Stories: Who We Have Lost

There's No Crying in Baseball

Story aboutMichael Mantell (1 of 2)

It’s fitting that the story of my life with Mike began in college, in an accounting class at Pace University in 1981. By the following year we were married, and then had our first child, Brittany, in 1983. Throughout our 38 years of marriage, our life was dominated by the themes of family loyalty and dedication to education. Our beginning predicted everything that followed.

Mike worked as a CFO of the NY Transit Authority for 30 years, such an appropriate place for him as his mind was always in motion, and he insisted that our daughters follow his lead. He was an engaged parent, always encouraging his 5 daughters to work harder and never settle for mediocrity. He helped them with homework every night after returning from work, quizzed them before exams. If one of the kids got a 98 on a test, he’d ask “What happened to the other 2 points?” Our daughter Alexandria says that her sense of determination was instilled through his persistent drive.

However, Mike didn’t just push our children toward success – he was deeply proud of them, because the importance of education was part of his DNA, having grown up in a family of 6, raised by a single mother, in a household where money was tight. So, when it came time for our oldest child to apply for colleges, Mike threw himself into the task with his typical fervor. He packed up the station wagon and drove Brittany all over the East Coast, to visit colleges.

He did research, studied course catalogs, and learned the intricacies of the financial aid process. Soon, word got out to our friends about his talents as a self-taught college counselor, and everyone began asking him for advice. “What do you think about this school,” they’d say, “should we apply to that one?” He became an expert on the topic, collecting books about the admissions process and interpreting statistics for the neighborhood. He was so good at it that it could have been a second career, and when all our daughters were done with their educations, he helped people at work fill out their children’s FAFSA forms.

And as if all this generosity were not enough, Mike was also a lifelong athlete who coached girls softball and basketball and organized swim meets in our hometown at the River Edge Swim Club. When our daughter Mary Michael was attending Fordham, she was on the rugby team and her dad loved attending every game to cheer on the team. If there was no one able to take the team to the meet, Mike and another parent drove everyone out to make the games on Long Island.

There's No Crying in Baseball

Story aboutMichael Mantell (2 of 2)

Our lives were full – Brittany, Katarina, Alexandria, Mary Michael, and Jennie – schools, homework, family vacations to Niagara Falls and Florida. Together, we managed to do it all. And if the girls complained or whined, Mike would repeat his favorite line from “A League of Their Own”: “Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball!”

But our lives changed 18 years ago, when Mike was diagnosed with leukemia, proving the strength of his positive nature. He never turned negative, despite years of chemo and all that the disease entails. He was fortunate to be able to receive a bone marrow transplant from a relative, but he recognized how many are not as lucky as he was to receive the procedure, particularly members of black and Hispanic communities. So, he designed a database for the Transit Authority to organize for bone marrow matches. And if someone was also diagnosed, he became their advocate and mentor.

We were and are beach people; it’s part of our souls. We have a house at the shore in Spring Lake, NJ and I went there sometimes after he died, to listen to the ocean and try to somehow find peace. I will never forget our treasured times there with our kids on summer days, playing in the surf. The spirit of those playful summers persisted and one Christmas years ago Mike gave each of our girls Buzz Lightyear figures though they were long past childhood. The girls were mystified at first about the meaning behind the gift but they came to see how the gesture of Buzz pointing upward was symbolic of their dad wanting them to reach for the stars, to grab the unattainable and live meaningful lives. Because of his love and passion and unfailingly deep confidence in his daughters, they will pass that part of him on to their own children.

Mike was there for everyone throughout his whole life, but when he was sick and dying of Covid in Hackensack Hospital, he was alone. After he passed, they let me in to have an hour with him. What I was struck by as I walked through the hospital was the eerie silence. All the doors were closed. It was as if an apocalypse had occurred, the hallways as deserted as the streets outside.

Prior to when I’d arrived there, twenty minutes before Mike died, he facetimed with Mary Michael and was able to see his new granddaughter Penelope. I know that connection, however brief and tragic, exemplifies who Mike Mantell was. And I know that because of him — though she will not remember that moment — Penelope will reach for the stars too.

Christmas Flowers

Story aboutBecky Breece-Straley

This is our first Christmas without Aunt Becky. She died on January 22, 2021 due to complications from COVID. Becky loved Christmas. If I close my eyes, I can still see her sitting at the piano playing the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as we nieces and nephews crowded around her and sang along. That song has to be the world’s longest Christmas carol, but every year she obliged us even though Christmastime was her busy season.

Aunt Becky owned a flower shop in a tiny 4-stop-light-town, but she was a modern day florist, who could accommodate any request. She once even created an intricate flower hair accessory for a customer, just like the one Cher had worn on The Sonny & Cher Show. She was truly an artist who created dazzling fresh flower arrangements that everyone loved.

