Christie and Eric

In the past few weeks, anticipating a visit from my “long-lost” daughter, her husband and our two grandchildren, my mind kept drifting to a painful place. At some point in our reconnection as a family, Christie may want to know more about the brother she had but never knew and will never know. Little Eric died at two years old, long before I knew of Christie’s existence. The fact is, we’ve become a real family since finding each other. To Maggie, Ginger and me, it’s almost as if we’ve always known Christie and her family. There is no feeling of “half” this or that, we’re now just one bigger family.  Even Maggie instantly welcomed Christie as her daughter and two new grandchildren as fully her own (perhaps after a moment’s math to determine this had happened before the two of us had met).  The joy we feel at having our new family members is impossible to convey, although I have written about it here and here, which I hope you’ll take time to read.

About twenty years after Eric’s death my perception of how the loss of a child affects family members expanded considerably. (More about that in the epilogue below.) While not presuming how Christie feels about this, one of my new insights was that a family who loses an unborn child can experience grief as intense and lasting as those who got to know the little one.  It is this lesson that awakens in me a sensibility to Christie’s potential feeling for a sibling she never met (and knows little about because any time she asks about Eric, we tear up).  Maggie, Ginger and I got so much from knowing Eric for two years; Christie got none of that.

And this is part of why I get so choked up working to put together the story of Eric, my son, for the dear and wonderful sister who never knew him, and the nieces he never met.  In the past six months, in anticipation of her and her family’s visit, I’ve done the easy stuff. I’ve scanned all our photos of Eric, digitized the videos we have of him and his memorial service into modern formats and compiled everything into a series of computer folders. I’m now trying to cull it all down into the most significant bits, to somehow convey the story without it taking days to get through. As regular readers of this newsletter are aware, being concise is not a characteristic for which I am known.

When the planned January 2021 trip was postponed due to Covid concerns, a part of me was relieved – I had more days to procrastinate on this project!  I know I can’t just point Christie to the folders and say, “have at it.” There must be some way for me to bring her along a path, explain to her what I think she’ll want to know and in what order. It is at times like this when I envy real writers at places like The New Yorker magazine, who always manage to put complex topics into beautiful prose with skill, finesse and beauty. And I bet they have good editors, too.

I feel the first step is to acknowledge the potential anger and feeling of being horribly cheated Christie may very well feel. I understand it.  I am so sorry.  There is nothing I can say to help her deal with this.  It just is what it is. While I could murmur positive aphorisms, frankly I don’t believe them. Eric would have been thirty years old this year, and I still think about him every day.  Nothing fixes something this ridiculously awful.

There are things Christie should know about her brother and while I’ll not go into all of them here, I want to hit a few of the high points.  First, his arrival was a wonderful surprise, at least for me.  While the decision to have our first child, Virginia, had been consciously thought about and extensively planned in advance, to me it seemed having Eric came up more suddenly.  I’d recently left my job in Los Angeles. It had been an exceptionally demanding time for AT&T and my role had put me under a great deal of stress. This behemoth corporation was trying to transition from an old way of doing business which it knew a lot about and was good at, to a new way in which it knew very little.  I was part of the “new wave” and naïve enough to not fully understand the duplicitous nature of some senior managers who sabotaged efforts to upset the status quo. My success ultimately cost me my job.  Fortunately for me, IBM came along with a brand new idea and a need for someone with my skills in Los Angeles.  I was only six months into this new job when Maggie announced she was pregnant. To me, it felt like only a few weeks later, Eric was born, on September 28, 1990, just two days ahead of my 40th birthday.  What a neat present! It was so cool and wonderful to welcome a new little guy to our family.  We all loved him instantly.  But it wasn’t more than a week before we learned something wasn’t right.  Maggie called me from work.  She’d taken Eric in for his one week appointment, and her pediatrician insisted she take him to Huntington Hospital’s pediatric department and have him looked at immediately.  She was there, and could I come over, right away?

By the time I arrived, Dr. Ricardo Flores had made an initial exam of Eric and was concerned.  He wanted to admit Eric into the pediatric ICU (Intensive Care Unit) immediately.  He’d determined Eric’s heart was not functioning properly and they needed to get him stabilized and conduct more tests. By the next day, Dr. Edgardo Arcinue and a top pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Vincent, would be involved.  Little did we know that ICU would be Eric’s home (when he wasn’t out having heart surgery), for the next 13 months.

