I am honored to be up here today, although this is the day that we all have been dreading for 4 months. But today is also the day in which our friend is finally at peace.
I met Gary at the U of Michigan, in fact we lived next door to each other freshman year. And since that day back in the fall of 1996, I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I’d like to speak about a few of the qualities that I admired most about my friend. Perhaps it’s fitting to begin with his courage, since he has always been the most courageous person I know. Courage is funny thing these days in the world. In many ways, it’s become just another political tool, applied to all sorts of people for all sorts of political advantage. But to me, being courageous is apolitical. Not about what you believe, per se, as it is how you carry yourself, especially in the face of tragedy. It’s never letting on how much you hurt or
|From left: Brothers Adam and Gary Lichtenstein.
how scared you might be. Its not letting fear inhibit your behavior. Which makes Gary’s courage all the more amazing. Before any of this happened, Gary was in town this past winter around New Year’s. He stayed with Joanna and I for part of his time here and one frigid morning we went for an ambitious run together. Now, I’ve been jogging since college but Gary was always more of a “James” man himself. James as in Gym. The Gym. Nevertheless, during our run along the Brooklyn Bridge we talked like two friends talk when they have their whole lives ahead of them. About everything and nothing. Not once did he ask how much longer. We logged about 8 miles that day and I just assumed Gary had been running at the gym. It was only later that Gary told me that was his first run in months, and how sore he felt afterwards.
That courage served him well throughout his life, from traveling solo in Europe before meeting up with his family to signing up for boxing lesson with Adam Flam in college, to always speaking his mind, no bullshit, with his friends and loved ones. And it served him most proudly after he was diagnosed. Every once in a while, Jo and I would have to remind ourselves of the nightmare that lay ahead. Gary never spoke to me about the fear he must have been feeling inside. He never let that fear encroach on his dreams, or his goals or his relationships. Instead, he talked about moving back to Chicago, or driving around in one of those new T-birds, or planning his bachelor party in Puerto Rico, or his new closeness with God. If cancer was what had brought Gary back to New York, we would talk about everything but it. I can remember feeling fearful after his initial diagnosis. After all, I had seen all those grim accounts of Glioblastoma on the internet. And I’m happy we never talked about it, because it would have made me feel afraid for him, and Gary wasn’t afraid of anything. I think he truly believed he could beat this, and I’m so glad he did. Because he made me and so many of his friends and family members believe that too. Courage is contagious, and that brief time when Gary was living with cancer was all the more special because of that courage. Instead of hiding in a corner and cowering from it, Gary embraced life with a vigor that made all of us smile. Instead of hopelessness, he made each day feel like a gift from God. I used to get emails from him periodically that were just links to a website. One was for an exhibit on Andy Warhol, another for a film on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Just different things he wanted to see and do. Never was he more engaged in the world around him than in those last few months. There was no time to fear, no time to be sad, there was too much to do.
After Gary fell in his coma, his friend Paul Knepper wrote some of us an email describing an encounter with a co-worker after hearing the awful news. Paul wrote that the co-worker told Paul how sorry she felt for him, but Paul remembered thinking how sorry he felt for her, because she had never gotten the chance to know Gary. I think that’s a sentiment we can all appreciate here today. Who else but Gary could inspire so many people to contribute to the vintage guitar that Eric Corndorff and Paul Seidler picked out for Gary as a welcome home present. That Paul and Eric had to tell people to “stop sending money.” Who else but Gary could inspire so many people to walk together as “Team Gary” in support of cancer research. Who else could make and maintain
From left: Eric, Gary, Adam, Dora, and Mario
friendships with so many different people from the high school friends he never lost touch with, to the Michigan friends, of which I am but one of many, to the friendships made in Chicago, who got to see Gary really grow into himself as an adult.
During the past few horrific months, it’s easy to see where Gary has gotten so much of his strength and courage from. It’s from two women, Dora and Lala, who could be so warm and wonderful even in their darkest hour. And from three men, Mario, Eric and Adam, who stood stoic in the face of overwhelming sadness and never lost their faith or compassion. It’s from his family friends who seem to me so much more like family than most people’s friends and from aunts and uncles and cousins who never stopped praying. It’s from all of us here today, because of how much we loved Gary.
Gary, thank you for living your life the way that you did. For speaking your mind even if sometimes you talked before you spoke, as Jeff Stupak used to say. For never being afraid of making a mistake or trying something new. For never letting the cancer overcome your spirit and your positive outlook and your awe at the world. For knowing what it means to be a friend, a son, and a brother. And for making so many people feel so lucky to have known you. But we should not fear for you Gary, because you were not afraid. You made us hope with you and gave us the contagious courage. Gary, we love you and we miss you and we always will. But we are not afraid for you.
