Small Is All: Harrison’s Gift of Spring

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BRUCE THE BLOG
By Bruce Apar
When Bruce The Blog Listens, People Talk


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During the 2000 Mildred Strang middle school’s Frost Valley retreat, Harrison’s classmates cheered him on as he made every last effort to scale a wall. He did not want to be pitied or treated as different from average-size kids.

This is the time of year — specifically, this weekend — we’ve awaited for months.

Spring is fragrant with possibilities, with renewed spirit, with romance.

If you Google “songs about spring,” the search engine will shower you with 142 million results. There’s much to sing about as we warm to the therapeutic balm of Mother Nature.

For our family, spring brings a flowering of intermingled memories and emotions. It was 13 years ago on March 20 — the vernal equinox — that our son Harrison went in for his third open-heart surgery, at age 15.  

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March Gladness

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Bruce caricatureBRUCE THE BLOG
BY BRUCE APAR


For our family, this is the historic week that was.

It is the week everybody welcomes spring, a date that marks my first day on earth.

The next day marks our son’s last.

This is the week a dozen years ago when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

HA 2003 NCAA Bracket

In his 2003 NCAA picks, Harrison correctly picked Texas and my alma mater Syracuse in the Final Four, but predicted Kentucky — this year’s even-money favorite to take it all — as the champion instead of winner Syracuse.

It is the week a dozen years ago when my alma mater, Syracuse, began its triumphant march to giddy madness, winning the NCAA basketball tournament (OK, so our son the sports whiz picked Kentucky, but he did put ‘Cuse in his Final Four).

This is the week in 2003 Harrison entered Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for his third open-heart surgery.

It is the same city where, in 1987, Harrison sprang to life from Elyse in Pennsylvania Hospital, the place Rocky Balboa’s son was born, in the movies. (Harrison literally came out fighting, with superficial bruises under his eyes that looked like shiners.)

Fifteen years later, we sensed serendipity in returning to the city of Harrison’s birth for a life-saving operation, scheduled, no less, on my birthday of March 20.

This is the week Harrison — whose dwarfism stopped his stature at 37 inches, 37 pounds and caused heart-and-lung disease — started a secret diary on the eve of his surgery, writing in it, we later learned, that he optimistically envisioned an outcome that would, in his words,  “… give my dad a refreshing birthday gift wrapped in flesh — a son’s healthy heart.”

Indeed, he exited the operating room with my birthday gift pulsing like new, but the brief relief was a mean tease. A day later, notwithstanding the best efforts of six puzzled doctors huddled over him in the intensive care unit, Harrison’s 15-year-old heart halted.

Our son was no more, and we were lost in lonely despair. The surgeon, his face ashen, his voice numb, sorrowfully told us our son’s rare condition put him beyond the reach of medical salvation. “I’m so sorry,” chimed in Harrison’s nurse, then broke down sobbing. We lay awake all night, doing the same, while staring into the darkest, deepest emptiness a parent can know.

Elyse and Elissa on Norwegian Dawn-Dec. 2003

In December 2003, when Elissa was 13 (pictured with mom Elyse), nine months after Harrison passed, we went on a Caribbean cruise with other families to “get away from it all,” at least for a week.

“Will daddy ever be happy again?” 12-year-old Elissa asked Elyse, as family and friends embraced a once-happy home suddenly awash in tears.

Five years later, at Yorktown High’s Senior Awards Night, from the podium, where each year we present a scholarship in her brother’s name, I proudly told our daughter, for all to hear, “The answer to your question starts with a “Y,” because You have made me happy.”

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The annual fall charity golf outing hosted by Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Foundation raises money for recreation and education for the betterment of families and youth in our community.

It makes me happy to give back to the community through the Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Foundation, which we started in 2003 with the generous support of Yorktown Athletic Club (YAC) and Yorktown Police Benevolent Association.

It has taught me that when you lose a child, what you gain is the privege and duty of helping others in your child’s name.

HArappelling

Harrison strived hard to be just one of the guys, and pushed himself beyond his physical limits to show good things come in small packages. On the 7th grade weekend retreat at Frost Valley, he proved his true grit by stepping it up on the rappelling wall.

Harrison played and officiated baseball and basketball for YAC, to which I forever will be indebted for lifting my son’s self-esteem to where he felt 10-feet tall on the field, court, or stage.

Thanks to Harrison’s passion for sports — he competed against peers virtually twice his size — I learned the inner resolve it takes to hold your head high even when closer to the ground than everyone else.

Shaq-Harrison-Hakeem

Shaquille O’Neal (l) and Hakeem Olajuwon had a “pick-up” game with 8-year-old Harrison Apar at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Despite knowing he never would sink a basket or hit a ball past the pitcher, nobody had more fun being out there than did Harrison. Because of his severe physical limitation, he took nothing for granted; he made the most of the least.

TIme cannot heal this mortal wound, but it can help you learn to cope with the gushing gash of grief. Celebrating Harrison’s life gives us strength. If he made the most of every inch of his being, how dare those of us blessed with decent health come up short.

Within days of Harrison’s passing, 7th grader Brendan Frail (since deceased) took it upon himself to rally the town of Yorktown to rename a public park Harrison Apar Field of Dreams. Fittingly, the field has a bench in memory of Brendan.

At the foot of the field’s flagpole, a memorial plaque is posted three-feet from the ground, by design the same height as Harrison, as a reminder to kids and adults alike that the true measure of a person is not a matter of inches, but a matter of character.

Joey DiPanfilo reading plaque at Field of Dreams

Each spring on opening day of Harrison Apar Field of Dreams in Yorktown, a player for Yorktown Athletic Club reads the memorial plaque dedicating the field in Harrison’s name. The pedestal is three-feet high to symbolize Harrison’s actual height. It’s a reminder that stature is not a matter of inches but a matter of character.

Such is the legacy of a little person who continues to inspire those who knew him, and to influence those who never met him.

This is the week of the long-awaited vernal equinox, when the rites of spring are renewed in all of nature’s many-splendored glories.

March makes me glad to revel in the return of kids like Harrison to the great outdoors, hearing the joyful noise of bat on ball, seeing them cheer on teammates.

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When he no longer could play basketball or baseball for Yorktown Athletic Club after heart surgery, Harrison refereed and umpired those sports. Here he officiates on Pinetree Field, which would be renamed for him, thanks to 7th grader Brendan Frail, who also passed. A bench at the field fittingly is dedicated to Brendan.

I can hear that tiny umpire voice right now on the field that bears his name, uttering two of Harrison’s favorite words: Play ball!

For all my March 20s, it will gladden my heart to know that Harrison kept the birthday promise he made 12 years ago. He gave his dad nothing less than the gift of a lifetime: His.

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Bruce Apar owns and operates APAR All-Media, a Hudson Valley agency for advertising, content, marketing and public relations. Follow it on Facebook. Reach him at bapar@me.com.

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Harrison’s dad was privileged to share with his son historic sports moments (Yankees winning ’96 World Series against Atlanta Braves; David Wells’ perfect game in 1998) and events (1996 Atlanta Olympics).