Stash Mintz: Boxing with God

In his double-wide wheelchair, the old boxer patiently awaited the first dance. Not many big men survive into their nineties, but colon cancer, bladder cancer, and a slow growing kidney cancer had not taken Stash Mintz out. Beneath a white canopy, newlyweds Nate Mintz and Ainslie Fagan stepped onto the sagebrush cleared dance floor. Nate gently held Ainslie’s waist. His shoulders dwarfed her willowy frame, but it was his hands that caught my attention: Big beefy hands, like the hands of his father, Rob. Out-sized hands like his boxer grandfather, Stash.

Growing up I listened to Stash’s stories. I saw the flowing purple boxing robe. I knew about those hands. Stash told us how they shielded his face as he bobbed and weaved. Or, dropping his left shoulder and pulling it back like a spring how his left fist could explode in a jarring left hook and shatter his opponent’s nose. Stash’s hands delivered a blunt stubborn message: Don’t under-estimate this Polish Jew.

Stash had the bear-like face and physique of, say, Sonny Liston or Primo Carnera. None of those washboard abs or rippling forearms. Today, people would call him country strong. Old country strong.  Jewish strong. And he was quick and probably merciless. He won his share of bouts in college and those we didn’t hear about as kids, and later, as fathers of our own, didn’t matter. Not really. He had those hands and heart, but let’s face it, there were men of his era with freakish talent; athletes so reflexively fast they made Stash look lumbering and slow.

Gritty Jewish boxers move on if a path opens and opportunities arise. Stash married, got a job, and bought a house in Cranford, New Jersey, where Jews, if not an outright majority, mattered. Stash and Muriel (or Moo, as everyone knew her her), raised three girls: Randi, Judy, and Wendy, and Nate’s father, Rob. Of course, it didn’t register at the time, but looking back, I can see that Stash had plans for Rob from day one; he would mold him into the elite athlete that Stash was not. Rob would be quick and disciplined and dominate his opponents in a way that Stash could not. No matter what the sport: baseball, or football, or basketball, Stash was there coaching, or later, up in the top row of the bleachers, keeping the stats, tracking Rob’s progress.

Rob’s growth spurt came late; for years he was the smallest kid on every sports team we played on, but it forced him to develop his eye-hand coordination. He played smart. If he hadn’t, he would have been cut. Youth sports in Cranford, New Jersey were not an equal opportunity enterprise. And even if you made the team, you’d languish on the bench unless you could compete. Rob could always compete. He earned his playing time by reading his opponents, reacting to them on the fly, anticipating their next move, cutting down their options. Stash talked strategy to anyone who would listen. And Rob listened. And drills? Rob was always doing drills.

As we grew into our mid-teens, it seemed incongruous that Rob could palm a basketball when I, a half foot taller, could not. Those hands could spiral a football or dribble a basketball or field a sharp grounder like nobody’s business.

Of course, Rob’s habit of chippy talk and dominating stronger and bigger athletes had consequences. One evening at Gomper’s (a local basketball court where the races mixed and the best players in Union County played), Rob was absolutely scorching the opposing point guard. No, Rob wasn’t dunking over the jumping Jack from the projects in Newark. In fact, early on, Rob lost track of his man, who in a flash, finished off a fast break with a crazy windmill dunk. But that was it, from that moment on, the guy was absolutely shut down. Rob’s hands were doing their work down low, in the lane and on the perimeter. You had to watch carefully or you’d miss the subtle and not so subtle pushing going on. Rob’s hands were busy denying Scratch—that’s what his team-mates were shouting—from dribbling where he wanted to go. He was keeping Scratch off balance, pushing him out of his normal rhythm. And Scratch was getting pissed.

Scratch went up for a jump shot; problem was, he no longer had the ball. Rob had stripped the ball with a flick of his right hand. Fast break. Rob feathered the ball off the backboard. Two points. Scratch went up for a jump shot: stripped again. Fast break, same result. They were talking now. White boy this. White boy that. Scratch bulled his way into the lane; he had Rob by four inches and thirty pounds, but Rob had good position and his hands forced Scratch left.

Rob knew Scratch was settling for a jumper before Scratch knew. He timed it perfectly, rising as Scratch rose, aiming for the release point above his opponent’s right ear, and in the same moment Scratch let it fly, Rob cleanly blocked the shot.