Each December, her flower shop held buckets of fragrant pine boughs, long stemmed-red roses, and peppermint striped carnations to name a few. The demand was so great that she could barely keep up with the orders. So when I became a teenager, she enlisted me to be her assistant.

I was helping Aunt Becky one snowy afternoon when the greenhouse delivery truck made its stop. As the driver opened the giant door at the back of the truck, we were enveloped by the scent of thousands of flowers hitting our noses all at once. The mingling fragrances of gardenias, roses, lilies, carnations and pine branches created a heavenly scent. I was so happy when my aunt let me climb into the cool, damp truck with her while she made her selections. I had never seen so many flowers in all my life. There were hundreds and hundreds of metal buckets of colorful fresh flowers packed tightly from ceiling to floor. I will never forget it.

People still talk about my Aunt Becky’s festive Christmas arrangements, and I think that’s because she worked meticulously on each one, making it just right. To me, it was always a bit sad that those beautiful fresh flowers would only last a couple of weeks. But all these years later, I know that the feeling lives on long after the flowers fade. This year I will be sure to buy fresh flowers for my dinner table, and as I breathe in the scent of Christmas, I will think of her.

Promises Kept

Story aboutJody Settle (1 of 2)

I met Jody on Sunday, June 28, 1987. An early morning thunderstorm had chased away a prolonged period of heat and humidity and left behind an azure blue sky. It was at the Dance on the Pier that followed the annual Heritage of Pride March in New York City. While waiting to meet up with friends, I saw a tall, smiling, young man walking toward me. “Hi, I’m Jody,” he said. “I’m Ed,” I replied. That was the start of a relationship that persevered for thirty-three years.

Over the next few weeks and months, we got to know about each other. We laughed because, in so many ways, we were opposites. Jody was born in Florida and raised in Texas. I came from Massachusetts. Jody was always spur of the moment while I always wanted things to be planned out in advance. I valued promptness while Jody figured we would get there when we got there. There were so many ways we were different. But it was those differences that glued us together.

During those first two months together, I noticed that when we were walking together, Jody would frequently veer off toward the left. He also started to complain of blind spots in his field of vision. He underwent many tests and several months later he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Within two years, the MS had progressed to the point where he needed to use a wheelchair full-time. Throughout the rest of his life, he promised that he would walk again. He exercised daily to keep his legs strong. His determination is one of the things I miss about Jody. When he set his mind to something, he accomplished it.

Another aspect of Jody that was so endearing was his love of animals. Around the time he was diagnosed with MS, one of his neighbors had beaten a young cat, broken its pelvis and dumped it in the hallway of Jody’s apartment building. Jody found the cat, which he named Quito, and nursed her back to health. They were forever bonded and when she passed many years later Jody was crushed. I think they had been destined for each other at a time they both needed someone.

Promises Kept

Story aboutJody Settle (2 of 2)

Over the years, Jody and I rescued nearly fifteen other cats and two dogs. I will always remember his gentleness with them. Among his favorites was a Russian Blue that Jody named Smokey. When we first met her at the shelter, Smokey reached her front paws up around his neck and buried her head against his chest. That sealed the deal. I look back and smile at the number of times I found Jody napping with Smokey wrapped in his arms. Another funny story comes to mind. Jody used an electric scooter that gave him the freedom to get outside and live independently. When our first dog got old and arthritic, Jody would lift her onto the platform of his scooter and drive her around the neighborhood, stopping now and then to let her step off and take care of business. The dog’s name was Daisy and all the neighbors kidded Jody about his version of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

In recent years, Jody’s MS worsened and he needed help with day-to-day activities. Because his vision was not so good, he enjoyed watching television. He was an aficionado of Star Trek in all its incarnations. He used to drive me crazy because he would recite the dialogue before it happened in the program. I was never a fan of Star Trek, but I find myself missing watching those shows with him.

2020 arrived along with COVID-19. We did everything to protect ourselves. We isolated at home. I only went out to buy groceries for the week, masked and gloved and physically distanced. It turns out that was not enough. By Easter, Jody had developed a high fever. I called 911 and the EMT’s explained that his lungs and blood oxygen levels were okay. When asked if he wanted to go to the hospital, he said no, he would be fine. But within three days, his breathing became labored and his blood oxygen levels dropped to a dangerous level. He had to go to the hospital. As the EMT’s loaded him into the ambulance, he waved to me and called out that he would be home soon. There was that determination again. He would walk again. He would be home soon. As the ambulance drove off, I wished I had that same confidence.

Just before Jody passed on April 19, 2020, I was allowed to go to the hospital to see him. I was lucky. He was in a coma but I believe he was waiting for me to come to say goodbye. He passed peacefully right after I left. That was his last act of love. For thirty-three years, I thought I was the one caring for him. But, in the end, it was Jody who looked out for me. When I think of him now, I see him running around with Quito and Smokey and Daisy and our other pets who have passed. He is definitely walking again. Promises kept.

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