June 6, 2002
A few months ago, I wrote a story in these pages about my experiences as a Jewish Big Brother. As Paul Harvey says, here's "The Rest of the Story."
My Little Brother, Josh, invited me to his graduation from Northwestern Law School last month. "No, thanks," I said. "I can do better. Let's go back to Montreal." He hadn't been there in 18 years, since he was 9 years old, leaving the only home he'd ever known in a taxi, with tears running down his face. He still identifies himself as Canadian and an Expos fan. (Believe me, I tried to divorce him of the latter notion, but to no avail.) And so we set out to go home, to Montreal, over the Memorial Day weekend.
Josh came back to Los Angeles after graduation and we had lunch with Bobbi Feinberg, the wonderful woman who made our match 16 years ago. We hadn't seen her in at least 10 years. Big and Little Brothers are brought together though a thorough screening and interview process, but chance also plays its part. On another day, or if I lived a few miles farther away, perhaps we'd both have made different matches with other people. Who knows how those might have turned out?
At my request, Josh's mother sent me a three-page, single-spaced e-mail list of personal sights to see while in Montreal, including the hospital where Josh was born and the name of his pediatrician. I figured if I never saw the hospital where I was born, neither should he. For that matter, what was he going to talk about with the pediatrician? Get out the file and discuss a 20-year-old runny nose? That wasn't making the cut on our itinerary.
Our first day in town we headed out to the old neighborhood, Notre Dame de Grace, and saw his house, which had fallen into some disrepair. He remembered the banister he used to slide down, and the same floral wallpaper was in the entry hall. Presumably, the plastic green army men Josh buried in the garden before he left were still there, under a lawn overgrown with dandelions.
We walked a few yards to a pocket park where he used to play ball, with stones unevenly marking imaginary bases ... pretty much as he remembered it, except that it seemed so much smaller now. Hard to believe it was once big enough to play baseball in. The huge hill he remembered leading up to his house is now a gentle slope, a rise of perhaps 15 feet. It, too, seems to have shrunk with age.
We rang the doorbell of his neighbors, a wonderful couple named Pearl and Robert Adams who'd lived on the block for 29 years. Robert played chess with David Burt, Josh's father, every day when David was ill. Toward the end, when David was too weak to move the pieces, too weak to even speak, Robert would touch each of the pieces until David raised his eyebrows, indicating which one to move. Pearl couldn't quite get over Josh's resemblance to his father, but also had to wrestle with the idea that the 9-year-old boy she knew was now a 6-feet-tall law school graduate.
Then we drove out to the cemetery, and read the "Kaddish" at his father's gravesite.
That night we went to the Expos game. I'd contacted their front office, told them our story and asked for a tour of the stadium. "Whatever you've got," I said. "Do you think he'd like to throw out the first pitch?" Goosebumps. "Yes, I think he'd like that," I said.
This was the kind of secret I like -- the kind I can tell everyone I know except two people, without fear of getting caught. I didn't tell him until we got to the ballpark.
An hour later, as he stood on the field at Olympic Stadium, an interesting thing happened. He got on his cell phone to call his pals in Chicago and Los Angeles. I wasn't listening, but I couldn't help hearing that he told one of his friends, "My brother set it up" -- dropping the prefix "Big." After 16 years together, we are family.
He showed me how you hold a split-finger fastball, suggesting this was the pitch he'd use when the time came. I suggested he try to get the ball somewhere in the vicinity of home plate.
Josh was never the most demonstrative kid, something that used to frustrate me to no end, but this was a pretty emotional trip, and I knew it meant a lot to him. When we were about to go our separate ways at the airport, he thanked me for an "amazing" trip, something he'd never forget.
I said, "Now there's something you can do for me," and I gave him a little note with three words on it: Pay It Forward. "Go make a difference in someone else's life now."
Jewish Big Brothers is on the Web @ www.jbbla.org.
J. D. Smith, pictured above right with his Little Brother, can be found at www.lifesentence.net