“Foul,” Scratch yelled, grabbing the ball from the edge of the court, and walking to the foul line.

“You’re kidding me,” Rob answered, hands on his hips. “Anybody else see a foul? That was clean man. Clean. Play on.”

Scratch’ team-mates, heads down, were snickering at Scratch. The guy been hosed. Never mind that Rob had basically mugged Scratch coming down the lane, the block itself was all ball, a thing of beauty.

“No foul, Rob repeated.

Without a word, Scratch settled himself at the foul line and swished the first shot, retrieved his own ball, swished the second, and took the ball out of bounds. “Flagrant foul, our ball.” He passed the ball to a team-mate who sheepishly dribbled to the top of the key. Don’t blink or you missed it. Rob stole the ball. I mean the guy was a flat-out magician.

But it was not over, not quite yet. Scratch sprinted after Rob and caught him as he lifted off for an easy layup. There was a sweaty, bone-crunching thud. Scratch wrapped his arms around Rob’s waist and wrestled him to the ground. Instinctively, Rob cradled the ball away from the impact, and as the momentum carried the two of them over the end-line, Rob flicked the ball up towards the rim: softly, under total control. The ball fell through the hoop and rolled back towards the foul line.

“Foul” Rob untangled himself and scrambled to his feet. He cradled the ball under his arm and walked to the line.

One of Scratch’s team-mates noticed it first. A stream of blood was running down Rob’s outer thigh. “Hey, man. You’re cut.”

A pool of blood grew at Rob’s feet. Nothing was making sense. Rob felt his side and lifted up his Yankee jersey. A gaping slice extended around his flank. A box cutter clattered to the court. Scratch jumped the fence and kept on running. We balled up a T-shirt and pressed it into the wound. A guy on Scratch’s team waved down a cop. Rob kept saying he didn’t feel much, like maybe a sharp scratch. I’m thinking, that sounds like your old man, when he told us he didn’t notice it when some Palooka broke his nose.

Two hundred stitches and six weeks later, Rob was out on the court again. A quarter inch deeper and his kidney artery would have been severed. I don’t know what Stash said to Rob after the knifing, but I like to think it drew them closer. Or maybe not. Figuring out our parents wasn’t something we thought much about those days.  I can say this about Rob’s relationship with Stash, much of it occurred at top volume.

When nothing much was happening on a Friday night, and the guys: Marty, Geo, Bruce, Rich, Tux, Free, Rude and I needed some entertainment, we’d walk over to Rob’s house and ask if Rob could go out.

“Dad! I’m going out with the guys! I’ll be back at…”

“You’re not leaving this house,” Stash would bellow from the basement.

“Daaaad!”

“You have homework to do, you’re staying HOME.” the volume was dialing up.

“I’m finished with homework. Come on, give me a break,” Rob pleaded.

“NO! Now go read a book!”

Same line different weekend.

Not that Rob’s social life was impacted much by Stash and Moo’s restrictions. Saturday night sleep-overs at Rob’s were quiet affairs until about 2:00 a.m. when Rob would sneak into his parent’s bedroom and borrow the car keys from his dad’s pants. Then we’d slip outside and push the Mintz’s ancient Buick half-way down the block before heading for the Jersey shore.

One night, Rob rolled through a stop-sign and the Westfield police pulled us over. I’m thinking, okay, Rob’s underage and I’m an innocent passenger. How bad can it be? Then I remembered: Stash. We’re dead. At the station we sat on a bench while the Sargent dialed Rob’s home # 276-4353. No one picked up. The Sargent glared at Rob. “Young man, if you’ve given me a wrong number…”

“No sir, my dad’s a deep sleeper, and my mom wears earplugs. He snores really bad,” Rob added–omitting the obvious–that’s how we stole his car.

The Sargent dialed again. On the fifth ring, Stash picked up, but his words slurred together. It sounded like he was talking into the wrong end of the phone. “Mintz. Whadda you want?”

“Mr. Mintz, this is the Westfield police, we have your son here at the station. He has your car…”

“Thaz impossible. My son Robert is asleep downstairs.”  CLICK.

The Sargent’s face lit up from ear to ear. Now this was interesting. He redialed the number and Stash picked up immediately.