Quote from Eric Lichtenstein, Gary’s Brother and Co-Founder of Voices Against Brain Cancer
Gary and I had planned a skiing trip to Vail, CO in the middle of January. It was the first time that we were taking a trip together as adults and I remember feeling so excited about going away and bonding with him. Since Gary lived in Chicago, we didn’t get to see each other very often. I got to Vail a day earlier than Gary but as soon as I saw him I knew that something wasn’t right. He complained of headaches and nausea, and was extremely timid on the ski slopes. At the time, we both thought that it was altitude sickness or a really bad sinus infection but when the symptoms didn’t get better when he got back to Chicago, he went to the doctor and found out something was really wrong.
The doctor in Chicago immediately admitted Gary to the hospital for a Cat Scan, and that’s when he found out he had a mass in his brain. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in his mind and those feelings of mortality but he calmly called Mom and told her what happened. I remember finding out that Gary was going to the hospital after work and not really knowing what to expect. I went out to dinner that night with Beth and right as we finished, Mom called me to tell me that Gary had a mass in his brain. I froze. My mind went blank and all I could think of was what the hell that meant. Could Gary really be that sick? This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us. The next few days were a blur. Gary wanted to have the surgery the next day in Chicago, but Mom and Dad weren’t going to let that happen, so Mom flew to Chicago to bring him home. I was frantically looking on the internet to find an explanation of what was in Gary’s head. I had a panic attack at work and ended up breaking down to my business partner. He tried to reassure me, but I think deep down I knew this was bad. He said that if I wanted to leave work and just relax that he would trade for me but I remembered that working was the best thing at the time because it took my mind off what was actually happening. I didn’t call Gary in the hospital the first day he was there, because I didn’t want to scare him into thinking that something was really wrong, but he was asking why I hadn’t called and he really wanted to talk with me. So I called him after work and I tried to downplay the whole thing but I couldn’t hold it in.
He was so brave, he kept telling me that everything was going to be ok and that I shouldn’t worry. Could you imagine, a guy with a huge brain tumor in his head was telling me that he was fine and that I shouldn’t worry?? That was how Gary was the entire time during his illness. Gary wasn’t allowed to fly home so my Mom drove from Chicago to NY, going 100 miles/hr. This was a Thursday and Gary, my parents and I all slept in my apartment in Manhattan. I went to work that morning while Gary was admitted to the hospital for surgery the following Monday.
As soon as people started finding out what was going on, the hospital room at New York Hospital was a revolving door. I think over 100 people showed up that weekend to say hello and spend time with Gary before his surgery. We were playing music, telling stories, laughing, eating and having a great time. I slept in the hospital room that Saturday night and Gary turned to me and said that he felt like he was at his own funeral. That comment floored me, I cried myself to sleep that night thinking that maybe he was right and feeling so helpless that Gary was going through this. Gary was my best friend, the guy I turned to for advice, support, a pick-me-up, and now I was the one that had to be strong for him.
Gary had his surgery on Monday morning and right up until the point he went into the operating room, he was telling us that everything was going to be fine and that we shouldn’t worry. We stayed in his hospital room and waited to hear how the surgery went. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that we met with the doctor. We were in a hallway near the operating rooms when Dr. Riina came out to meet us. He sat down next to my mom as my dad and I stood nearby and said these words that I will never forget “Gary has a stage 4 brain tumor that is incurable called Glioblastoma Multiforme” We crumbled. My parents sat on the floor hysterically crying unable to move or control their bodies. Dr. Riina waited with us and did the best he could to be there and support us. We didn’t know what questions to ask or what the next steps were. Thankfully for our family, we have a very close friend who is a neurologist who was guiding us through this process. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without a trusted a advisor telling the patient and family what to do. He met us shortly after we heard the news from Dr. Riina and said the same thing. That this was not a good prognosis but he was going to do everything he could to get Gary the best treatments.
My parents didn’t want to tell Gary the extent of what his diagnosis was right away, so for the next 24 hours we waited as Gary recuperated from the surgery. His mind was very cloudy and he couldn’t focus. He had trouble finding words for what he wanted to say and you could see that he was thinking something but couldn’t verbalize it effectively. When the doctors finally told Gary what he was up against you could tell it didn’t register fully. He was in a state of shock, or maybe it was his way of blocking out his mortality and focusing on how we were going to fight this disease. Over the next several weeks, he didn’t let up. His energy level never diminished even through his radiation schedule and the amount of time he spent away from home, going to work, meeting with his friends, or just hanging out.
Quotes from Friends of Gary Lichtenstein
“In the end its not the years in your life that count, its the life in your years.” Gary lived and spread a lot of life in his years.
At my wedding (right before he got sick), Gary looked at me in the eyes and told me that I looked beautiful. Of course, everyone says that to the bride, but he was so sincere about it that I truly believed him.
One day Gary called me (it was actually the day he went into the coma). We were laughing hysterically, trying to remember a character from Saturday Night Live. When I told him it was Brian Fellows, he laughed even harder. He sounded so happy.
I first met Gary in calculus during our freshmen year at U of M. I remember we had just taken our first quiz and for some odd reason, I did pretty well. So, this guy asks me with a little bit of nyc attitude, “Heather, what did you get for number 3?” I turned, told him the answer, and then turned away. I was like, who is this guy and how does he know my name?!?!?! Yes, it was Gary.
