Monday, June 12, 2017

The Happy Warrior

Our world is different different from the world we expected growing up. But one of the biggest differences is how our sense of community has changed. Once, our closest friends, our nearest and dearest, were people who lived in our hometowns, or worked at the same place, or went to the same school. Our acquaintanceships were local. But now, I find that everything is completely reversed. The only reason I know the neighbor's name on one side is because UPS delivered a package to my house by mistake last week. I'll probably have forgotten it here in a week or two. On the other side? I'm clueless.

But as a result, my community is now global. I know more about what my friend Scarlett in Scotland is doing than anyone who lives on my street. People with like minds and interests come together online, and in a remarkably short period of time are exchanging details about their lives, exchanging points of view, and creating close and palpable relationships with others they've never met. That's because writing is a deliberate process, and also an intimate one. You learn to care for people and associate them with their screen names, because that's the most common interaction you have with them. 

And when they suffer, you suffer right along with them. That's when the screen name falls by the wayside, because you feel the pain of a real, live, breathing person. That person's not right there or down the street, but his presence is even more palpable in some ways. It doesn't count anything to have a cross-country friend like it used to, when long distance was a huge deal financially. 

So as I sit here in muggy as hell Ohio, my thoughts today are several states over, in Missouri. Right now, there sits a family grieving the most heinous loss imaginable, and I--even though I have never met them in person--am grieving with them. 

You've heard me talk about the Finebaum family--a group of Paul Finebaum and SEC college football fans who have pulled together on several occasions in the past few years. It's because of them that I'm sitting here today, writing this column. One of the Finebaum family is a guy named Larry Byrom--Larry from Missouri. We don't agree on football very often, but we do on pretty much everything else.

Okay. Some stuff.


He's hilarious, a smug as hell smartass who can type almost as fast as I can.

Almost, but not quite. He's mean with a meme, though. 

But Larry is one of those people you can't take at face value. There are depths to him that aren't always apparent when he's dogging your school on Twitter or calling in to Finebaum. And at the heart of who he is was always his son Mason. Mason suffered from a rare and incurable condition called ROHHAD--an endocrinic and nervous system disorder that causes the destruction of the involuntary processes of the body, like respiration, heart rate, and temperature control. This is such a rare disease that since it was first identified in 1965, under 200 children have ever been diagnosed with it worldwide. Mason presented with ROHHAD when he was three.

Mason passed away yesterday at the age of twelve. 

It was months after I met Larry before I knew about Mason and the struggles he was going through, months before I realized the anguish that was hiding behind the genial facade of the man who could piss me off so thoroughly just by posting memes about Phillip Fulmer on the Finebaum Twitter feed. Once Larry told me, however, I kept a closer eye on what was going on. 

The battle was never ceded. Neither Mason nor his family ever quit. They never broadcast their troubles, really. Their focus was solidly narrowed in on Mason--what he needed, what made him happy, what comfort they could bring to the terrifying world where he lived. And through it all, Larry kept up his cheerful albeit sometimes teeth-clenchingly annoying irreverence online. 

The past six months or so, I've been buried in work. I have so many projects on my desk that I'm not even sure there's a desk under there anymore. I haven't even had time to watch or listen to Finebaum. But when I opened my Twitter feed ten days ago and saw Larry's post that his son was back at home and on hospice care, it kind of cut through me. I mean--I know Larry. I know what a stubborn cuss he is. 

And I know how he loves his son. That stubborn cussedness is obviously a family trait, because Mason survived with his condition for nine years. That's almost unthinkable courage for an adult, much less a child. A miraculous ability to tell fate to kiss his ass while his dad, being Larry, probably mooned fate for good measure. 

But there comes a time in any struggle when the fight is no longer the focus. Every fight ends, one way or another, and yesterday morning, Mason's fight did as well. The Tweet yesterday didn't sink in at first. It didn't seem possible. But as the day wore on, I felt weighed down by the news. I sat down and tried to write a conventional little condolence note but, as anyone knows who reads my stuff, conventional and little just really aren't my style. I couldn't put down trite phrases of comfort--not for this child. Not for this family. 

Not for Larry. 

My gift with words had failed me. 

But then tonight I felt compelled to write this because it seemed incomprehensible to me that a kid like Mason, with a family like his and a dad like Larry, should have his story lost because there's something so very important and amazing inside it. This boy, this child who was called the Happy Warrior, fought against one of the rarest medical conditions imaginable for three quarters of his life. And yet somehow, he and his family found a path to laughter instead of tears. In a time where the family unit is being constantly eroded by technology and splintered by irresponsibility, this family grew closer and stronger--not because of the tragedy in their midst, but because of their refusal to allow it to beat them. They quietly went about the business of living, cherishing each day, and never bowing to the weight of the burden they carried.

I don't mean they ignored it. I mean they defied it.

I can't write that condolence note to Larry and his lovely wife because they deserve better than that. They deserve to be honored for the triumph they had over some amalgamation of initials that affected their son. They deserve to know that #MasonStrong wasn't just a hashtag, but a blueprint for life that all of us--all of us who are parents and grandparents--should learn from and apply to the children in our lives.

The Byrom family wasn't defeated and neither was Mason. 

In the end, though, tonight the result is still the same. The Byrom family and their circle of friends in Missouri are mourning the loss of a brave, beautiful, brilliant boy, while those of us who Mason touched even peripherally try to figure out the best way to let them know that we, too, share their pain and grief. We look at our own kids a little more generously, admitting to ourselves that all those annoying tip-taps on their phones and godawful video game music may not be quite as irritating as we've claimed the past few years.

That moment of generosity is Mason's gift to us all. And Larry's, too.

And when Larry's ready, he'll be right back online, right back into full smartass gear, right back into making silly comments about Coach Fulmer just to get a rise out of me and he'll laugh when I get pissed off--because that's who Larry Byrom is inherently. He's not just strong.

He's Mason strong. 

You can help the Byrom family out now by donating to their Happy Warrior GoFundMe campaign, or take a look at this report where you can learn more about Mason's story.