Sometimes life plays hardball. I lost my entire family before the age of 20. I had no money and no emotional support, and to top it off, I had just been diagnosed with genetic emphysema, a disease which slowly destroys the lining of the lungs. I was young, alone, depressed, and very afraid.
I moved to a new city, telling everyone I was going to the university there, when I really just went to escape my sad past. I met my hero at a synagogue in the new city. I was a bit scared of him at first; he could definitely compete with Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau for the title of "Grumpy Old Man." But there was also a sweet and funny side to him (he loves bad puns), which I discovered after a few conversations. Dr. David Kaplan is a "retired" music professor, and since my father was also a professor, I felt a certain affinity towards him. I wanted to know him better.
About a year after we'd met, his wife invited me to their home for dinner and, over the next few months, I began spending a lot of time there. I discovered that he liked some of the same foods I did and that we also both enjoyed watching movies. I watched lots of old movies with him and he explained to me the parts I didn't understand.
Our conversations inspired me with a new interest--twentieth century American history. He and his wife would sometimes take me to concerts and even the symphony. Thus, I began to have an appreciation for classical music.
During this time, I was really struggling financially and could barely afford to pay rent on my apartment. Dr. Kaplan owned an apartment which was vacant at the time, and he invited me to move in. He initially only charged me half of the rent that I had been paying, which enabled me to eat better, pay all my bills and get out of debt, finish at the university, and even buy some nice things for myself. I try to help out around the place whenever I can, gardening in summer and shoveling snow in winter, but he doesn't expect it of me.
In January, 2000, life threw me another hardball when I was diagnosed with cancer. I have been undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and radiation for the last 6 months. This latest trial has been made a lot more bearable by the phone conversations I have with the man who is almost a father to me. His first wife died of cancer, so he knows what I am going through. I can discuss aspects of the disease without fearing that he won't understand. He always encourages me to look on the bright side of things. In fact, while I'm having treatments, we play a daily phone game where we exchange good things about the day, which, for me, can be as simple as being able to keep food down, or watching a fun movie on TV. Recently, I had severe breakthrough pain and he has encouraged me to call him whenever I like to get my mind off the pain. And thinking (correctly) that it will relieve my nausea, he buys me 7-Up almost every week and leaves it on my doorstep. He also bought me two teddy bears, which I named Melvin and Pooky. Melvin is a mini-Jewish bear that David bought for me the last time he was in Chicago. I take Melvin to the Cancer Clinic with me as my good luck charm. Pooky is a normal-size brown bear who I now treasure as the favorite of my teddy bear collection. David believes in the power of teddy bears to help sick people feel better and, in my case, he's definitely right.
Ours is a simple relationship, but one that is very precious to me. I would trust him with my life. He is one of the few people who truly cares for me with no strings attached. He very rarely admits to caring about me, and then only grudgingly, but his many selfless actions speak louder than words. Even when I have made him angry, he has been extremely understanding and forgiving. He has taken a fatherly interest in me and in my life. There were many times in the past when I felt I just couldn't go on, but with him around, I feel unique and important. In a sense, by caring so much for me, he has actually saved my life. And that's why he's my hero.