Staying The Course
by Anthony Vasko
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A man got out of bed in the morning, walked to the bathroom, brushed his teeth and walked downstairs to the front porch where he sat down in a chair for the entirety of his day. He only came in contact with the mailman before climbing the same steps back to his bathroom to brush his teeth again, lie back down in be and fall asleep. Probably sounds like a pretty worthless day, but the extent of this man's success on that day is actually immeasurable.
He was born in 1913 in the countryside of Austria. At the age of 28, Jack, his wife and three daughters were captured by Nazi soldiers and taken to Auschwitz where they were separated. Over a dozen times Jack managed to avoid the crematorium and gas chambers--for no other reason than his will to work, hoping to see the faces he loved again. The war ended and Jack was released from captivity. After an extensive search for his family Jack discovered that his wife and all three daughters perished. In 1944 Jack moved to the United States with less than one hundred dollars to his name and no living relatives to his knowledge. He changed his last name from Schwartz to Smith to disguise his Jewish ancestry. Then he took a job at a factory welding steel for an automotive company in eastern Michigan. Despite entertaining the idea of suicide many times Jack always disregarded the thought--sometimes immediately, sometimes after several days of inner turmoil. Nevertheless he stayed the course.
Jack's life lacked much action or excitement. He spent most of his days after retirement reading on his porch, or walking along the creek near his small, four room house--just thinking and praying and trying to figure out the reason or meaning of life.
At the age of 97 Jack lived with a terminal respiratory disease, caused initially by the working conditions in Auschwitz and further made worse by thirty years of work in the factory. He also suffered from a mild stroke when he was 95, partially paralyzing the left side of his body. His fingers were riddled with acute arthritis and his vertebrae was like a poorly assembled house of cards, at risk of giving out at any moment.
On the aforementioned day Jack had not eaten for three and a half days. He was on the verge of death. He woke up and lied in bed for two hours before gaining the strength to get up.
After getting to his feet it took Jack twenty-eight minutes to walk the fourteen feet to his bathroom sink. He had to stop five times because he was out of breath.
It then took him three minutes to get the toothpaste on his toothbrush, having missed eleven times, leaving a glob of paste on the counter.
Back and forth, back and forth...very slowly Jack brushed his teeth in just under seven minutes.
Then came the dangerous trip down the stairs. Because of the paralysis on his left side he was forced to trust his very brittle right side to support all of his weight. His right hand clenched the banister and supported his entire body as he stepped down with his right foot and slowly swung his left foot down to meet it.
The following thirteen steps took Jack one hour and seven minutes.
Once he was at the bottom of the stairs he slowly walked out to the front porch, taking him thirty-one minutes.
He positioned himself in front of his favorite rocking chair and after four minutes his backside was safely touching the seat.
Then he sat and waited patiently until the mailman arrived.
"I've got a letter for you, Mr. Smith," the mailman said, and handed it to him. Michael had been Jack's only source of human contact in over three weeks.
Jack looked at the letter and tried reading the return address, but his vision was nearly gone. He slowly opened it and humbled by his near blindness said, "Can you please read this to me, Michael?"
"Absolutely, Mr. Smith. Not a problem.
"Dear Mr. Smith, this letter is awfully difficult for me to write and I ask that you please brace yourself as you read it. My name is Elizabeth Margaret Shemai and I am your great granddaughter. I am studying for my PhD in history at Columbia University in New York and I recently became very curious of my Jewish ancestry. My grandmother, your daughter, Margaret, survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz. At the age of seventeen she gave birth to my father, Martin Shemai while making a living as a housemaid in Brooklyn. My grandmother came to the United States in hopes of finding you. I am assuming that she was unsuccessful because you had changed your name to Smith upon arriving. She, as well as my father, lived the remainder of their lives under this assumption.
After an extensive search into my ancestry I came across your immigration application. I know it is by the sheer guidance from God that I stumbled upon it. You had two places to print your name and one to sign. Clumsily you printed John Schwartz on one of the lines. How this was overlooked by immigration I do not know. How I managed to see it while skimming through over four hundred applications is clear: God led me to you.
I wanted to write you because you do not have a telephone to tell you that I will be visiting you on Saturday, May 12th. I did not want my sudden appearance to come as a surprise. I hope that you are still at this address. I obtained it from a steel manufacturer's company directory in June of 1978--a year before I was even born. I look forward to meeting you.
Your Great Granddaughter,
Elizabeth Margaret Shemai
Michael handed Jack the letter.
"Thank you so much, Michael. May God bless you greatly," Jack said. Then he waved him along, saying, Go on and finish your day in peace. Tomorrow I will witness a miracle.
Jack went to bed the night before praying that God would take his life in his sleep. When he woke up he knew it might be his last day on earth and he could not imagine spending it in bed.
The night before Michael went to bed planning on waking up for his last day on earth. Michael's wife and three daughters were killed in a car accident earlier that evening. He was going to wake up, deliver all of his mail and when he returned home he was going to shut the garage door, keep his car running and go to sleep once and for all.
Once night had fallen Jack got up, walked inside, climbed the steps, walked into his bathroom, brushed his teeth, walked to his bed, lied down and fell asleep.
The following morning Jack woke up, but could not get out of bed. He had exhausted nearly all of his remaining energy the previous day. Early in the afternoon he met Elizabeth. All evening long a fragile, tired, and bed ridden Jack Schwartz lived like he had not lived in 70 years.
That same morning Michael McLarens woke up in his bed and chose to live.
A man got out of bed in the morning, walked to the bathroom, brushed his teeth and walked downstairs to the front porch where he sat down in a chair for the entirety of his day. He only came in contact with the mailman before climbing the same steps back to his bathroom to brush his teeth again, lie back down in bed and fall asleep. Probably sounds like a pretty worthless day, but the extent of this man's success on that day is actually immeasurable.
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Very good story. Thank you.