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In Memoriam

Rusty Magee

A Celebration of our Beloved Friend

Riverside Memorial Chapel
New York City

Sunday, March 2, 2003

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Carole Helms

Childhood Friend Lost and Found
from Ann Arbor, MIchigan

A long time ago, in a place far away, but very near to my heart, Rusty and I, and a gangly group of kids, shared a magical childhood. My name is Carole.

He is not overly tall and still soft in that way that eleven-year-old boys soon grow out of. Unruly red hair tops a perky face full of freckles. His plaid shirt is buttoned all the way to the top and he wears baggy wide-wale corduroys that are held up by a swirly cowboy belt. We walk together down South U to Wikel’s drug store on a crisp October afternoon in Ann Arbor, and Rusty never stands still. He bobs and weaves around me, full of conversation punctuated by the imagined Groucho Marx cigar that he holds while raising his eye brows to emphasize his latest thought. By all definitions, this is a kind of first “date.” Although we have been friends since we were eight, his frequent blushes tell me, even at eleven, that Rusty has a serious crush. He pays the 50 cents for two cokes and we twirl round and round on the red vinyl counter-stools while sipping through straws from glasses that say “Coca Cola” proudly across the top. Then he lays out his most prized possessions on the counter to show me: his latest Detroit Tiger Baseball cards. He is a chatty boy full of jokes, and laughter and songs. He is popular, and loved by our small group at Angell Elementary. Although I did not move from Ann Arbor for another five years, this is who Rusty Magee remained for me ­ for the next 35 years.

Fast forward to New York City, one year ago, when I re-met a tall, handsome Rusty with a chiseled face but the same winning smile. I soon began my Tuesdays with Maury that were actually Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday with Rusty depending on this dying man’s very busy schedule. For the next year, once a week, I spent several hours with Rusty. Early on we would meet for coffee or lunch to catch up on the 30 years of eachother’s lives that we had missed. Later, we met at his apartment. We listened to music, reminisced about grade school and junior high, looked at old photos, talked about life and sometimes on painful days, just held hands and watched the light move across his bedroom curtain.

Every day I ask myself why I was given this odd intermezzo in life ­this strange one year odyssey with Rusty that became my search for his essence. I know that the full magnitude of Rusty’s impact on my life has yet to be completely revealed. This seems part of his mystery. But right now, I know with great certainty that during this strange and beautiful year I learned a few gentle but important lessons from Rusty. I want to believe that Rusty learned from me too.

Somewhere in-between my constant mental musings and judgments about Rusty’s adult life, I learned about making choices. Choices about how to live, and how to die. Rusty’s choice, always, no matter how dramatic the medical moment, or serious the consequences, was to choose optimism. I learned that no matter what we do in life, we make a choice, and that in the long run, finding the one good thing in every story or friend, every piece of bad news ­ living life from a glass half-full, is a constant challenge, and a better choice for living, as well as dying.

I learned about friendship. If a man dies with hundreds of friends, no matter what else his professional talents and accomplishments, hasn’t he created the ultimate success? Rusty was the glue that held dozens of grade school, boarding school, prep-school, college, young adult, young married and new friendships, together. How did he do this? What did he exude that turned into this glue? How did he leave so many of us feeling that we were so special, such a unique friend to him? I believe that it was a full and open heart -- An open-ness, an eagerness to share his life ­ the good parts and the bad. He was a spirit who was always willing to say “I need you.” Rusty had a willingness to regularly provide unconditional love at every opportunity, even when he didn’t want to.

I learned about compassion from Rusty. He forced me-- actually corrected me on several occasions -- to understand that every man who loses his job, every woman who bears worries for her child, every lonely girl, struggling artist, parent, wife, husband, child, every person fighting illness, death, loss, even cancer—each one of us bears burdens at times in our life, that are of equal pain at the time in which we endure them. He did not believe that his fears, his pain, his fight with illness, was more worrisome, more painful, more important than my tiresome mid-life crisis. Rusty knew that when we are in emotional pain ­ it is the same and we all require compassion from one another in order to survive it.

Finally, for now, Rusty taught me about the importance of staying young. In all our serious moments this past year….through new medical contraptions, humiliating daily procedures, continual losses of mini-battles, even through his telephone that never stopped ringing —Rusty never once stopped being that eleven year old red-headed boy who knew how to tell a joke, how to laugh, how to share what was in his heart ­ tears and joy -- and how to sing. For me, our very short one-year reunion, provided a lifetime of learning to live up to. But that of course, would be how Rusty Magee would want to leave it ­ with a kiss and a gift to us all of simply having been here.

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