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Van McKenzie's living wake, as told by Mike Tierney in today's AJC

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Michelle Hiskey, Apr 14, 2007.

  1. http://www.ajc.com/search/content/living/faithandvalues/stories/2007/04/13/0414lvrelwakeside.html

    Full house for friend leaves everyone a winner
    Tales don't let tears take over

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
    Published on: 04/14/07
    Howls of laughter ricocheted through the house in the Orlando suburb, enkindled by fond memories of Van McKenzie. Friend. Fellow ink-stained journalist. Cancer victim.

    On short notice, we had converged from various points — down-the-street near to West Coast far, and us four 'tweeners from Atlanta. To uncap a Van time capsule full of tales, so many of them fall-down funny. The guy who loved to lay down three of a kind at the poker table? He was one of a kind.

    • An appreciation of life
    Absorbing the scene from an easy chair was ... Van. Normally the life of the party, he was a sedate centerpiece of this near-death party. It was quite enough to fight overwhelming fatigue, while pressing down on the lid that controlled his emotions. So, early on, he spent the shallow reserve of energy on explaining his grim condition and desperate diagnosis to whoever asked.

    All I needed to know had arrived two weeks before in an e-mail from Van, who'd been hounded by the disease for three years: my cancer has returned, this time in my stomach lining. it's inoperable. i've got 2-3 months to live.

    His strength leaking, Van was in no condition to entertain a steady parade of visiting pals, so he consented to the group gathering, one and done. A "Macchanalia," our host John Cherwa dubbed it — a celebration of Van, sometimes called Mac. A living wake, organized hastily, in case the doctors' prognosis was overly optimistic.

    As Van's ATL posse headed south, we had no clue what to expect. Would it be festive? Or funereal?

    Who could know? Cynthia Trapanese, chaplain at Hospice Atlanta, had never heard of a living wake, though it intrigues her.

    "It sounds like a beautiful idea, to celebrate someone's life who could be there for the celebration," she said. "This could be an exciting new wave."

    For the guest of honor, she cautioned, risks are inherent. "It takes someone who is strong enough to confront the fact that they're dying."

    Any benefits to the stricken? "Absolutely," she said, if such social settings come naturally to them.

    Van, the last person out the door at many shindigs past, seemed prepared to die. Still, he wondered whether he could last two hours at this one. Upon greeting him early that afternoon, droopy-eyed and disfigured, I would have set the "over/under," to apply a gambling phrase with which he was all too familiar, at an hour.

    As the session gained steam, Van perked up. He nibbled on wings, reviving a lost appetite. Sipped a beer. Jumped into the story-swapping. Cracked smiles. Dished out insults. Nearly becoming the life of his near-death party.

    Some 3 1/2 hours into the revelry, this man who had been a boss to many of us issued one last assignment to a reporter: Reveal the heretofore undisclosed account of a notorious night on the road that had become newspaper legend. (Let's not go there, other than to say it involved a transvestite, the police and, ultimately, Richard Petty.)

    "I've heard every story but one, and you know which one that is," Van ordered, gesturing toward Ed Hinton.

    Embellishing the extended anecdote with gusto, Ed elicited tears of laughter from the guffawing audience.

    With punch line delivered and the room in full roar, Van stood unsteadily and announced, "You know I'm not one for speeches. I love you all."

    Tears from a different well inside us gushed as Van, leaning on his son's shoulders for support, painfully crept toward the exit. He, too, was crying, head bowed so nobody would notice.

    A hush fell over the house, many of us realizing we would never see Van again. Alive, anyway.

    "What," came the universal thought, "are we supposed to do now?"

    Our host knew. "Van would want this party to go on all night," John declared, "so let's keep eating and drinking."

    And reminiscing.

    Food, spirits and chatter did not run dry until 3 a.m., long after we Atlantans were back on the road, grateful beyond measure to have shared a special day with our fading friend.

    Van endured until January, expiring at 61, overstaying by several months the doctors' best guess on his time left. Don't try to convince me otherwise: Our Macchanalia reinforced Van's will to press on with his life. For certain, it enhanced our appreciation of life.

    When word came that his survivors chose to forgo a come-one, come-all funeral service for a private affair, I was almost relieved. My everlasting memory of Van would not be of him lying in a casket, eyes shut, expression blank. Rather, of him nestled in that easy chair, eyes twinkling, face creased in a grin.

    Awake at our living wake.
  2. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    Wow. What a great story....thanks for posting that.

    Wondering, is there a reason that ran now, and not earlier?
  3. It was a sidebar (on page E11, unfortunately) to main story on living wakes in our Saturday religion coverage.
  4. Dave Kindred

    Dave Kindred Member

    The story Hinton told will be in my book, "The Morning Miracle," about newspapers in the 21st century. Reserve your copy now!! The damned book hasn't been written yet and won't be published until late '09, but I guarantee that the story will be worth the price of admission.
  5. Johnny Dangerously

    Johnny Dangerously Well-Known Member

    Will Amazon.com let me reserve a copy today? Hmm ... going to look ...

    Good thread. Thanks.
  6. patchs

    patchs Active Member

    Count me in for a copy.
    Any book that features Van is a book I will buy.
  7. MileHigh

    MileHigh Moderator Staff Member


    Thanks for the post. Fantastic.

    Dave: I'm in line too for the book. Will be seeking an autographed copy too.
  8. fishwrapper

    fishwrapper Active Member


    Small matter, but thought I would point it out...
    Didn't the Hinton/Maris piece happen in the 20th century?
    Hope an artist isn't working on the jacket, yet. ;)
  9. BYH

    BYH Active Member

    That was an awesome fucking concluding four sentences. Perfect.
  10. Dave Kindred

    Dave Kindred Member

    Ah, Fish, but he told the story in the 21st, and, besides, Hinton being a versatile reporter, it was not the Maris story in play here but another, much more thrilling....
  11. SF_Express

    SF_Express Active Member

    Mike Tierney is also a former St. Pete Times football beat guy, like Ron Martz....
  12. Jesus_Muscatel

    Jesus_Muscatel Well-Known Member

    Great work Mike.

    Michelle, thanks for posting.

    Dave, I'm definitely down. A concept whose time has definitely come ...

    RIP Van.
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