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Reflections: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Karel Rachunek (#4) and Josef Vašíček (#63) four months ago.
Karel Rachunek (#4) and Josef Vašíček (#63) four months ago.

My oldest nephew was born a few weeks after 9/11, and I remember holding him in the hospital and looking at his innocent, vulnerable little face, wondering what world we'd brought him into.

I also wondered how I'd turn him into a hockey player.

That's not to make light of tragedy. U.S. media is already blanketed with coverage of the 10th anniversary of that awful day. The oft-repeated angle is that moments like 9/11 put frivolous things like sports in "perspective" to help us focus on what's really important. That is certainly true.

But I've realized through relationships that sometimes it can be the other way around.

The joys, the pains (but not too severe pains) we experience in sports can help us relate to one another better. I'm not just talking about fandom, either: Experiencing injuries teaches you about the body, about human resilience, about walking a mile in someone else's shoes. (Is that guy not trying ... or is he playing through pain we can't see nor fathom?) Pro athlete retirements drill home the stages of life, our mortality, the importance of human relationships in achieving our dreams. This international sport gets us to share different cultures, languages, backgrounds, and fantastic places to visit.

The key here is we can disagree politically, philosophically and theistically but come together around a common team or sport. A key value there -- beyond strengthening bonds through good times and good laughs -- is we've found ways to know people whom we'd otherwise not.

On 9/11, On Loss, On Life. Onward.

I wasn't going to write anything for today's somber anniversary. As already mentioned, the traditional media is saturated with coverage, and my expression would be one of thousands of sorrow and thanks for those who died or who rushed to serve that day and immediately following. I can only assume people come here on this day for sports, to get a break from all that.

But last week, with 9/11 anniversary coverage already picking up steam, the Lokomotiv disaster jolted me into that annual funk several days ahead of schedule.

Maybe the medium -- a plane crash -- was a common thread, but regardless the immediate feeling is always the same: If you feel some connection to a tragedy, it will give you pause. It's that helpless post-event conception that such people were alive one minute and gone the next, their families instantly saddled with devastating loss.

Those moments can't help but get you pondering life's strange trip.

But of course that trip is not all sorrow. Didn't know it then, but in 2001 the Islanders were about to experience revival, get off to a historic start, and return to the playoffs and help alleviate stressed minds. I wasn't thinking about the Islanders on September 12, 2011, but I was sure happy they were there for me on Oct. 12.

Meanwhile, that nephew would become a goalie who's always asking me to shoot on him or let him play my drums. I called him from the NHL shop in Times Square last winter and he asked me to get him a Flyers hat. I could only chuckle. I could make him a hockey player, but I couldn't force him to be an Isles fan. That's life.

Threads That Weave Us, through Joy and Tragedy.

Also life: Former Islander Josef Vašíček, who died in last week's crash, was from Havlíčkův Brod in the Czech Republic. Havlíčkův Brod is one of those quaint European towns that a North American can't believe has existed since before Western man had confirmed there was a "West" on the other side of the Atlantic. It has hundreds of historic buildings lining its streets and squares -- and yes, it has a Potato Research Institute, too.

It's also one of the last places I visited with my dad before he was too sick to travel as his life tapered toward its end. My dad who brought me to hockey -- one of few ways we connected -- who showed me Al Arbour and the Islanders, who made me feel a kinship to Czechs like Vašíček. and who was the grandpa of the kid who made me buy a freaking Flyers hat.

I remember asking my dad how he got through Nazi occupation in World War II: "Well, you didn't have a choice." I remember asking an uncle how he got through the Great Depression in the U.S.: "You just did. You keep on." Mrs. Lighthouse and I were discussing how the young teenagers she teaches now have no clear in-the-moment conception of 9/11. Her kids are already too young. And good for them: Lord knows they'll experience their own tragedies, as that's the way of things. No doubt, they'll keep on.

The human spirit is strong; it doesn't really have a choice. But we all deserve diversions and alternative forms of connection like hockey, or music, or whatever hobby fills the gaps between routine and tragedy. We can get into trouble taking them too seriously -- but we should also recognize they are seriously important. They haven't merely gotten me past tragedies, nor strengthened my bonds with family. They've helped me better know and understand people all around the world. This site's community and the unpredictable connections it's created has drilled that home for me.

However you were affected by that day 10 years ago, however you're remembering it now, I hope you've found ways to keep on keepin' on. Life tends to demand you find them. I know I have. I couldn't endure this strange trip any other way.

* * *

Note: "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is a Czech novel by Milan Kundera. It was made into an American film starring Daniel Day-Lewis in 1988, but reportedly Kundera didn't feel the film was true to the novel. I'm probably being abusive of his (translated) title here, but I can't help myself. It's a great, widely applicable phrase.