“Mr. Mintz, we have your son…”

“Is my son alone?”

The Sargent cupped the phone and asked me my name. “Radis…, my name is Chuck Radis,” I said meekly.

“He says it’s Radis.”

“RADIS!!!”

Fifteen minutes later, Stash arrived in his purple boxing robe and shot me a withering look. He grabbed Rob’s forearm with one hand and signed the papers with the other. Stash’s face was like a giant thermometer bulb ready to burst. But watching the two of them, a curious thought shot through my mind; Rob’s hands were bigger than his dad’s. He was quicker, and maybe, just maybe, matched his old man in bull-headed strength. At 16, it wasn’t so clear that Rob would be on the losing end if a fight broke out.

A complicated relationship just got more complicated.

Rob went on to play second base for Division I Rutgers University. Nobody turned the double play better. He had soft hands and developed some power, after all, he was his father’s son, and could fake a bunt one pitch and crush a fastball the next. With Rutgers just down the road from where we grew up, Stash was a regular at the games. He could see Rob’s flaws more clearly than his gifts and didn’t hesitate to expound on them. Stash knew that hitting a pitched ball derives from the ability to both focus and relax in the same moment. The will to win mattered, but a little guy had to play smarter to come out on top. Good hands were never enough.  The two clashed, but not so much in sports.

Rob batted an eye-popping .380 his junior year and was named a captain his last season at Rutgers. The pro scouts took a closer look: lock-down fielder, fast bat, deceptive speed, aggressive take-charge guy. Stash must have noticed them in the stands. Rob was close, so close.

And then it fell apart. That summer, Rob’s head cracked into the windshield in a late-night single vehicle crash. He could deal with the headaches; it was the inability to focus which hurt Rob the most. And the double vision. Rob played through. There was no outward limp, no major surgery, only the inability to do what Rob did best: see the ball, field the ball, see the ball, hit the ball. He came back to the pack, a very good 5′ 11″ athlete with excellent skills. He went undrafted.

Looking back at those days, now 40 years ago, I think the accident was a gift. Even if he’d been drafted, the likelihood that Rob could have made a career in baseball was infinitesimal. But maybe I’m underestimating him. People were always underestimating Rob.

He turned his attention to psychology and obtained an advanced degree in counseling. Focusing on the tough cases, he contracted with police departments and developed a reputation for helping cops when they drew their gun and killed a suspect. There were good shoots—-hostage situations or violent crime sprees, where the need to kill another human being kept the carnage down, but there were also bad shoots—-where the light was bad, and it looked like a gun, only there wasn’t a gun, and an unarmed young man lay dead.

Rob often met his clients at coffee shops because they couldn’t bring themselves to an office, check in with the secretary, and sit for a counseling session. Some were on long-term disability; the nightmares and flashbacks sapped them of their focus. Alcohol often dragged them down. There was no-one to talk to, no-one who really understood. Except for Rob.

Rob married Mary, an ICU nurse from our home-town, and carved out the time and flexibility to coach his own children in football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, soccer. Stash Mintz’s drills lived again. You name the season and there was at least one Mintz child competing. Mary shared Rob’s passion for following their children’s sports careers. When their oldest son, Nate, played college football, they thought nothing of driving 6 hours to watch a two-hour game, followed by an all-night drive back to Medfield, Massachusetts. Then Mary would take a quick shower and report to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for a twelve-hour shift in the ICU.

But while his own children were good athletes, Nathan in football, Sarah, in lacrosse and soccer, Jake in basketball and baseball, none of them carried the same confident chip on their shoulder as Rob and Stash did. They were more like, say, me: good athletes who played hard, but didn’t have the laser focus or innate athleticism to improve beyond a certain level.

At some point, Stash and Moo moved to Florida. I’d see them from time to time at their grandchildren’s Bar Mitzvahs’. Stash would sometimes retell the story of Rob’s arrest and his decision to say nothing to me on the painfully long drive home from the police station. He knew that silence was power. One year I noticed that when Stash got up from a chair, he couldn’t completely straighten up. He’d rub his neck and shift his weight from one leg to the other. He avoided stairs. Through Rob, I heard that his bladder cancer kept recurring.  So it was a surprise when I heard that Moo passed away after complications from vascular surgery. You would have thought it would be Stash.