Let me summarize what could be thousands of pages into just a few.  Eric would go from spending days, even weeks, in a near coma, extremely sick, his life hanging by a thread.  Then he would transition to long periods of “getting better,” weeks when all the news was upbeat and he eagerly and joyfully interacted with all of us, parents, nurses and staff.  We’d dress him up and he’d tour the hospital and grounds.  During one of these periods, he had a surgery to repair his heart defects.  And then one day it happened, he no longer needed the super high-level attention of the ICU and he was released to go home with us – with full-time, 24-hour nursing support, of course, as he was still on oxygen.  Just over a year in the ICU and he was alive and coming home!

At home, Eric thrived! No, seriously, thrived in an almost super human way.  Chronologically, when he left the hospital, he was 14 months old, but with his stunted physical development he appeared much younger.  Now, at home, Eric grew like a weed.  He went on wagon rides around the neighborhood and through trails in the mountains, pulled along by our Rottweiler Heidi.  We took him to a week-long outing in a cabin in Big Bear, California and he had a ball.  His legs weren’t developing as fast as some of the other bones in his body and so for several months, he wore a brace on his legs.  The doctor who fitted them at first indicated Eric may have to wear them for life, and perhaps when fully grown, need the assistance of a wheelchair to get around.  But then, after just three months, the doctor couldn’t believe what had happened, and began making plans to remove his braces.  The X-rays said his legs were coming right back into shape and in a few weeks, the braces could be removed.  He saw no reason Eric wouldn’t eventually walk, run and kick a football just like a normal kid.

At a checkup, when he was at 20 months, our doctors recommended an elective heart surgery for Eric.  It wasn’t a requirement, he would be fine for the short term, but if we didn’t do it now, he’d likely need the surgery in his mid-teens.  However, his recovery had been so solid, he was so advanced and strong, the doctors felt he would tolerate the procedure easily and, given that IBM wanted me to move to New York, perhaps it would be better to have the surgery done in Los Angeles by doctors who were familiar with his case. We decided to go ahead and have the surgery done in LA.

In retrospect, this was a big mistake. Not by us, but by one of Eric’s doctors.  He was a cardiologist who shared a practice with Eric’s main cardiologist, not one who knew his case intimately. He was on the fringes of Eric’s host of caregivers from the beginning.  This physician was full of himself. Neither Maggie nor I were ever comfortable with him in charge.  We always tried to arrange to have another doctor we knew and trusted supervising Eric’s care and not this man.  Sometimes it couldn’t be avoided, but we were always on pins and needles until he was no longer the one in charge. We also made it a habit of rigidly making sure he knew what he could and couldn’t do, and that he was not allowed to make any changes.  Early on, under his own volition, he’d changed one of Eric’s medications and it had been a disaster.

Eric came through this final surgery with flying colors.  The surgeon, visiting with us after the surgery, was so thrilled to operate on a “full-functioning,” strong little boy and not the high-risk baby she’d operated on a year earlier.  They’d fixed what had needed fixing and he was doing great. We waited at the hospital until early evening. I left first, Maggie a bit later. She finally came home to a late dinner I’d prepared. She wouldn’t leave Eric’s side until he was resting peacefully and all was well.  The above mentioned least favorite doctor was in charge of the surgical recovery area, but we felt it low risk as he had written and verbal instructions by Eric’s primary doctors to do nothing.  He was to allow Eric to sleep through the night, and in the morning, they would assess his progress and determine next steps and when he should be extubated.  However, this doctor felt he knew better: around 11 pm that night, he made the call to remove Eric from the ventilator, depriving him of the machine that was keeping him breathing, as his recently traumatized heart recovered from surgery. Eric quickly failed.  Attempts to re-intubate were unsuccessful. His heart stopped and he could not be resuscitated.  He was pronounced dead a few minutes after we arrived back at the hospital.  When I learned this doctor had ordered Eric to be extubated against the written orders in the chart, I physically sprang for him and had to be restrained by the medical staff.  I knew he’d effectively killed my son through his arrogance. Driving home from the hospital, all I could think about was how to tell Ginger.  She’d always been a big part of his life.  She visited him in the ICU, brought him toys and cried when he was not doing well.  Once he came home, the two of them were inseparable.  She played with him all the time.