I’ve got a lot more, Adam, but I need to go teach a kickboxing class right now. Which, by the way, Gary did take my class in Chicago and he was awesome.
I will always remember speaking with Gary the evening before he went into his coma. And I will always remember that he assured me that he felt strong and that he’d be okay. I believed him. And I still believe him.
When Gary went into the coma, I was at first stunned like everybody. But I also had a calming sense of comfort knowing that Gary went into the coma, never allowing any fear to paralyze him from his day-to-day living and fighting. Though he may have privately feared his eventual demise like anyone would in their most private and personal moment, Gary never revealed that crack to me. And that has taught me an invaulable lesson to LIVE each day like it’s your last. I do not fear what I do not know, and I refuse to cripple my time worrying about a future that I can not fully comprehend nor predict. With Gary in mind, I try to live fuller days absent of the fear of death and the unknown. I am very mindful that a quality life is not measured in time, but rather in the value of our actions and the love we share.
It’s Tournament Time and I Miss My Friend - Paul’s blog post about his dear friend (from April 2013)
I was just thinking about a conversation I had with Gary when he was sick. He told me that people were always asking him if there was anything they could do for him and his answer to them was that they could donate money to cancer research so that other people wouldn’t have to deal with the illness.
Gary was a unique blend of many things. If you knew him, it was hard not to like him. He was a character. Somewhat of a wise guy, but never at someone else’s expense. He was a person that always brought you a smile, was fun to be around, someone whose company was always welcomed.
There were very few days that my wife and I didn’t visit him while he was in the hospital, but that isn’t who Gary was. For me, to remember him as ill, is not to honor his memory. Gary wasn’t about dying, he was about living.
We spoke privately the day before he went into the coma. I realized then that he understood his purpose in life, and I was amazed at the peace in which he approached the future. He reached a spiritual level that he had no need of fear of death, but rather a concern that the people he would leave behind would understand. He knew his future was peaceful, and his hope was that his life would be an inspiration to others, not a reason for sadness.
Gary faced his illness with God by his side, with dignity, with understanding, and surrounded by people who loved him. He left the physical world too quickly, but not without making it a better place for having been here and knowing him.
Like everyone else who knew him, I think of him often and fondly. I continue to put tefillin on once a week in his honor as I will do the rest of my life, and feel privileged to have had him in my life. I have no doubt that God had bigger and better plans for him.
Letter from the 10-Year High School Reunion of Syosset High School Class of ’96 by the Lichtenstein Family
July 28, 2006
Thank you for the opportunity to share with all of you what a gifted and fabulous person our son, brother, and friend Gary Lichtenstein was.
Upon graduating from Syosset High School, Gary went off to the University of Michigan where he welcomed the challenges of his academic work. For Gary, college was not only about successfully getting into the Michigan Business School, but it was also making friends, being involved in the Greek system, and cheering on the sports teams (Go Blue!). Gary embraced every opportunity he got with vigor and enthusiasm.
That is why when he was recruited to work at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, it was not only great for his career as a trader, but also a chance to live in a vibrant city other than New York. While Chicago became Gary’s new address, New York always remained HOME. NY was where his brothers and parents lived, where he unfailingly cheered for his beloved New York Mets (even through all the losing seasons) and New York Knicks. But all these wonderful times with friends and family were short-lived, because in March of 2003, Gary was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive type of brain cancer.
After the devastating news, Gary came to New York for surgery and treatment. While undergoing radiation, he reconnected with his many high school friends. They offered Gary unconditional support, respect and a chance to be normal and fun-loving again. To Jill Austrian, Julie Robinson, Laura Pillar, Allie Dillon, Jaime Lippman, Evan Burns, Adam Koch-we, Gary’s family will be eternally grateful!! Gary’s many friends were also supportive of us when he inexplicably slipped into a coma 3 months after his initial diagnosis. He remained in a coma at Long Island Jewish Hospital for 4 months until October 1, 2003 when he died at age 24. His passing was less than seven months after we learned of his diagnosis.
Courage and faith are contagious, and during that brief time when Gary was living with cancer, he helped redefine those words for all of us that were so close to him. There was no time to fear, no time to be sad-there was too much to do.
We miss Gary very much and speak of him very often. He made all of us smile and believe! But the hardest thing for us has been the frustration that there is little progress being made to eradicate this disease. With this in mind, we decided to do our part by creating Voices Against Brain Cancer. Through our foundation, we will advance the progress towards a cure through research and clinical trials, as well as wellness programs for patients. Our website www.voicesagainsbraincancer.org can give you more information and photos. In fact, our first event held on May 18th, 2006 raised over $300,000 and was attended by over 600 people.
Gary had a bright future ahead of him. His courage, persistence and determination taught us all many lessons. Lessons not learned from textbooks or classrooms. Gary dared us to discover our strengths, and use them. He dared us to believe that we are each a wonderful and unique person. He made us understand that life is not a problem to solve, but a gift to cherish.
We wish you all healthy futures and continued success.
Thank you again for the chance to share Gary’s story with you tonight.