On the final treacherous steps of a 21-year-old journey that led him from an icy pier and into Lake Ontario in the winter of 2015, Max Maisel left little trace. No note, no cry for help. Not much more than a poem from seventh grade and the lasting image of a bright, loving, sensitive young man in constant repair of the wall he had built against the world.
But when Monroe County, NY, the sheriff’s deputy called to say Max’s car had been found, but no Max, Ivan Maisel, knew exactly the same thing.
“Max was dead.”
The blunt assessment is typical of the general spirit of I keep trying to catch his eye, a “memoir of loss, sorrow, and love,” as mentioned on the cover. The feelings, skillfully rendered, are honest and sincere, which should be expected of someone who has spent four decades in press boxes representing ESPN as well as other media, among others. Dallas Morning News. But there is nothing memorable in this intensely personal undertaking, and the fact that the subject is the author’s only son is only half of the sermon.
Learning to understand, let alone face, the grief at his door every day is no less of an adjustment for one who had spent an entire life avoiding such confrontations. As Ivan told a small congregation on Monday, the book is not so much an ode to Max, which in many ways was unrecognizable as it was an act of self-preservation.
Before I go any further, I must admit here that my observations are not only professional. Before Ivan celebrated his career at ESPN, he was a SportsDay colleague. He and his wife, Meg, were our neighbors. They are our friends. I attended Max’s Breeze and I had a seat at his memorial.
Ivan filled much of what came between the two events, in his elegant praise, the germ of his memories. He stepped up to the podium and said, “I think you’ll think the first 45 minutes of this are tough, but then I’ll fall into a rhythm.”
Then he smiled to make sure we got the joke.
Born and raised in Mobile, Ala., A smart Jewish boy who grew up in the deep south, he learned to be vigilant. Even after moving across the country to Stanford and making a national name in sports and settling in Connecticut, he never left Mobile. After his first appearance on ESPN, Ivan once told me that he asked his father, Herman, a successful businessman and clothing horse, what he thought of his debut.
“Wear a navy blazer next time,” Herman said.
Max’s memorial speech did not really last 45 minutes, but even if it had, it would still have been a triumph. The only time Ivan faltered came after acknowledging what they did not know about Max’s struggles, not to mention the extremes he went to to spare his parents and two sisters. “It must have been exhausting,” Ivan said, as his baritone cracked under the weight of guilt.
As is his nature, he quickly recovered and returned to his calling. At one point – exactly where I do not remember – I started crying. A congenital defect. The confluence of truth, beauty and vulnerability always makes me cry.
The book continues where my tribute left off. We learn that Max loved milk, Oreos, french fries, Honeycrisp apples, chicken and red meat, roasted. On his 18th birthday, he received 18 marks of grain. He was a stick figure of 6-5 and 135 pounds and preferred T-shirts and unbuttoned flannel shirts and pants without belts. He shared with his father the love for the Marx brothers, the comedy duo Bob and Ray and Broadway. He also had an enduring love of anime and photography, his major at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
But knowing what someone likes to eat or wear or look at is not the same as seeing what is behind the mask. Max rarely lowered his. A defense mechanism. Ivan and Meg are still not sure why he needed it. Max was “somewhere on the spectrum,” Ivan says, but the doctors never gave them any nice answers, and Max did not get many clues.
One could have been a poem he wrote in seventh grade. Three stanzas long, this is the last:
I understand that I may never get really happy.
I sometimes say that the only way to win is to clear the board completely.
I dream that I will be free from my nightmares.
I’m trying to be a peacemaker between friends.
I hope I eventually get really happy.
I am an isolator from everyone and a silent speaker.
Ivan and Meg are haunted by what they did not know or understand and what they could have done to save their son. The book spares no self-blame. But it also provides some comfort for members of the world’s worst club.
Ivan’s ESPN executives called on his special expertise after the suicide of Tyler Hilinski, a quarterback for Washington State, in 2018. He rejected them. Too early, even three years after. He agreed a few months later, but on the condition that he would write about the parents’ experience, the fulfillment of a professional axiom. Write what you know.
The Hilinski family’s story ends with an anecdote from Tyler’s mother, Kym. When she finds her grief overwhelming, she imagines that she and Tyler live on a remote island, a place he can never leave, where his demons can not find him, where she and she alone can watch over and protect him.
“I hope those fantasies sound amazing to you,” Ivan writes. “That would mean you never lost a child.”
As unpleasant as that feeling may seem, and as harsh as Ivan is to himself on these pages, he remains the gracious host. He tries to help not only himself but also the reader. Even in the knowledge that Ivan and Meg will never get over the loss of their son, that they should only learn to live with it, he gives hope.
Now, if you want to apologize for the personal remark, I would like to give my friends one piece of advice in return: Do not be so harsh on yourselves. We can only know what someone allows us to know. Our commitment as parents is to love our children with all our heart, and you have done and continue to do so.
I know because I know you, and because of a story Ivan tells in his beautiful memoir about a little white carved elephant no bigger than your fingertip that a neighbor once gave Max. He loved it, which meant his parents did too. Meg once crashed into a muddy pond to retrieve it. Another time, they retreated 10 miles to a gas station in search of a little boy’s lost talisman and found it, miracle of miracles.
“Someone had placed it next to the pump,” Ivan writes. “A parent, I suppose.”
Lifelines for support
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Confidential online chat is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Crisis text line: 24-hour support by sending an SMS to HOME to 741741. More information at crisistextline.org.
North Texas Behavioral Health Authority: 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-866-260-8000 or go to ntbha.org.
North Texas Suicide and Crisis Center: Talk to a trained counselor on the 24-hour hotline at 214-828-1000 or 800-273-8255 or go to sccenter.org.
Here to the Texas Mental Health Navigation Line: The Grant Halliburton Foundation initiative, which connects North Texans with mental health resources tailored to each caller at 972-525-8181 or go to HereForTexas.com.
Dallas Metrocare Services: For help, call 1-877-283-2121 or go to metrocareservices.org.
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