The following article originally appeared in Men’s Health BEST LIFE magazine.
My Best Friend’s Family
A year and a half ago, I lost my great buddy Steve. But he didn’t lose me.
By HARLAN COBEN
When I woke up that horrible morning, my internet home page’s “lead photo” showed a small plane crash. I didn’t think much about it. It had gone down in some place called Kirksville, Missouri – never heard of it. I live in the suburbs of New Jersey, outside New York City. The only reason the story had made that front screen at all was because “miraculously” there had been at least two survivors.
But three hours later, I would learn that my dear friend, Dr. Steve Miller, was on board that fight. Five hours later, I would be at his townhouse in Manhattan, pressing the receiver to my ear, family and friends silent in the next room, my heart pounding with a slow thud, as the American Airlines employee confirmed our worst fear:
Yes, there had been two survivors from the crash of Flight 5966, but Steven Z. Miller was not one of them.
Steve was magic. We have a habit of raising those who die prematurely to saint-like status, but Steve was so beloved, so accomplished, that he always made you feel a little wanting. He was an internationally renowned physician, teacher, and director of pediatric emergency medicine at Columbia’s NY-Presbyterian Medical Center. The medical students of the prestigious Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons had voted him Teacher of the Year the past five years running. My guess is, the voting wasn’t even close.
Everyone loved Steve. He was genuine and smart and talented. He was decisive at work, neurotic and insecure at home, endearing everywhere. I had no better friend.
Steve was the least judgmental guy I knew. He asked questions and genuinely cared about the answers. I flash back more than a decade: My first Myron Bolitar novel, Deal Breaker, a low-print paperback, is just about to be published to absolutely no acclaim or fanfare. Yet Steve has demanded an advanced copy. He doesn’t just read it – he studies it as though it were the Talmud. We meet up with our families in a park near Coronado Beach in San Diego. He has the book with him. We sit on the grass and he starts peppering me with detailed questions, about motivations and character and plot twists. We sit like that in the sun for a very long time and I love every minute of it. And I can’t believe — still can’t believe, even as I write this — that we won’t do it again.
I flash back to a more recent time, a Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium. It is pouring rain. Bruce appropriately enough is singing “Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.” We are on our feet, totally drenched. The rain has plastered Steve’s long gray locks to his face. He is standing behind his wife, Dodi, rocking back and forth. We are screaming the lyrics, two guys in our forties, lost in the bliss of this release. Our eyes meet and we give each other the smallest of nods and you just know. You know it is one of those moments both of you will always remember, will always carry with you, that you will take out on a dark day and it will make you smile.
I have lived a life of few regrets. But I regret that I didn’t see Steve enough. We had talked about doing a week-long family trip to Argentina, his clan and mine. I bagged it because the flight was too long. That pang never quite goes away. So if nothing else, if you’ve read enough of this article already, call that one friend because it’s been too long since you had a beer with him. Do it now.
But this isn’t a eulogy.
When that plane crashed on October 19, 2004, I knew that Columbia-Presbyterian had lost its best doctor, that the underserved patients of Washington Heights would be forever short-changed, that Dodi had lost the man of her dreams, that his three children — Jesse, nearly twelve, Maya age eleven, and Nico, only six — had lost a father, but because I am a typical guy, I was worried about missing my friend.
So I, as a man, as a friend, decided to do what I could. Like most things we men do, it was part out of obligation, part of out of guilt, and part — maybe mostly — out of selfishness.
I couldn’t let Steve go.
But this is what you start with – this feeling of obligation. You want — no, need — to help in some way. You want to make the path somehow easier for Dodi, Jesse, Maya and Nico — but mostly, you do it to hold on to your friend a little longer. You can’t be with him anymore, can’t catch that flick you kept saying you were going to catch, can’t go to that game or, to get heavier, share life’s successes and disappointments. But maybe, just maybe, you can still do something for your friend, and thus be with him.
It started slow. Jesse and Maya are sports fans. We went to Madison Square Garden and checked out a few Knick and Ranger games. It was always a blast, but after I dropped them back at the house, it would be as if I were waiting to tell Steve about it, as if I could still share it with him and maybe get his nod of approval.
It kept going on. One morning we went to the filming of one of Jesse’s favorite TV shows on ESPN. They drove out to our house and played in our yard. We visited them and walked through the city. One night, about a month after Steve’s death, Jesse instant-messaged me on the computer. We chatted that way for a while. Then his sister Maya did the same. I started looking for them on my buddy list. I still do. We talk about nothing, about school, about how Mom is doing, that kind of thing.
On December 10, 2005, a little more than a year after the plane crash, Jesse Miller was called to the Torah for his bar-mitzvah. Looking up at him from my seat with the congregation, I saw Steve, of course. But as his beautiful son ended the service by singing Imagine by John Lennon, I realized something simple and profound.
I love Jesse.
I love Jesse and Maya and Nico. Not because I have to. Not in the way we love/tolerate our friends’ kids. I love them in a way that I love no other children but my own. I love them in a fierce way. I will never let anyone hurt them. I will protect them. I will make sure that they get what they need. If they are in trouble, I will rush to their side. Always.
It is not as a father-figure. It is not even as a substitute or part-time father-figure. It is something different, something deep and profound and unexpected.
Somewhere it shifted. Doing things with Steve’s family is no longer a manly obligation, if it ever really was. It has become something that I want to do, that I really look forward to doing.
Steve spent his last New Year’s Eve at my home — his family and mine in a rather placid sleepover. I have two pictures in my office from that day — one of Steve, Dodi and their three kids in goofy 2004 glasses, another of Steve and me in our pajamas after getting doused with silly string. I treasure those pictures more than I can express.
So this past December, with our goofy 2006 glasses packed in a suitcase, our two families got together for New Year’s again, without Steve. We drove up to New Hampshire and spent the weekend on a farm. Milking cows, getting eggs from a real chicken coop, riding on a hayride — Steve, the pure neurotic city boy, would have hated it. We all laughed about that.
But we take two cars up. Jesse, now thirteen, sits next to me. We bring our iPods. He plays favorite songs for me, I play favorite songs for him. We sing along. We shout out a version of Elton John’s “Levon” that is so bad I feel as though I need to write Elton a letter of apology. Jesse asks me questions and genuinely cares about the answers. So like Steve. It is bittersweet, but it is better.
I hear the echo of my dead friend in his son. I drive, steering with my wrists, and we both sing. I feel Steve and part of me wants to cry, but another part of me — a much larger part of me — just wants to hear his son keep singing.