Two years later, Stash looked like he was dying for sure.  His kidneys were slowly shutting down. His mind began to drift.  Rob wanted his dad to move from Florida to Medfield, outside of Boston, and move in with him and Mary. Reluctantly, Stash agreed, but only until he could get back on his feet. And power of attorney? No. He gave up none of his autonomy. Every decision would be his decision. And that was final. After another hospitalization, he moved into Rob and Mary’s home with a softball-sized ulcer on his buttock and a new diagnosis: a cancer was growing in his right kidney. It wouldn’t be long now.

But I’ve said that before.

Rob and Mary tended to the decubitus ulcer and under their meticulous care, the ulcer healed. They adjusted their schedules so that one of them was always around to keep an eye on Stash. Rob cooked the kind of breakfasts his dad lived for: Omelets, sausage, bacon, coffee—pots of black coffee.  And they talked baseball. Repeat scans of the cancerous kidney showed that it was growing slowly, so slowly, the doctors shrugged, maybe he’d die of something else.

When I drove down to Massachusetts a few months later to pick up Rob for a Red Sox game, I wanted to see Stash. Rob warned me that you couldn’t predict what kind of day Stash might have. He might wake up and decide he wanted to exercise, so he’d grasp his walker and inch his way to the kitchen and make a loop around the living room before settling down for a lumberman’s breakfast.  On other days he’d stay in bed all day, seemingly on his way out.

So, I wasn’t floored when I entered the kitchen and there was Stash, his great gray bear-like head slumped at the table. “Dad, Chuck’s here.” Rob shook his father’s shoulder to awaken him. He reached over with a damp cloth and wiped his father’s chin. Then Stash recognized me. “Robby, why didn’t you tell me Chuck was coming? It’s okay. It’s okay. Sit down.” He pushed aside the sports section and tried to pour me a glass of water. “You know Chuck…. Robby, pour Chuck a glass of water, he’s probably thirsty. I’ve been thinking, you never listened, did you? Advice, I mean. It went in one ear and out the other.”

The remark caught me off-guard, but it was also true. As a fatherless teenager, I had been totally un-coachable. I followed my own instincts, my own counsel. At a certain age, I shut Stash out, and he remembered.

Outside, on our way to the game, Rob allowed that taking care of his dad was tough. When the old man fell, Rob and Mary picked him up. They washed and bathed him, dressed him, put him to bed, made sure he took his medications. Rob didn’t just help Mary with Stash; it was Rob who got up with him at night when he called out for help. He wrestled him out of his diaper. He wiped his butt. And Rob and Stash argued. They had always argued, and age hadn’t washed that away.

And thank you wasn’t in Stash’s vocabulary.

“Just once, I’d like him to say how much he appreciates what Mary and I do for him. Just once,” Rob said. Stash was also working another angle: Now that he was feeling better, he was bugging Rob that it was time for him to return to Florida. “You’re not my boss,” he’d begin, “and all this is nice (it was the closest he came to saying thank you), but I have a house in Florida where I can come and go as I please.”

Never mind that he needed Rob to safely get out of bed, or that he relied on a walker to reach the commode. Stash focused on one thing: Boynton Beach, Florida.

I wasn’t there for the discussion. There were probably multiple discussions. Stash wanted to go home. Rob and Mary thought this was unwise. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Rob capitulated. Rob flew Stash to Florida and settled him in as best he could; arranged for community health nurse visits, doctor’s appointments, the whole shebang. Then he flew home and waited for the inevitable phone call.

Stash lasted 4 days. Then he fell and cracked his head on the bathroom floor and was admitted to the local hospital. Rob was out on the next flight and taking a taxi to Stash’s apartment, found the keys to Stash’s car and drove directly to the hospital. There, he found his father incoherent and soaked in urine. Rob tracked down the attending physician and asked him why Stash was on the anti-psychotic Haldol. He was told that the old man was combative, and anyway, it was a small dose, and he seemed more relaxed now.

