Friday, April 28, 2017

"This is as actual a part of living as being born"

     Concrete sounded terrible.
     "You don't sound so good," I told him.
     "I'm very weak," he replied. "I don't think I will be able to call you. I have edema all over my body. My nephew is a doctor and he says I have maybe weeks. I think that might be optimistic. I think more likely days."
     He would die the next day, April 5
     Concrete had been phoning me at the newspaper for 15 years. Once a week, once a month — it's not like I kept track. To comment on columns. To talk about stuff. He had a blunt, rounded Chicago voice, massaging his "t's" into "d's.
     "Hi, it's Concrede..." he'd say.
     He was pleasant and informed and often complimentary. But still, for years I viewed him as something of a nuisance. I had things to do. I'd surf the web while we talked. It's not something I thought much about. I had no idea, for instance, why I called him "Concrete" — his business, maybe.
     But over the past few months, he got sick — heart failure — and started to die. I began paying closer attention. A heart transplant was not an option.
     "I can't see taking a heart from someone younger," he said. "I'm not Dick Cheney."
     He could have fought harder but, at 69, he didn't see the point.
     "It's not like I'm jumping at death, but you gotta be realistic," he said. "Seventeen years ago I had a triple bypass, so I've actually outlived most people with the condition I had. Things are coming to the conclusion. This is as actual a part of living as being born. I know it's a cliche but it's true."
     I was concerned he was alone, but, the oldest of seven children, six boys and a girl, he had relatives around.
     "I feel terrible being a burden to them," he said. "My nephew carrying me down the stairs. I liked it better when I carried him."
     What's it like, knowing that you are going to die soon?
     "In a way it's almost a gift," he said. "I get to say thank you to people, to try to make amends to people I've offended by commission or omission. To forgive those who've done things to me."
     Was he worried about what might come after death?
     "Reason only carries you so far," he said. "That's where things like faith come in. I hope for some survival of awareness. I can't be sure there is. I've fallen back on Christian tradition. There are things beyond what our brains can comprehend."
     He had a lot of good memories.
     "My niece Dana on my shoulders, leaving the Auto Show, the kids waving bye-bye to everyone as they were going out of a the Auto Show. It's a nice memory. My God, I've been thinking of so many good memories, things when I was a kid, my dad, funny things. Seven kids, one bathroom, I once tried to see if the toilet would swallow a potato."
     Any regrets, besides that?
     "Oh God," he said. "I wish I had years and years, I had plans with my brothers, stuff like that. You have to let all that go. People are saying goodbye to me. I'm saying goodbye to everybody. There's a sadness to it, an anger phase, I've come to acceptance ... though I'm also still angry about it. I'll probably die that way."
     Toward the end, I thought to ask something I had never asked before
     "Concrete, what's your name?"
     "My name is Michael Rosewell," he said. "It's an English name. My great-grandfather was a remittance man. The family was paid to leave England and never come back."
     Why did I call him "Concrete"? I had written something about touring the engine room of a ship in the mid-Atlantic.
     "I told you that in Vietnam we experimented with concrete hulls for ships, and you started to call me 'Concrete,'" he said. "When it's over I'll have someone call you..."
     True to his word, the day before I left on vacation, I got a phone message from his brother.
     "He never married, never had any children," said Joseph Rosewell. "He always felt like the nieces and nephews were the children he never had."
     Rosewell died in Garfield Ridge, in the house his parents bought 66 years ago. His brother said he was greatly missed.
     "He was the leader, he was highly intelligent, you could see that, could sense that right away," said Rosewell. "He was always ready to share things. He loved to talk, loved to have us sit around and chat, hey, have a cup of coffee with me, one thing turn to another and we were having a great conversation."
     I can vouch for that. I never met the man, but felt bad, missing his funeral. The day I arrived in Rome, the first church I came upon was a lovely 16th century cathedral, the Trinità dei Monti. at the top of the Spanish Steps. I put a coin in the box and lit one of the short round votive candles and said a prayer for Michael Rosewell.


  1. It's good of you to have given him the time.

  2. Hi Neil,

    I don't care what anyone says; now I know you're a good guy!

    Linda B

  3. This article gave me chills. Beautiful.

  4. Oldest of 7 - that's me. Heart surgery - me too. Steinberg pest - yep. And my grandfather was a scamp as well. Hope Neil will light a candle for me when I'm gone, just so it's not too soon


  5. Wow. When my time comes, I hope I face it with as much grace, courage and dignity as this guy.

  6. Almost too much to comment on here. Neil deserves much credit for preserving this portrait of a good man approaching death without all the bullshit.


  7. I had no idea readers could phone you up and casually bullshit about your columns. I would have done that long ago...

  8. Reading it again at the end of the day, I find it pleasing that Steinberg evidently didn't essay "comforting" thoughts. I think of an anecdote about a famous Canadian actor dying of AIDS in midwinter Toronto, being assured by a pious relative that he would be in "a better place." His rejoinder: "You mean we're going to Santa Fe?"


  9. I believe "Concrete" found comfort, felt comfortable, in talking with Neil over the years. His sharing of his last days shows a relationship I'm sure both acknowledge. This post serves as an informal, but kind, obituary. Well done.

  10. Mr. Rosewell was also a frequent caller to Donna Vickroy at the Daily Southtown, who's written an equally touching eulogy: One wonders which other journalists he called - or didn't call. Maybe she are Neil were the only two who became regular listeners. I appreciate that they did.

  11. The patents he held thst Vickroy mentioned in her piece were something else -- muclear reactor safety mechanisms.

  12. I'd known Mike for about 12 years. We were delegates to the Chicago Federation of Labor and I would drive him to the meetings. A committed Union member, a proud veteran, and a font of knowledge about everything from politics to physics. I will miss him. Thank you Neil.

  13. Oh,my. What a wonderful gentle giant of a man.He loved the newspaper business. I think that at the time we met, Mike was working at the Suntimes as a fork lift driver.We both belonged to a semi-geeky group of people taking holography classes at The Chicago Holography School and Museum. I recall having a number of really interesting conversations with Mike. One of my favorites was how he got out of a speeding ticket by explaining the physics of the radar used by the policeman to the judge in traffic court...that the radar had actually bounced off a fence, etc. He came equiped with charts and diagrams, I seem to recall...proving that the ticket should have gone to another driver. The judge agreed and Mike's ticket was dismissed. Another dear memory that speaks of his intelligence was really spectacular. Mike showed me 2 of his patents, both of which he had sold to the government. One was a patent for washing nuclear waste in a reactor and another was for measuring the weight of something in a large body of water. I think the latter was bought by the Navy as they wanted to anticipate nuclear submarines of our enemies in the ocean...
    Not bad for a fork lift guy. May our friend never rest in peace. I hope he continues to stay behind the scenes making wonderful commentary that enriches our lives.


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