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Sean Kirst: On Easter, despite pain, family defines 'eternal hope'

Michael Feldman makes a compelling case. Despite what might look like tremendous proof to the contrary, the last two years have been among the best of his life.

He will tell you of the day not so long ago when an Amish farmer to the far north of Watertown handed him Duncan, a then-tiny border collie. The dog has grown into a role as Michael's comfort and companion, his shadow on their many long journeys in the woods.

Duncan was also there for an autumn milestone, a moment Michael rolled out in a way that was as good as it gets. Just before Thanksgiving, he and Duncan were walking along some wild trails with Lindsay Feraco, Michael's girlfriend, when they stopped to rest on a rock ledge, a kind of natural altar that offered a big view.

Michael already had picked the spot, at the Clark Reservation in Central New York. He set up a Go Pro, which Feraco didn't see as surprising, because the guy posts all the time to social media. What surprised her was the instant when he knelt before her and pulled out the ring, the one fit with a diamond once worn by Feraco's grandmother.

Stunned, Feraco started crying and nodding her head, an unconditional "yes" before she could even fully say the word.

It was done in a way that was emotionally perfect, a science that Michael – despite trials beyond all reason – has done his best to master.

On Easter, he and Feraco will head over to the home of Michael's father, Bernie Feldman, an Akron native whose own father worked at the old Westinghouse plant in Cheektowaga. Bernie became a zookeeper. That career took him to Illinois - where he met his wife Nancy - then to Kansas and to Syracuse, where he lives now.

Bernie, 67, is a church-going guy. Michael isn't, but he expects he will join his father at Easter Mass at their church, Most Holy Rosary, because he knows how much it means to his dad. They routinely accept dozens of hugs and handshakes from a community that has rallied around them, holding fundraisers and saying prayers and offering passionate support.

Michael Feldman and Lindsay Feraco, on a trip to Europe, in Amsterdam. (Family photo)

The truth is, that response is based as much on what the Feldmans offer as it is on what they need. It celebrates the indomitable and joyous way the family sees the world, the way Bernie and his children approach each morning as a gift, as part of what Bernie calls "the hope of new life."

If anything defines Easter, there it is.

What the family endured seems beyond the hardest fiction. In Kansas, Bernie and Nancy  learned their daughter Laura had leukemia. In 1988, after the family moved to Syracuse, the disease claimed Laura's life. The little girl was 7.

The blow was staggering, but there was scant reprieve. In 1991, a year before Michael was born, the couple noticed persistent bruises on the arms of their daughter Christina. The child, like her sister, had leukemia. After years of treatment, she survived the disease. She and her husband D.J. now live with Bernie, who helps care for their young children, Danny and Chloe.

Michael's other sister, Sarah, was the mother of Elizabeth, now 10, the first Feldman grandchild. In 2011, at 27, Sarah was struggling with a nagging cold. She took an over-the-counter cold medicine, then settled in for a nap.

She never woke up. She died in her sleep.

Yet the grief still did not stop.

Not quite three years ago, Nancy - after weeks of ignoring intense pain - learned she had fast-moving colon cancer. She was only 57 when she died in 2015. In a long conversation last week, Michael - at 25, her youngest child - never allowed himself a flash of grief until he spoke of his mother, and for a moment you saw all of it sweep across him.

"I'm never really one to spread negative energy," Michael said. "If I see you, I've got a choice about how I leave you feeling, and that spreads into the world. Why would I want to bring you down?"

He learned that approach, every day, from his mother. She was always conscious that the manner in which she affected those she met - in traffic, or at her children's school, or in line at a supermarket - might set the course for their whole day.

Choosing happiness in the face of unspeakable tragedy

The way Michael upholds that code is climbing toward legend.

In January 2016, less than two months after Nancy's death, Michael was working at the zoo in Syracuse when he went to the doctor for a cough he could not shake. He assumed it was a cold, maybe bronchitis, but the doctor called and asked him to come into his office.

The tests showed he had a massive tumor wrapped around his breast bone, his spine and his heart. A form of Ewing's Sarcoma, they called it. The doctors tried to brace him for what they thought was coming. One told him the chances were good he might not have six more months.

Two years later? Michael has gone through 68 rounds of chemotherapy and 10 rounds of radiation. The cancer has spread into his spine and his liver and his lungs, and he has lost his hair and watched as it grew back. There have been times, he said, when the pain and fatigue go beyond any words.

That has been the exception, not the rule.

There he was on Holy Thursday, painting Easter eggs with his niece Elizabeth and nephew Danny. There he was a few days ago, looking strong, drinking an ice coffee, glancing now and then at his phone to see who might have responded to his Instagram posts. Each one is an explosion of brilliant and sometimes gritty joy, of full presence in the moment.

Michael Feldman, last week, over coffee. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

He walks his dog, he speaks with jubilance about his fiancée and he trusts in the medical marijuana, legal in New York, that he believes helps with pain and fires up his appetite. He often glances at the tattoo on his left bicep, the one capturing the last thing his mother said to him, before he lost her.

You'll be okay.

"I choose carefully how I spend my time," Michael said. "I really know now that it's more about how I live my life than how long I live my life."

Do not take that as fatalistic. He likes to think it is a framework that works for anyone. To Michael, it is all about right now, about appreciating the light in the sky this morning. You look up, you turn your face to it, you step into the day – and as it ends, you're already making plans for tomorrow.

Beyond all else, he agreed to an interview to explain what Feraco means to him. He met her when they both worked at the zoo. She is now a schoolteacher in Syracuse, and the couple will be married in August. For their honeymoon, they are planning a cross-country drive.

Michael offers the ultimate compliment to any partner. She is his friend, he said. He looks forward to the drive, to just being in a space where the two of them can talk for hours, as much as he anticipates the destination.

"With her," he said, "I've never had any hesitation or doubt."

If there is one vivid gift he took from his father, it is an intuitive love for nature, the ability to see the absolute glory of a moment – whether he is admiring a bison along the road in Yellowstone or watching a squirrel leap between wires, on a city street.

"In the past," Michael said, "I might go through long periods of time I barely remember. Now, every day, I feel each moment matters."

Christina Feldman Wiegand, who survived childhood leukemia; Bernie Feldman, Christina's father, holding his granddaughter, Elizabeth Whewell, whose mother - Sarah Feldman - died in her sleep in 2011; and Nancy Feldman holding her grandson, Christina's son, Danny Wiegand. Nancy died in 2016, about five months after learning she had colon cancer. Photo courtesy of the Feldman family.

Michael's faith is in the natural, in beauty, in the spirit. Bernie, who tries to attend Mass every day, seeks out a similar comfort in church.

Doctors have told the Feldmans that what happened to their family has no scientific or environmental logic, that it amounts to an unbearable coincidence.

Bernie and Michael and Christina not only bear it. They lift up those around them.

"What we have is that hope, the hope that Michael will beat this, the hope that he will be a survivor," Bernie said.

He will go to church for Easter and find peace in the "eternal heartbeat" of life, in the idea that our lives here are only one small part of it.

Bernie wakes up every morning to a screenshot photo of his wife on his phone, and he tells her good morning and thinks about his day, and then he tries to live out the same strategy as Michael.

There is a choice about the energy you spread, out in the world.

"My son," Bernie said, "he has that living hope."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

Michael Feldman colors Easter eggs on Good Friday with niece Elizabeth and nephew Danny. (Family photo)

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