At Stash’s bedside, Rob choked up. What was it, a week ago? The old man was schmoozing with the flight attendants and sipping a beer on the flight down. Now he was gorked out on Haldol, unable to even turn himself on his side after throwing up his lunch.  After a day of mulling over his options—and insisting that Haldol be discontinued, Rob signed Stash out of the hospital against medical advice. Out in the hospital parking lot Stash said he never felt better. And Stash was reconstructing the recent past. “I tripped on a loose rug in the bathroom. Freak accident. I’m fine.” He reached up and pulled the bandage off his forehead. One of the stitches opened up and a trickle of blood dripped into his left eye.

Rob took a napkin and applied pressure to the wound. “Dad, leave this alone. It needs to heal.” Stash waved him off. “Leave me alone.  I’ll be better off when I get into my own bed.”

Rob had other plans.

Stash dozed off in the backseat. Thirty minutes later, Rob pulled into the U.S. Air terminal, quietly opened his door and walked around to Stash’s side. He clicked open Stash’s door and grasping his forearm, slid him into the wheelchair. Stash squinted. “Robby. Where are we?”  Without a word, Rob pushed the wheelchair through the revolving door into the terminal. The car? He’d figure that out later. Rob glanced at his watch: 65 minutes to get through security and board the flight for Boston. It was tight but doable. Concentrate. As he raced along, his day-pack filled with a clean pair of underwear and socks for Stash, he fished his wallet out of his back pocket and pulled out his driver’s license. Good. Not expired. In his breast pocket, he had Stash’s photo ID and the tickets.

Stash’s mind was coming into focus. “Robby. What are we doing at the airport?”

“That’s right dad, we’re at the airport and we’re flying home soon. Mary’s waiting for us in Boston, and…”

“Robby, I…” the old man went uncharacteristically silent.

Moments later, they entered the security line and inched towards the x-ray unit. Rob peered around to see what his dad was doing. Stash seemed to be dozing. Perfect. In one hand, Rob held the tickets and photo ID’s. With the other, he undid his belt as he kicked off his sneakers and placed them in a gray tray. Stash was in his yellow hospital booties. Over his blue hospital robe, Rob had dressed him in a bulky Rutgers Athletics sweater.

Rob wondered if they would insist that the old man stand or allow Rob to roll him through the x-ray unit. It’s not like this is the first person they’ve seen in a wheelchair, Rob decided. Go with the flow.

They were next.  Rob pushed the wheelchair up to the white line in front of the x-ray unit.

Stash’s eyes shot open. “HELP!!! HELP ME!!!” he shouted. Everyone froze. “HELP ME!!” he boomed.  “I’m being kidnapped! Help me! I’m being kidnapped.”

A half-dozen security guards converged on Rob and Stash, hands on the butt end of their pistols. Reflexively, the couple behind Rob hit the floor and crawled behind the conveyor belt. The line disappeared. Rob lifted his hands off the handles of the wheelchair.

“HELP ME!” Stash repeated.

“Don’t move,” a TSA agent ordered.  Rob scanned the faces of the security agents but none of them met his eye. This scenario, an elderly man in a wheelchair claiming to be kidnapped was not in their playbook. Rob noticed a slender, black-haired guy in a blue suit and brown loafers stroll into view. He settled himself to the right of the x-ray unit and crossed his arms.  Rob knew a cop, a higher up cop, when he saw one. He addressed Rob. “This your father? He looks like an older version of you.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Rob admitted.  “Can you take a look at our tickets?” The agent nodded his permission.  Rob pulled the tickets out of his breast pocket and handed them to the agent. “We’re the Mintz’s. I’m Rob. This is my dad Stash. “

“Agent Morris. Nice to meet you. And his eye?” he asked, pointing to where Rob had re-bandaged Stash’s left eye.

“Right. Okay, I can explain that. He’s been living down here and hit his head and I’m bringing him home to our house outside of Boston. I’ll be honest, my dad’s not crazy about coming home.” Rob pointed to Stash’s head. “Concussion. I have some papers from the hospital if you want to see them. Can I show them to you?” Rob asked as he reached into his back pocket. Rob handed them to the agent. He worried that the discharge against medical advice stamp on the last page might be a problem. On the back wall was a clock. It was twelve minutes until boarding time. The supervisor sat down on the edge of the conveyer belt. He put on his glasses and flipped through the pages.

“You’re all set,” he said finally, handing the tickets back to Rob. “Have a good trip.” He patted Stash on the shoulder.

