the appellate department at Wiggin and Dana. They reported that Mark was a most demanding taskmaster, but to a man and woman, they claimed they would have given their right arms for a chance to work with an Appellate Grand Master Lawyer like Mark.
Several years ago, Mark was nominated by President Bush to a federal district court judgeship in New Haven. The Senate confirmation was a cake walk. Mark's judicial colleagues and the lawyers who practice before him in federal court are unanimous in their praise of his human compassion, unquestioned fairness, legal acumen, and judicial temperament. Mark is married, has three wonderful children. They live on the Connecticut shoreline. Life has been very very good for the Kravitz family. Until now.
And then, just a few months ago, lightning struck. Mark was diagnosed with ALS by three independent doctors, at least one of whom practices at Mass General in Boston. Mark told his children in May, his fellow judges in June, and it all reached the public domain when word of it was published in the CT Law Tribune yesterday.
Immediately upon reading the news, I felt the tears slinking down my cheeks, the chill run up my spine.
This is the fifth time in the past few months I've been spared. There was the armed hold-up of K.C., Devon, and Liam in Honduras on the Habitat for Humanity trip in June. Susie's bicycle crash on July 2. And then, in rapid succession, my lawyer friend Tom Cloutier's premature death from cancer at 64, Prosecutor John Cashmon's suicide two weeks ago after his DWI arrest (and who knows whatever other stuff was going on in his life to make an arrest on relatively minor charges a Major Life-Threatening Event in John's mind and sufficient reason to hang himself in the woods), and now, the infliction of a terminal disease on a man no older, nor younger, than myself, from the same hometown, the same institutions of higher learning, the same profession, the same marital and family situation as myself.
Cashmon age 57, on the left side of the bulls-eye. Cloutier, age 64, on the right. And I, centered on the very cross-hairs of the bulls-eye. Until yesterday, I didn't feel the heat of mortality was pushing me any nearer than these men to the center of the bulls-eye itself, to final descent, the tragic end, of my own story. And then, reading about Mark Kravitz, age 61, same as me, life circumstances fundamentally the same, I realized that some larger force in the universe was moving me right into the cross-hairs of the Grim Reaper's High-Powered Hunting Rifle, the one with the hollow point shells. And I'd better never forget it.
I'm glad I found the strength to jump off the legal plane, pull the rip cord of retirement, and land softly on "Bob's blog" and the Mezzo Grille dance floors. Who knows how much more time I, or any of you, will be able to enjoy the kind of cold, dreary rainstorms, the likes of which have hovered over Connecticut all day yesterday and today?
I certainly don't know, do you? Will some of us learn tomorrow that we have terminal cancer, like Attorney Tom Cloutier did? Will others be told we have ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), like Judge Mark Kravitz? Will still others, hopefully very few, die violent, lonely deaths, saying "no" to life, like Prosecutor John Cashmon?
Who knows? I do know two things, for sure. If God gets me up again tomorrow and it's a nice day, I'll go swimming at Millers Pond, dancing at the Mezzo Grille patio, and, whether or not it's a nice day, I'll be writing another new story on "Bob's blog." And hopefully we'll all say "yes" to Life, together.
Peace. Namaste. All best wishes.