Friday, February 15, 2013
TONY COLLINS R.I.P.
Tony Collins is and was an inspiration to me. He had a story, like all of us, but his was more intense and compelling than many. He was a big man, a strong man, with a lot of tattoos and the appearance of a skinhead, which he readily admitted he had been. And when I first met him he had the thousand yard stare of a man who had seen too much.
But despite his rough and tough background, he became a compassionate Buddhist and an inspiration to not just me but everyone I knew who got to know him. In the short time since we became close friends, and I got the opportunity to share some of my own struggles with him, I watched him lose the thousand yard stare, become not only compassionate towards others but toward himself as well. And that was important, because Tony was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that effected his brain.
We shared brain MRI and other medical and challenging experiences and thankfully I could always get him laughing at my own imperfections and attempts to transcend my failings, whether physical, mental or spiritual. I think my own struggles reassured him that he wasn't alone, and that if a crazy old dude like me could get through it with a few laughs and even some gratitude, he could too.
Last year Tony got his dream job. He was a computer guy, learned how to fix them, took a course I think unemployment paid for and did well because he was a really really bright man who just sounded and looked at times like what he was, a guy from a rough neighborhood and a rough life.
His boss was a woman who ran her company with the kind of compassion Tony was learning to not only practice with others but with himself. But the job was forty-five minutes away from his home in Nutley, several towns over from mine. One day at my place, Tony mentioned to me that he was having trouble with his peripheral vision, this was not long after he got the job. I told him he had to see an eye doc about that. He did, and unfortunately the doc said he couldn't drive anymore because he had no peripheral vision at all.
He had to go for a brain MRI too, which revealed a swelling that was pinching the optic nerves and they had to prescribe steroids to try and get the brain swelling down. We shared our hatred of steroids but also our learning how to actually enjoy the noise of the MRI by turning it into its own strange kind of music. But he had to tell his boss he couldn't drive to work. She found a co-worker who lived a few towns away in our part of Jersey, and for several weeks or more they had the co-worker pick Tony up and drive him both ways. When that began to be too much for the co-worker, Tony's boss let him work from home for a while.
But the arrangement couldn't last, and Tony—a man with a loyal and loving wife and two little girls, one in pre-school the other in elementary school, (his wife is a teacher working in Newark NJ so you know she's a selfless person not highly financially rewarded)—put a good face on it and began to find little jobs fixing people's computer problems while working with a coach to help him create his own little business, one of my "likes" on Facebook, now over (but I'll keep it up in honor of his commitment to overcoming every obstacle he was presented with).
He was walking with a cane at the end, and swollen from the steroids making him an even more imposing presence in any room he entered, but most of all he was full of joy and gratitude, for his family, his friends and his life. I was going to see him Monday night, he got a ride with a mutual friend and stopped by now and then (all his friends, including me, volunteered to drive him to doctors appointments etc.), but he called to say he wasn't feeling up to it physically, that it had been a rough day.
We spoke on the phone at least once a day and often more, and texted and emailed each other, and he was a constant presence on my Facebook feed, so it was like he was around all the time. Then on Tuesday he called me to tell me he had called his wife to take him to the hospital because he was in severe pain, he described it as a hot poker being stuck into his right eye and all the way through to the back of his brain, and said he was disoriented, so much so he didn't know how he got into the room in his home that he found himself in and didn't know why he called me.
I felt I knew why and was grateful. I got him to laugh a bit and hopefully made him feel calmer and then heard him say, "I'm talking to Michael," as his wife came in and then, "I gotta go." She called 911, they rushed him to the nearest hospital where he had a seizure and his heart stopped. They got it beating again but discovered that he didn't have enough oxygen in his blood, way too little, which I worried meant his brain hadn't been getting enough.
The same thing happened to the mother of my oldest children during an operation, and she went into a coma that she didn't leave until she passed six years later. Tony was in a coma as well, but he had made clear to some of us and to his wife that he didn't want to be kept alive by machines. He had been in touch with a Buddhist monk in a Zen center in Manhattan that was all about end of life care. Tony's wife got in touch with the monk and he came to give him the Buddhist version of last rites.
I didn't make it to the hospital the first night he was there because I have cataracts (they're being operated on in the next several weeks) so have trouble driving at night. But the next day I woke up with that recurring cold so many of us have been impacted by in these recent years (which I believe is connected to all the crazy weather global warming has caused) and didn't want to expose Tony or anyone else in the ICU to it, nor expose myself to anything that might effect my compromised immune system.
So I was only there in spirit and texts and phone calls to and from dear friends who passed on my love to Tony and shared how moved they were by the monk's ritual, how he explained to them that hearing was the last thing to go so to be careful not to project their own fears onto Tony, and they held hands as the monk chanted. Oh I wish I'd been there for that. The doctors said there was no brain activity, but waited a few days before asking Tony's wife if she wanted them to disconnect the machines.
Early this evening she decided it was time. Some of us feared his still young heart and lungs would keep going for days, perhaps weeks, months, or even years like my first wife's did (the operation that caused her coma occurred when she was in her thirties as well). But that didn't happen. When they took him off the machines, Tony let go. I am grateful the last time I saw him, not too many days ago, his face was full of love and joy as it always was, and he was happy to be among friends who not only loved him, not only respected his intelligence and compassion, but who all constantly texted and called and spoke to each other about how inspired we were by him and his positive loving grateful attitude, despite the setbacks he seemed to be constantly facing.
For those of us who loved and admired Tony Collins, he will now forever be Saint Tony. May he rest in the power of all the love he contributed to this world.