Stash was a heavy load, but once he picked up momentum, Rob was flying down the concourse. The ticket agent was about to close the doors. Rob pulled out the tickets. “Thanks. Thanks for waiting. I appreciate it.”

“I’m not getting on this plane,” Stash said.

Rob leaned down and whispered in his dad’s ear. “It’s okay dad. We’ll be home soon. Mary will be so happy to see you.”

“I’M NOT GETTING ON THIS PLANE!” Stash repeated. Rob ignored his dad and pushed the wheelchair forward. Stash’s arms extended out. His beefy hands grasped the door jam. The wheelchair abruptly stopped. “Robbie, I’m not getting on this plane, and THAT’S FINAL!”

The ticket agent squirmed past the wheelchair and blocked their path. “Mr. Mintz.” She was addressing Rob. “Security called a few minutes ago. I know what your father is capable of. And frankly, I’m surprised you’ve gotten him this far. We can’t have him disrupting the flight. It’s not fair to the other….”

Rob tuned her out. He knew when he’d been out-foxed. In the parlance of our childhood, Stash had Duked, totally Duked Rob. At the most unexpected moment, Stash had reared up from total dependency to reassert himself. He was Rob’s father, not the other way around. So suck on that.

Rob turned the wheelchair around, hung a right through EXIT/BAGGAGE and navigated the revolving door. Outside, father and son did not speak. Rob turned the collar up on his dad’s Rutgers sweater. Returning to Stash’s Buick, the old man picked himself up from the wheelchair and plopped into the back seat. Almost immediately, he sunk into a deep, satisfied sleep.

Rob adjusted his glasses and eased the car into the line of traffic. A talk show host was railing about Obama care. They merged left. Another left. Overhead was the sign for Interstate Route 95. Rob flipped on his directional and turned onto the entrance ramp. He turned north: 1100 miles to Medfield, Massachusetts.

At 1 a.m. Stash awoke. Rob calmly explained that he was driving back to Boston, to Medfield, where he would be taken care of. Rob used facts: Stash had another ulcer on his butt. He was weak from staying in bed at the hospital. His balance was gone. Relax and get some sleep; we’re driving home. Stash ordered Rob to turn around. Rob kept his eyes on the road. The old man spewed profanities. He blustered, threatened, roared, but he had no leverage. Rob rolled on.

When the gas gauge needle was buried at E, Rob pulled off Route 95 in northern Georgia to the all-night Piggly Wiggly.  He glided into the furthest pump from the store and asked his dad if he wanted to go to the bathroom. Stash’s recent Duke at the airport worried Rob. What if Stash made a scene inside the Piggly Wiggly? Rob realized that it was one thing to talk his way through an airport security line, and quite another to explain to a Georgia cop that he was not actually kidnapping the old man with the bloodied forehead.

So, it was kind of, sort of, a relief when Stash refused to get out of the Buick. He informed Rob that unless he turned around, he was going to use the car as his personal bathroom.

And he did.

Not long after dawn, Rob silently filled up the gas tank again somewhere south of Washington D.C. After locking the doors, he went inside and bought a cup of coffee and a donut. Back in the car, the stench hit him like a wall of mud. He gagged and dropped the donut. Somehow, someway, Rob made it to just east of New York City before he was seeing triple and he pulled over into a rest area. Several hours later, he awoke in a cold, panicky sweat. Then he eased the Buick back onto I-95. Shortly before midnight, he pulled into his driveway in Medfield.

Mary came out to the car. Stash refused to get out. Mary knew better than argue. She retrieved his walker from the trunk and placed it in front of the open rear door. Stash waited until Rob and Mary were inside the house before he lurched out of the backseat. Then he moved the walker forward six inches at a time. Somehow, he made it to the front door.

I called Rob several weeks later, unaware that Stash was living again with Rob and Mary. Actually, it was Mary who picked up the phone and spilled out the story of Stash’s boomerang trip to Florida. When she was finished, she said, “Chuck. Let me get Robby. Talk to him. Stash is back to his old tricks. He’s feeling better and…,” her voice cracked, “Stash wants to fly with us to Wyoming for Nate’s wedding.” I had a minute to process the story and the utter outlandishness of Stash’s request. When Rob came on, I was ready. Short and sweet. Less is more. Stash had taught me that.