The flood of activity over the next few days, the arrival of family and friends and even Eric’s long months in the hospital are now a blur. Our memories of Eric revolve mostly around his being at home, seeing him as such a happy, bubbly, smiling little kid who charmed everyone he saw.  It was like he had magic powers. He once charmed a stoic and hardened group of firefighters, completely wrapping them around his tiny fingers.  He and I would sit at the kitchen counter, reading the Sunday paper. He loved the funnies, however, he was unclear what part of the colorful funnies were the top and which the bottom.

Our morose and grief-stricken family made the move to New York.  Suddenly, being in Pasadena was just too painful.  In fact, to this day, it’s hard for us to drive through that area of Los Angeles when visiting friends there. As a family, we were shell-shocked for several years. Ginger had lost her only brother and had a huge part of her life stolen from her.  We eventually began to stabilize, individually finding our footing as we emerged from a long, dark tunnel of anguish.  But it became more and more difficult for Ginger.  All the normal resentments she’d felt about a new child in the family, a sick child who’d harvested 100% of our attention, had come down on her after his passing like a heavy, impenetrable cloud. We finally secured help for her in a marvelous therapist, who brought Ginger slowly and beautifully back, not only back from talk of suicide, but back to us. Each slowly emerging glimmer of light, like a tiny miracle, allowed us to begin to heal.  Joy and laughter found a place alongside the loss and loneliness we all felt.

In September of 1994, Maggie gave Ginger and me a beautiful card with the photo of a bird painting by artist Marvin Oliver, with a poem she had written inscribed on the inside:

On this Day

On this day, four years ago,
Our family grew from three to four.
For one, a brother, for two, a son —
For each, a someone to adore.

At first, he looked like Ginger,
Red-tinted hair and ten small toes.
His “baby blues” were much the same
And, like her, he had Steve’s nose.

Unlike Ginger, though, his heart
Was born not trouble-free.
It changed us, each in different ways
But we’re still a family.

When Eric died a star went out
The sky is dimmer now
Though many stars still twinkle bright
It’s not the same, somehow.

Precious is each child born
Winning mothers with their charms
And blessing fathers warm and kind
Who comfort Children in their arms.

It was signed: “For Steve and Ginger, Sept. 28, 1994, Margaret L. Larsen”

In September of 1997, Ginger wrote a letter to Eric for an English assignment and I’ve reproduced it below:

What awaits Christie when she and her family come to Phoenix is a photo album of Eric, at all stages of his life. It will be easy to complete.  I’m working to edit a bunch of his video appearances into a “best of” collection, but through a combination of the tools being more difficult than I’d hoped and my own ineptitude, it’s slow going. I’ve left his Memorial Service video as is.  It was nearly impossible for me to bring myself to attend this event when it occurred and I’ve have never been able to watch the video made that day.  Several of Eric’s doctors and nurses spoke and I understand they were most eloquent, revealing sides of Eric few knew.  Others speak on the video as well and I believe both Maggie and I say something, too.  I just don’t recall what. Christie might want to see that.

While this is my “short” version of the story of Christie’s brother, Eric McKinley Larsen and we all miss him terribly, it will be okay with us if she wants to know more.  We may cry when talking about him, but it’s okay, and good for her to ask questions.  He is as real to our family as any of the rest of us, and we want Christie, her husband and our grandchildren to know all about Eric and be able to think and talk about him, too.

