'I Decided Not to Die'

The potential for making lasting New Year's resolutions was driven home to me during a recent walk around the pond, near my house.
01/25/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

As we cruise into the end of the first month of the new year, it's a good idea to think about the resolutions that we made. Truth be told, my abstinence from chocolate went out the window, and I'm still happily wolfing down the M&Ms. But I know that I'm not alone in breaking my resolutions -- according to one study, as many as 35 percent of all New Year's resolutions are forgotten by the end of January. Sometimes, though, people make resolutions that do stick, especially when it is something that is truly important to them.

The potential for making lasting resolutions was driven home to me during a recent walk around the pond, near my house. I try to walk around the local pond every day, and as long as the temperature is above 65 degrees, my Amazon parrot, Shakespeare (aka "Shakey"), accompanies me. Yep, I'm the pirate with the parrot (that's what some of the pond-walking kids call me). Shaky and I get a kick out of it because it makes us neighborhood celebrities with the younger set. The walking path around the pond is home to an incredible community, a microcosm of individuals representing all walks of life. During a typical walk around the pond, you'll bump into old people and young people. Schoolteachers and college professors. Municipal workers and doctors. Shop owners and shoppers. Homeless people and financially successful people. That's the pond in a nutshell. And that's one reason I love it.

One of my favorite pond characters is Tony, a guy in his 50s who sold hotdogs at Boston's celebrated Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox and Fenway Franks) for most of his adult life. He's proud of his Fenway vendor days, and it shows in his attitude when he talks about them. One of the keys to Tony's tenure at Fenway is his booming voice; you could hear him from 100 feet away. It was kind of an occupational hazard, though -- he was so used to hollering while selling at the stadium that he forgot how to modulate his voice even when he is standing right next to you. I always knew I was on Tony's radar screen when he'd bellow, halfway across the pond, "Hey Bawbby, how's Shake 'n Bake?" That's what he called Shakespeare, despite my attempts to explain that my fine feathered friend wasn't anything like a chicken and was no doubt quite insulted by the comparison.

We'd chat about the weather and Tony would repeatedly explain the secret of his selling success at Fenway. "You gotta say it like this, Bawbby: 'Get ya hotdawgs, heeeeyah!' If you don't say it right, you won't sell many hotdawgs," he insisted. Tony often reminded me about this simple truism, and I truly looked forward to encountering him on a pond walk.

So I was pretty startled about a year ago when I spotted Tony slowly walking around the pond. I hadn't seen him for about five months and assumed that our schedules had been out of sync. As soon as we were within eyeshot, I saw that schedules weren't the issue, though. He looked terrible, his face and hands puffy and swollen, his breathing labored, and his skin sallow and sagging. The bounce that propelled him around Fenway Park for years had given way to a plodding shuffle. Most alarming, he was bent over as if he'd suddenly aged 30 years.

"Hey Tony, what's wrong?" I asked.

"Bawbby, I'm dying!" he exclaimed with a scratchy, weakened voice. "Doctor says my lungs, liver and kidneys are bad. Real bad, Bawbby."

After an awkward pause, I said, "Well, I'm sorry to hear that."

"I'm sorry, too," Tony said. "And I'm sorry for calling Shakespeare Shake 'n Bake."

"That's OK. Shakey will forgive you," I said, though I knew better. Like a lot of people I knew, Shakey had a long memory for insults and hurts.

As I made my way around the pond, I asked others in the community if they'd heard about Tony. Jason, who owns a local bakery, said, "Yeah, he's been announcing to all of us he's dying. That's awful."

Six months later, I saw Tony at the pond again. When we met, I could see that he'd declined significantly since I last bumped into him. His fingers were more swollen, and his eyes had sunken into his pasty face. He moved at a fraction of his normal speed. Most concerning, he didn't have anything to say.

"Jeez, Tony. I hope you're doing okay."

"Well, Bawbby, you know I'm dying."

I nodded, and we continued our respective walks. As I finished the loop, I figured that was the last time I might see Tony, and contemplated the impact of his loss on the pond ecosystem -- our lives were all interconnected and interdependent on so many subtle levels.

So imagine my surprise on New Year's day when I set off for a solo walk around the pond (it was too cold for Shakey). About a quarter of a mile into the course, the equivalent of a sonic boom swept across the icy water: "Hey Bawbby, where's Shake 'n Bake?"

I couldn't see Tony and thought perhaps he was chiming in from the afterlife. But a minute later, I stood face to face with him. It sure wasn't the Tony that I'd expected to encounter. This was the old Tony, actually, restored to his vibrant, gregarious self. The swelling was gone, and his color looked good. He moved with the determination and grace of a seasoned hotdog seller bounding his way through the bleachers.

"Tony, you look incredible!" I gasped. "What happened?"

"Hey, Bawbby, I decided not to die."

"You what?"

"I woke up a couple of months ago and decided not to die, Bawbby."

"Tell me more."

"I went to the doctor and told him, 'You know what, doc? I'm going to take that medicine, and I'm going to eat what you want me to eat, and I'm going to exercise like you told me to, and I'm going to start walking a lot again, too. You know why, Doc? I decided not to die.'"

"Tony, this is a miracle," I said.

"No, it's not, Bawbby. I just decided not to die. Catch you on the rebound." (In the parlance of the pond, that means see you on a second lap.)

I gave Tony a pat on the back and continued my first lap, musing about how this ex-hotdog-seller has incredible resolve, as much as anyone I've known or read about. I'm certain of one thing: His resolution isn't going down in the annals of good intentions that evaporate in the fourth week of the New Year. Tony's now committed to catching life on the rebound again and again. He's in it for the whole game.

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