“Hi Rob.”

“Hey, Chuck,” Rob said. “You heard? Mary fill you in?”

“She did. Wow. What a Duke.” We both were silent. “So…I hear Stash wants to fly with you and Mary to Jackson Hole for Nate’s wedding?” I said finally.

“Yeah,” Rob answered. “I don’t know. He says that he has to go to the wedding. Nate is his first grandson. It’s important to him.”

“Rob. Don’t give in. What’s the worst thing that can happen if Stash comes to the wedding?  I’ll tell you what: Jackson Hole is at more than 6,000 feet. With all of his medical issues, Stash goes into respiratory failure, ends up in the emergency room and dies on the day of the wedding. How’s that for a wedding present?” I could hear Rob breathing on the other end. Had I been too blunt? No, this was too crazy. “You can’t have Nate and Ainslie’s wedding ruined by Stash. It’s not fair to them.”

“You’re right Chuck. You’re absolutely right.”

“I’m really sorry. I know it’s been tough Rob.”

“Yeah, well what you gonna do?” Rob answered.

I got off the phone and knew; Stash was going to the wedding.

Two weeks later on a flight out to the wedding, my mind flickered from one unpleasant scenario to the next: Stash dies during the marriage vows; Stash collapses as the newlyweds cut the cake; Stash falls out of his wheelchair and breaks a hip.  And after arriving in Jackson Hole for the run-up to the event, it didn’t look promising. Surprise! Stash couldn’t breathe. His legs filled with fluid. He became confused. One interminable night in the rental house–two nights before the wedding–Stash insisted that his grandson Nate, drive him back to Boston. Mary sat with him and took the brunt of his anger and paranoia and talked him down, over and over and over, from mid-night till four a.m. The next day, Rob came this close to driving his dad to the ER. Maybe the best place for Stash was the local hospital. The wedding party could stop by; he could be included, even if peripherally, in the day’s festivities.

Then, beyond all reasonable expectations, Stash’s mind re-set. On the morning of the wedding, Stash awoke and asked Rob and Mary where his suit-coat hung.

The wedding went off without a hitch. At the reception, I spied Stash in his over-wide wheelchair. Wearing a blue blazer with a blue and gold striped tie, the big man looked sharp. An oxygen tank leaned against the wheelchair, unused. Rob, in a matching blue blazer stood at Stash’s right elbow. Mary looked up from where she was talking to a family friend and turned anxiously towards the dance floor. Nate and Ainslie made their way to the center.  Under the white canopy, beneath the night sky of Wyoming, the stars extending to the horizon, Nate and Ainslie held each other lightly, sweetly. They danced.

Making my way over to Stash, I chatted with Rob’s sister, Judy, who was at a table with her older sister Randi. Judy was wearing a wig. Her colon cancer had recently spread to her liver. It’s inoperable. But she looked great, radiant actually. The two sisters cried. Off to the side, leaning up against a tent pole, were Jake and Sarah, Rob and Mary’s children. I shook his hand and patted him on the back. His hands were enormous, bigger than Rob or Stash’s, bigger than Nate’s.

Then I walked over to Stash and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Mintz,” I never dared to call him Stash. Not now, not ever. “You made it.”

Stash, never taking his eyes off Nate and Ainslie, reached back and placed his hand over mine.

Epilogue

Two months after the wedding, Stash passed away. He’d been drifting since returning home to Medfield; at night, calling out the names of his daughters—Wendy, Judy, and Randi—or Moo, his wife. Rob would come into the room and adjust his pillow. Then Stash stopped eating and drinking, and Rob and Mary realized that he was finally nearing the end. Of course, one evening, Stash decided he wanted a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Rob and Stash argued. About what? Rob can’t remember. Maybe it was the wrong flavor. Exasperated, Rob left the bowl at Stash’s bedside. The next morning, the bowl was empty.

On the day before Stash died, Rob stayed home from work. When his dad awoke, Rob pulled his dad from the recliner, pivoted him, and set him down on the commode. That was the last time the old man stood. By the hour, Rob silently watched Stash’s massive chest rise and fall in a heavy steady rhythm. Late in the afternoon, Stash’s eyes flashed open and he informed Rob that he was dying. Then his eyes slowly drooped and Rob adjusted the blanket to cover his father’s lower legs.