Epilogue: Although perhaps not, this all might be easier if I’d not met Joanne Cacciatore, Ph.D., in a Starbucks on Thunderbird and 7th street almost ten years ago. That chance meeting led to my involvement in the MISS Foundation. Through Joanne and her wonderful Foundation, I came to better understand the grief and pain experienced by all parents who lose children. At a gathering for parents who’d lost children and subsequently committed themselves to helping others cope with that loss, a major bubble burst for me, resulting in a new understanding of grief. Since Eric had died, somewhere in my head, an odd and mistaken concept of grief hierarchy had evolved. For some reason, I thought that if you lost a child who was an adult versus a teenager versus 8 years old or an infant, your grief would be different.  Losing a two-year-old versus having a miscarriage would, of course, result in far more grief.  I could not have been more wrong. As I got to know Joanne and her cadre of volunteers who’d lost children and saw how they now dedicated a part of their lives to being with and comforting others experiencing this tragedy, I learned something. The horror and sadness of a woman who loses a child through miscarriage has every bit the panic and terror of losing an older child. Listening to women talk about how they’d managed to put their lives together after having buried an unborn child, made me so grateful for the fact that we’d had Eric for nearly two years. I got to see his smile, watch him learn to crawl and stand, feed him, hear him scream and coo, hold him while he slept. Maggie and I were so much more fortunate than women whom fate had cheated out of even this short time.  We lost Eric just before his second birthday, but we got so much. Christie got none of that, which breaks my heart all over again.

TV Top Pick #10: Mars

I’m finally watching a 2016-2018 two-season television series called Mars. It’s on Netflix (and Amazon) and consists of seven 60-minute episodes in the first season and six in the second. I find it captivating. The premise is alluring but it’s the composition that makes it so stunning.  The show combines documentary-style science reporting taking place currently, with extrapolations of present-day technology to forecast a very believable science fiction story taking place in 2033 and beyond. We see the first successful manned mission from Earth to Mars occur and watch the crew confront a host of obstacles during the creation of our first outpost there. Alternating between interviews with Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other leading scientists who explain the hurdles we’ll need to overcome to fictionalized characters actually meeting those challenges as the first mission to Mars while keeping people alive is riveting.

One of the things I most appreciate and believe they get correct is the balance between anticipated and unanticipated problems.  Even after years spent preparing for every possible scenario, almost half of what they encounter in the first few episodes are situations they’d not even considered might happen, had never imagined or just didn’t prepare for, making the science fiction portions feel brilliantly true to life.  As my friend Frank who recommended this show reminded me in the Mike Tyson line, “Everybody has a plan …. Until they get punched in the face.”

While I don’t expect to live long enough to see man land on Mars, the show makes clear how much of the work and problem solving needed to make this event possible is actually occurring right now, in my lifetime.  Earlier this week, on December 9th, 2020, SpaceX launched a prototype of a rocket that is integral to Musk’s plans to take people to Mars.  This mix of documentary footage with the Sci-Fi drama could have gone horribly wrong and looked stupid.  Instead, it is the opposite.  It really works!

I would be remiss if I did not mention the 2015 movie, The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. It is available on Amazon Prime and a very good movie, too.  I liked both The Martian and Mars, but with Mars being directed by Ron Howard and produced by National Geographic, I find it displays an uncommon perspective with a unique and creative approach.  In the end, it gets my vote for being ambitious, for trusting in the intelligence of its audience, and for being so bold.

 

TV Top Pick #9: Motorcycle Touring Movies

There are motorcycling adventure movies floating around that deserve attention from my riding readers. “Long Way Up” recounts the latest adventures of actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on AppleTV. Then there’s Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio, an independently produced and directed film by two Las Vegas guys with minimal riding experience who set off to ride to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and making a film in the process. Lastly, Slow Ride Home is about 8 friends, members of the “Soldiers of Destiny” scooter club who make an epic cross-country ride from Florida to Seattle, WA on 125 cc motor scooters when hilarity breaks out.

All are worth watching if you ride motorcycles, think about riding motorcycles, or enjoy travel movies. The two lessor efforts (Slow Ride Home and Ride Report) are the most fun and easy for most of us to relate to. The third McGregor/Boorman effort comes on the heels of their other popular motorcycle televised riding trips, Long Way Round (2004) and Long Way Down.  Those first two movies had a bit of adventure here and there, but I found this third series ridiculously absurd – at least the first 3 episodes.  The way riders define “Adventure travel” varies widely and what actually constitutes “adventure” is a near-constant argument among travelers.  I find virtually no “adventure” in two guys riding bikes with an entourage consisting of a movie producer, a director, a couple of cameramen, at least two support trucks (and drivers) with massive amounts of tools and gear.  Add to those assets a no-limit credit card to assist with the extradition from any uncomfortable or difficult circumstance and you have something that feels to me like every bit of actual adventure has been squeezed out of the experience.  But we’ll come back to this.

Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio:  In this Amazon Prime hour and a quarter movie, two guys in their twenties, Matt Kendall and Tierman Turner capture a genuine motorcycling adventure.  It appeals to me the most of the three as it is so reminiscent of early road trips I took with my first motorcycle. When I got my first bike, I was totally overwhelmed with the freedom of hopping on my bike, throwing a few gallons of gas in the tank, and heading off into the horizon.  I couldn’t stop myself.  I repeatedly made up places to go and my trips were absurd, foolhardy and mostly crazy.  On top of it all, I was totally unprepared, learning through a variety of errors, how to plan a bit better for my next trip.  When I think back to my utterly naïve younger self, taking off on my bike without proper tools or gear, possibly without even checking fluids or tire pressure, I cringe. Kendall and Turner put more thought and planning into their trips than my early escapades, but they were ignorant of much and left many steps totally unanticipated, figuring “we’ll work that out when we get there.” And this is precisely why I identified with them so completely and loved this movie. It’s a super low budget film, but they manage to capture the authentic joy and utter relief when things go right along with the frustrating disappointment and despair when bikes break or they get totally lost and realize they’ll have to back track an entire day’s riding.  It is the total opposite of the big money approach of the Long Way Up saga where one tires of the continually artificial risks and feigned obstacles McGregor and Boorman encounter.  The final plug I’ll make for 10,000 Miles to Rio is the degree to which the locals extend themselves to help these two often hapless riders in distress. When we’re being bombarded daily with the supposedly vile and villainous dangers awaiting us around every unknown foreign corner, it is so refreshing to see a true reflection of what I’ve always found – most human beings just want to help out a stranger in need.

Slow Ride Home is just good, silly fun.  The idea for this movie had to have come from a night with too much alcohol and someone saying, “Ya know what we oughta’ do?”  The bikes making this trip top out at, maybe, 55-65 mph (down hill, wind at the back), although trying to average more than 45 mph over any sustained amount of time will result in parts failing frequently. Scooters are built for 20-30 minute convenience trips at relatively low speeds, in cities, with lots of stops and at most, a few trips a day.  Deciding to ride them 3,700 miles, 11 days straight cross-country, creates its own spirit of adventure.  Unsatisfied with allowing their adventure to be just staying on course and making the trip in once piece, this group of geniuses filled the route with a set of obscure and ridiculous obstacles that, if a particular rider fails to manage the obstacle he pulled from the hat for that day, faces a frat-boy list of personal humiliations from which they must chose as punishment, much to the merriment of their fellow riders.  The one I liked best was having the hair on one’s head shaved into what was affectionately known as the “cul-de-sac” cut. Watch the movie to see how good this particular style can make someone look.  Deliberately or not, they manage to poke a finger in the eye of every serious documentary filmmaker on the planet, but do it in such a way, that they’ll all be on the floor laughing.  I know I was.

My opinion on the McGregor / Boorman series I’ve left to last, because frankly, who cares what I think?  But if you’ve made it this far, you’re going to get a dose of why I find these movies tiresome, unrealistic, not really about motorcycle riding and frankly ridiculous. First, I have nothing against Ewan McGregor.  He’s a fine and highly productive actor.  I do have an issue with the idea of him being a serious motorcyclist and his general lack of commitment to acquiring the skills necessary for some of the trips he portends to complete.  It is like he’s playing another movie role.  In the 1997 movie, “Nightwatch,” he played a night watchman and law student. It was fine. He was an actor.  Nice job. However, no one was trying to seriously pretend he was a law student or night watchman. However, these motorcycle adventures are positioned as documentaries and yet he’s just playing the part of a motorcyclist, and that is what so irritates me.  Charley Boorman is a different story.  I get no bad vibes from him.  His book, although ghost written by someone else, was a superb read on his taking on the Dakar Rally. It was authentic and very good.  Boorman’s a good rider – not fancy, but he has solid skills. I admire what he’ll try to do on a bike. Now, this may be because we’ve both experienced the Dakar Rally, which is far from a walk in the park.  I chronicled that 2011 experience for The Overland Journal and you can read about it here.  Eventually I will finish the “Long Way Up” series.  I have no doubt the scenery will be spectacular and some of it will be familiar from the riding I’ve done in that part of South America. The camera work will be stunning with new drone technology, but it will take all the constraint I can muster to keep my snarky comments on the other stuff to myself.

