In Dying, Some People Teach Us About Living
Nick Ursta's life made a difference. So did the kindness of strangers in his last days on this earth.
The last think Nick Ursta said to me was, "Thank you Marty. This is beautiful." He squeezed my hand. His eyes shut. He fell asleep. Within 24 hours he was dead. Nick's last hours were spent in his dream home. A three-story marvel. A true testament to the kindness of strangers.
(Nick and Margaret survey progress on their house in April)
It was poet Henry David Thoreau who wrote:
"Live your life, do your work, then take your hat."
In the corner next to his casket... sat Nick's hat"... his first responder helmet... left to remind us of his service to country... to his community." Nick was a first responder, a volunteer following the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings.
Ten thousand people who were at "Ground Zero" on 9/11 have cancer. Thousands have died from illnesses related to the collapse of the buildings. Nick was one of them. He died from Mesothelioma. Turns out there was 400 tons of asbestos in the Twin Towers. Some of it got into Nick Ursta's lungs. It eventually killed him.
Nick's dream, post 9/11: rebuild an abandoned home where he and wife Margaret could live out the rest of their lives. He bought the house before he got sick. Once he was "too weak to lift a hammer" a teary-eyed Margaret called me... asking for help. I still have her letter on my desk.
(At the hospital in September)
I told Nick's story to anyone who would listen."And oh, did they listen!" From people in corporate offices to folks in four-wheel drive pick-up trucks...the response was tremendous.
Some wrote checks...some pounded nails. Some professionals, some amateurs. A menagerie of strangers...morphed into a family of crusaders with one goal: finish the house before Nick dies.
Please don't consider this morbid. Nick knew from day one that he and Margaret would never grow old in this house together. But he told me a dozen times: "Just let me see it Marty. Let me leave a place for Margaret."
And so it was. Two days before he died...volunteers carried him into the house...Margaret at his side.
I was there too. The cable guys were still hooking up the big screen TV... it was donated. The furniture still had plastic on it. It was donated. The carpet smelled like new. It was donated. You get it...EVERYTHING was donated. Well over 100 thousand dollars of goods and services.
We made it! He made it! Nick came home. His dream fulfilled.
Margaret sent me a text at 1:41am last Tuesday. "He just passed away. I miss him so much."
We all cried... a lot. Yet, we smiled. In "the home that Nick built," we all found a hammer. A belief in each other. A commitment to kindness.
Nick may be gone, but he lives on in his home...his courage...his strength in every room. We came to his house as strangers...we left as lifelong friends.
All I got left is two words. Thanks Nick.
(Steelers training camp, August 2019)