That night, Rob settled into a chair next to his dad’s recliner. Mary eventually went to bed, and Rob, compelled by some primal need, crawled up on the arm of the recliner next to his dad. His head nestled against his dad’s shoulder.  Almost immediately Rob dozed off. In the faint, clear light of dawn, Rob awoke. His muscles were cramped and stiff. Stash’s chest was rising and falling, but shallower, more irregular.  Then Rob looked down.  The blanket had been moved; a corner of it draped over Rob’s lower legs. Rob quietly lifted up Stash’s forearm from where it kept the blanket in place.

I wish I could say that Rob was there when Stash died later that afternoon, but he had to go to work for a few hours. A father and daughter were in crisis, and he opened up the office and sat with them, listening, giving advice, trying to be present. Back home, Mary figured out how to Skype, and she was able to hold up the I-PAD so that Judy in Colorado could watch and sing to her father during his last few hours.

Mary was alone with Stash when the old man let go, painlessly, peacefully. His jaw drooped. One arm flopped off the side of the recliner. The boxer’s head tipped back, ever so slightly as his lips parted into an oval, almost feminine softness. Mary smoothed the wrinkles from the blanket covering his chest and stepped back. He was gone. As an ICU nurse, Mary had seen death before and the practical side of her took over. She put a pillow behind Stash’s head and reached down to pick up his arm where it dangled off the edge of the recliner. Straining with the weight, she resettled it on Stash’s lap. The right hand lay flat against the Afghan—but the left, the hand with the fourth knuckle misshapen from some long-forgotten match, was pulled back, clinched into a bulky fist. He was ready. Just in case.

17 thoughts on “Stash Mintz: Boxing with God

  1. Chuck, I saw your e-mail and planned to read it later. Curiosity got the best of me and I started to read it. Once I started it became difficult to stop. I had to finish it to see how it ended. Great story and really well written. Kept me interested right to the end. Well done and thanks for sending it.

    • It’s a pleasure to connect back to Cranford through your well written stories. After 50 years, admired acquaintances have become strangers, but your words bring us closer. Thanks for your generosity!

  2. A truly compelling story that kept me from a number of necessary chores this morning so I could read it start to finish. I loved it. And what a lucky family to be immortalized by such a fine storyteller.

  3. Chuck. That’s your best writing ever (and I’ve read all your stuff). Jews, like the other chain of immigrant peoples coming to America, took their turns in the boxing ring. Best regards. Stay safe. Sid

  4. Wonderful story. We think we know how we will respond to the end of our lives, but until we are in that space ourselves….. The will to live is primal. The many ways we exit are unique. Once a fighter always a fighter? For Stash, apparently, yes. My husband David took a different route through dementia. He retained his kindness, his appreciation, and his desire to be “present” to those around him, it was amazing, even when he had no idea where he was or who he was with. His oft repeated phrase “Who am I, what do I mean?” first said in jest, then in confusion, could be answered by his integrity right up to the end. Love won.

  5. Thank you for your gift of story. It is always a pleasure to read your writing. I appreciated the story of your friend, Rob, and his family and especially his father, Stash. It is nice that you stayed in touch over the years with you childhood friend. Stash was definitely a resilient man in all respects who sought to maintain his sense of dignity and purpose to the end.

  6. I’m not sure how I found this, having not seen you or Robbie for a looong time, but I knew the principals and was there for some of the key events. Nice writing and recollection, Chuck.

    Stan

    • Hi Stan,
      Were you good friends with George Backinoff? Did you go to Oberlin or Bard with George?
      It’s been so long that I’m not sure about your last name.
      Even if you were not connected via George, it’s nice of you to take the time to let me know you enjoyed the story.
      Thanks,
      Chuck

  7. I am still good friends with George. Yes, we went to Bard together, and I was friends with Robbie when I lived in Boston after grad school.. He worked with my (now) ex-wife. We even played fast- pitch softball together. So yes, I am George’s friend Stan from Bard, the one he travelled the world with.

    • Stan…. somewhere along the way I thought I heard you worked for the UN High Commission for refugees. Has that been part of your arc of work?
      If you did, thank you! That’s difficult but rewarding work.

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