While everyone knows Easy Rider (1969), there are other overlooked great motorcycle movies to consider if you’ve not seen them.

I’m leaving out: Easy Rider, The Wild One, The Great Escape, Being Evel, Riding Solo To The Top Of The World (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road and several others.

Chasing Dakar cover
My story in the Overland Journal Magazine about chasing the Dakar Rally through South America

TV Top Pick #8: The Glorias

When I was growing up, the name Gloria Steinem was mostly used derisively by many in my family, if she was mentioned at all. This 2020 documentary movie, shows how childhood experiences influenced this iconic writer, activist, and organizer for women’s rights.  Irrespective of how you feel about her politics and causes, I highly recommend this remarkable directorial achievement. Four actresses play Steinem at various ages and she appears as herself, too.  It’s the best biographical documentary I’ve ever seen.

Before telling you more about this film on Amazon Prime, let me share what it was like for me to meet this movie’s director, Julie Taymor.  Unlike my friend, Rich Marin, who knows so many film celebrities (both those in front and behind the camera), my brushing shoulders with individuals in this profession has been rare, although it’s happened a few times and has always been memorable.

In 2000 I was invited to speak at the TED (Technology, Education, and Design) annual conference in Monterey, CA.  My company was commercializing collaborative filtering software and making waves in the Artificial Intelligence technology circles because of our software’s uncanny ability to predict people’s preferences.  I was invited to TED to explain how it all worked.  Then as now, TED was a big deal and  attracted an exclusive crowd. I will never forget mounting the stage with its amphitheater seating and seeing that my eyes were exactly parallel with people sitting in the sixth row, and I was looking directly into the faces of Jeff Bezos, Walt Mossberg, Mitch Kapor, Bill Gates, and other notables, as they waited to hear what I had to say. I felt more stage fright in front of this assemblage than any other audience I had ever addressed.

Each session of TED was similarly structured.  The TED staff arranged for all speakers in each segment (typically 4-5) to sit together in the front row making it easy for us to take the stage without walking over other people.  We sat in order of how we’d be called to the stage.  I was the second speaker and Taymor, who would speak third, was on my left.  In position well in advance of the session’s start, we had a few minutes to introduce ourselves to each other.  When Julie Taymor told me her name, I had no idea who she was, but we had a nice conversation about the weather, our previous day’s flight, etc.  After I’d given my presentation, I returned to the same row, but at the opposite end, and listened to her talk.  Taymor focused on the challenges she faced in converting one of the best-loved films ever, Disney’s The Lion King, to the stage.  Of course, I was mesmerized by her talk – how she was so intimidated by the task of competing on stage with an animated film, where they “could do anything – if it could be drawn, it could happen.”  Also, how she hit upon the one thing the movie couldn’t do, which was to show things in three dimensions, giving her the idea to move the action off the stage, over and through the audience, creating a live theatre experience that thrilled millions and played on Broadway for 21 years. It went on to become one of the most popular musicals in the world, with 100 million people seeing twenty-five global productions of her play. I also recall being exceptionally happy and relieved that it was not I following her onto the stage.

Unsurprisingly, the movie of Gloria Steinem’s life is brilliantly done and I loved it.  It was easy for me to see Taymor’s fingerprints all over it. Not only does it tell a wonderful and inspiring story of a woman who dedicated her life to the causes she believed in, but it does so using four different actresses playing her at different times in her life. Other biographical documentary filmmakers have used multiple actors to play a single individual, but never have I seen a director bring all those actors into the same scene and have them interact with one another. I found it to be a stunning effect, ingenious and creative and so like Taymor.  If your politics are more conservative, you may not be as intrigued by watching her campaign for women’s rights, the ERA, transgender rights, and other causes as some will be. But there’s a good chance you will like it anyway. It is a fascinating study that weaves memories of her youth, her parents, and early life experiences into a believable and memorable human being. As I commented in another film recommendation, be sure to watch this if, by any chance, you have daughters, or if you had a sister… or a mother.  Then you should be sure to watch it.