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BBHQ Boomer Essays:

The Death of a Friend

Our Boomer-In-Charge at BBHQ, Hershel Chicowitz, writes about boomer memories and current events... from a boomer’s perspective. He is sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, some-
times a little of each. We hope you get a kick out of our Boomer Essays.

About six months ago, I got a note from Mike’s wife saying that Mike had broken his leg. It was rather strange... he was just walking across the living room when his leg gave out. That’s not supposed to happen... not unless the entire bone in your leg has been eaten away. For some reason, the cancer started in his leg, and then quickly spread throughout his body.

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Mike Fernberg died last week. Mike was one of my best friends in junior high school. I went to his Bar Mitzvah party; he rode on the back of my motor scooter; we did the lighting for the school plays. We were kids together; we grew up together.

Mike and I went to different elementary schools. But sometime during 7th grade at Byron Junior High School, we got together... and we were friends for life. Mike got me involved in theatre; I kept him interested in music. We were both in the band; he played the trombone. Mike played Teddy in our production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Eighth grade; 14 years old. He was wonderful!

I lost track of Mike after we graduated, but we got back together at each of our high school reunions. He was just the same; it was as if we were still best friends. Oh, Mike still lived in Cleveland; I had long-since moved away. Mike was married; I was not. But we were still good buddies. I really liked him. Mike was fun; Mike was smart; Mike was simply a good person.

There was one other difference between us. Mike had a good head on his shoulders. We did goofy stuff together, but never anything really stupid or dangerous. Except that somewhere along the way, after we graduated, Mike had started to smoke. I noticed it at the reunions; there was no way I could avoid it; the guy was a walking smoke stack.

I have always been an ardent non-smoker; the reasons not to smoke were obvious and compelling to me. I decided not to bug Mike about it when I saw him. I didn’t think there was much I could do about his bad habit, especially when I saw him only once every few years. Besides, that was his business.

The last time I saw Mike was at our high school reunion last summer. That’s Mike and his wife, Pat, at the reunion. As usual, Mike was the first person to greet me when I arrived. He was the last one to shake my hand, hug me, and wish me well when I left. He didn’t just say it; he really meant it. Mike was such a good person!

About six months ago, I got a note from Mike’s wife saying that Mike had broken his leg. It was rather strange... he was just walking across the living room when his leg gave out. That’s not supposed to happen... not unless the entire bone in your leg has been eaten away. For some reason, the cancer started in his leg, and then quickly spread throughout his body.

Mike had a history of cancer in his family. He tried to spread the direct cause around. Maybe it was the chemicals he used in his photography business; maybe it was the hot coffee he drank; maybe it was the smoking. Maybe it was none of those.

Sure, you can play all those games, if it makes you feel better. But the best information we have today is that if Mike had not smoked, he would still be alive and healthy today. We can say that with almost total certainty.

The death of our friends: I guess it is something we boomers will have to get used to, just as every generation does. But Mike is the first of my “inner circle” of friends to die. It is a strange, sad and lonely emptiness. However painful, I expected my parents to die. But I didn’t expect my friend to die; not now; not yet.

Mike was not even 50 years old. Fifty years old may seem like forever into the future when you are 18; but it doesn’t seem that way when you are 48, in the prime of your life, and expecting to live for another 30-40 years.

The last few months of Mike’s life were miserable. He put up a good fight, and put on a good face. But it was horrible for him and for all those around him who cared for him.

As far as I know, nobody held a gun to Mike’s head to force him to smoke. It was his choice; it was his life. Was it worth it — chopping off 30-40 years of your life in exchange for 30 years of puffing a cigarette? Because that is the trade-off he willingly made.

And if it is worth the tradeoff, then I must be missing a lot by not smoking. I have never enjoyed any of the benefits that Mike traded in exchange for 30-40 years of life. What am I missing? Is smoking that much more enjoyable than not smoking? Is it really?

It took over forty years, but since the surgeon general reported in 1964 that smoking was bad for you, we’ve come to accept that reality here in the U.S. Not even the tobacco industry argues that truth any more. So why, as individuals, leaders, parents and role models... why can’t we just stop it? One by one, one person at a time, just stop? Don’t give me this crap about how addictive it is... how hard it is to quit. I’m getting real ticked off at us baby boomers, whining about how we can’t do something because it is too hard. It doesn’t matter what it is, we’d rather make an excuse; we’d rather blame someone else; we’d rather have the government pass a law; we’d rather sue somebody... than take individual responsibility and do what we know is the right thing.

“Oh, but I’m a victim; it’s not really my fault.” That’s nothing but crap, folks; and you and I both know it! And it is literally killing us; it is eating away at our society.

How can you say it is too hard? It is nothing! Nothing!! You wanna’ know what’s hard? What’s hard is watching your husband waste away in front of you, and not being able to do a damn thing about it. What’s hard is waking up in the middle of the night hearing your husband go into a convulsion, hearing him struggle to take a breath, and then die... right in bed next to you. That is what’s hard! So don’t give me this crap about how hard it is to quit smoking; I don’t want to hear it; not today; not ever!

When we were young, our president said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy... but because they are hard.” That is the spirit of the people who made America the strongest country on earth. That is how generations before us thrived in spite of enormous adversities. What happened? When did we just throw our hands up in the air and give in because we thought it was too hard? Are we going to go down in history as the generation that gave up... just because we thought it was too hard? What then, are they going to write on our tombstone, “Mistakes Were Made”? Like it or not, this is the lesson we are passing on to our children. We should be ashamed.

Grow up; wake up; shut up; stop whining! Take responsibility; do the right thing! I don’t care how hard it is. To know what is right... and yet not do it, is the surest form of cowardice.

I suppose you could say it was a gamble; maybe Mike wouldn’t get cancer; not everybody who smokes does. But was the gamble worth it? How can you say that will never happen to you? How can you say you don’t care if it happens to you? How can you say you will worry about it later? What makes you so different from the millions of people whose insides have been eaten away by cancer?

Gees, these questions are so easy to me. It is so obvious. Why wasn’t it to Mike? Why isn’t it to millions of baby boomers? I didn’t have the nerve to ask Mike after he got sick. But I’ll ask you now. Have you got any answers for me?


Michael Joseph Fernberg

Beloved husband of Patricia (nee Toth), loving son of Shirley and the late Louis Fernberg, dear brother of Kurt and Laurence (Linda) Fernberg, devoted uncle of Jacob and Joshua. Services will be held Friday, May 1 at 11 a.m. at THE BERKOWITZ-KUMIN-BOOKATZ INC. MEMORIAL CHAPEL, 1985 S. TAYLOR RD., CLEVELAND HTS. Interment Lake View Cemetery. Family will receive friends at the residence of Mrs. S. Fernberg, 20696 S. Woodland Rd., Shaker Hts., THROUGH SUNDAY. Friends who wish may contribute to the Animal Protective League or the Sierra Club.

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