Sunday, April 02, 2000

A life from which to take inspiration

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My friend Finnerty died. He was 47. Cancer got him.

        His body did something his spirit found impossible, it failed — and now he is with the angels. It's a good day for the angels.

        A river of tears sent him on his way. The rewards are many for a life well lived. The last one looks like a line of mourners 600-deep, marching the three blocks from St. John's Church to Brookside Cemetery in West Chester. Mike was Scotch-Irish. A bagpiper led the procession.

        Mike wasn't a diplomat, a sports star or the winner of a Nobel Prize. He was just a devoted family guy.

        If there is greatness in goodness, and we must believe there is, lest all of us be doomed, then Mike Finnerty was a great man. No, check that. “Great man” is too pompous to hang on Finnerty. He wouldn't go for it. He was a great guy, is all.

        He got the cancer news last Memorial Day. He had an ache in his back. He thought it was from taking a fall while playing basketball at lunchtime. It wasn't.

        It was pancreatic cancer. They gave him a couple of months.

        “Gimme two years,” he said at first. Figuring that was a bit greedy, he asked to be around long enough to watch his two sons, Sean and Casey, play football at Moeller. He did that.

        Around the first of the year, the cancer stopped growing. There was hope Mike would beat it. “I'm going to lick this cancer-itis,” he said. That's what he called it. Cancer-itis, a momentary evil to remind him of all he had that was good.

        He dreamed of becoming an inspirational speaker. In May, he and his wife Terry were going to celebrate Sean's graduation and one year of living with cancer-itis. It would be one fine party. Then the cancer came back. Damn it.

        Mike stayed in a hospice the weeks before he died. The hallway looked like a Moeller sports stag. Sixty or 70 boys, there until 11 at night, until Terry begged them to please go home. Mike and Terry had an open-door policy at their house; Sean and Casey used it liberally. The place was always a mess with kids.

        Every New Year's, Mike would feed them. Wings, ribs, barbecue. Do you know what it's like feeding 30 hungry teen-age football players? Mike did it this year, too. “Even when he was beat to hell,” his brother Tom says.

        From every death, we take something. Sadness, relief, grace. From Mike's, it's this: Appreciate your family. Seize the day. “I would hope his death would lessen the gap between parents and their teen-agers,” Terry says.

        Mike knew what he had. By the time he left, everyone else knew what they had in Mike.

        The day Mike died, Sean said to his mother, “He won't be there when I'm a father. I can't beat how he raised us.” You're numb now, Terry said to her son. When you're not, you'll feel his spirit.

        Here's hoping that's a universal wish. Mike had a big spirit. It filled the room, even in the last few weeks of his life.

        In the end, all he had was his heart. Literally. The rest of his organs had called it a day. His heart stuck around.

        We were supposed to have lunch. It was just after Christmas. Things were looking up. I called him.

        It's a weird thing, speaking with someone who hass a terminal illness. What do you say? How do you say it? Do you say it at all? I was afraid to call. I overcame my weakness to dial him , and here's what happened, every time: He made me feel better for having dialed.

        “We'll get together,” Finnerty said. “How about next week? I'll call.”

        He never did. I never called him back. Life got in the way. Here's a another lesson: Always call.

        He's with the angels now, making them laugh. Lucky angels.

        Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at (513) 768-8454.