Facing death head on
MICKEY HIRSCH walked up to the counter at Home Depot as the store buzzed with do-it-yourselfers poring over tile, hardwoods, lights and faucets to spruce up their homes.
Hirsch asked a worker to saw slabs of pine. He had specific dimensions-four 25-by-78-inch sections, two 24-by-25-inch pieces.
"You making a cabinet?" the worker asked casually.
"No. I'm making my coffin," Hirsch replied.
The saw operator stared at Hirsch's sunken cheeks, hollow eyes and thin sprigs of fuzz hair. He looked uneasy, even horrified, as he took several steps back from Hirsch.
"Why would you do that?" he asked.
"Why wouldn't I? I'm a carpenter," said Hirsch, 61, a straight-talking fading fireball who has aged 20 years in two months from the cancer that is smothering his organs.
Other customers left the store excited about their next project.
Hirsch drove off, contemplating his last.
He took the wood to his neighbor's garage. His neighbor, Mike Tufano, helped him build a simple pine box. Then Hirsch's 17-year-old daughter, Erin, held the casket's handles (actually, garage-door handles) steady while Hirsch bolted them in tight. Perfect for pallbearers to grip.
It's unclear what Erin thinks of all this: She didn't return numerous phone calls from the Daily News. Hirsch's 26 year-old son, Matt, was taken aback.
"Only he would do that," Matt said. "He loves building and in his mind it gives him a little bit of closure.
"He's going above and beyond his call of duty," Matt added. "He's doing everything he can to help us."
Hirsch, who has lived in Northeast Philly most of his life, posted photos of his casket-in-the-making on Facebook, which made some friends uncomfortable. A few accused him of being morbid.
"So I asked them to send me some cards and I'd place them on top and I'd call it a hope chest," he said.
Hirsch received more than 900 cards, and his "hope chest" now sits in the living room of his modest 760-square-foot home in Forked River, N.J., like an eerie unfinished coffee table.
"In ways, it's heroic. In ways, it's kind of gross, but I give him a lot of credit," said longtime friend Penny Slakoff.
At a time when millions share triumphs, struggles and funny moments on social media, Hirsch is chronicling his life's end on Facebook, where he has almost 5,000 "friends" rooting for him. He claims to know or have met about 3,000 of them.
"Mickey likes to be the center of attention. He thrives on it," Slakoff said. "But if it makes the fight better for him, why not?"
Friends say he is inspiring those with failing health.
"He is 100 percent, no doubt in my mind, changing people's lives. His posts are real and raw," said Lisa Howser, who has known Hirsch for years and set up a GiveForward fundraising campaign for him.
"I'm terrified of death, but he taught me you face it with pride. Don't be ashamed. Don't hide. Get out there and live," she said.
Hirsch is sharing everything: The time he pulled his car over to the shoulder three times because he was so exhausted. His grueling chemo treatments, his weight loss, sleepless nights and scary temperature spikes.
"I do want to live. I do. But I'm making the most out of my death. I'm putting some meaning into it. I share these experiences so people are not scared to die," he said.
"I don't only accept my death. I embrace it," he added. "I have a psychotic lack of fear of death. Things are what they are. I won't let myself be nervous. What a useless emotion that is."
From 40 to 90 in weeks
These days, Hirsch is unrecognizable to most friends who haven't seen him in awhile.
He says "hello," calling out their names, but they stare at him, mystified. If his voice doesn't tip them off, he has to tell them, "Yo. It's me - Mickey."
A year and a half ago, he packed 220 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame. He had a full head of brown hair and could pass for at least 15 years younger. He dieted and trimmed down to an athletic 190 last August. He looked the best he had in years.
He now guzzles protein drinks and scarfs down as much food as he can, but it's hard to keep weight on. A few weeks ago, he dropped to a frail 150.
"On June 15th, I was a 61-year-old man who was like a strong 40-year-old who worked construction his whole life. Four weeks later I'm a 90-year-old man. No exaggeration," he said.
Hirsch grew up in the Bells Corner section of Northeast Philly, where he was a mischievous "Dennis the Menace"-type of kid who climbed out his bedroom window to land on and dent the roof of his dad's new Ford Fairlane, and threw rocks onto train tracks, waiting to see what happened.
A 1969 graduate of Northeast High School, he spent his formative years watching laborers build and remodel houses.
At 11, he earned $150 a week slapping together bologna-and-cheese sandwiches for construction workers.
"I had the instinct in my DNA to be in construction," said Hirsch, who has had several remodeling/handyman businesses over the years, mostly in the Philadelphia metro area.
He had two sons, Kevin and Matt, before he and his wife divorced in 1989. He had his daughter, Erin, in 1995, but separated from Erin's mom the next year. Erin's mom died on Christmas Day 2008 at the age of 44.
He has not been spared life's worst heartbreaks.
Kevin, who had a developmental disorder that gave him a "never-ending childhood," was 26 when he died of swine flu in November 2009.
"When you lose a child, you stand on the edge of an abyss about to fall in," he said. "I rose above it."
Hirsch spearheaded a campaign to urge everyone to get flu shots and has shuttled people back and forth to drugstores to get them.
But Hirsch admits he's "no angel."
In the mid 2000s, he was charged with several counts of deceptive-business practices, theft by receiving stolen property and related charges, mostly for taking deposit money and not finishing the jobs he promised.
Hirsch told a reporter that he was in North Carolina and his partner failed to do the work.
Hirsch pleaded guilty, was placed on five years' probation and ordered to pay restitution.
"I'm not making excuses. I was negligent and had bad judgment, but I didn't have criminal intent," he said.
"I'm a good human being, but I'm not a perfect citizen . . . It's one major blemish in my life. I'm as sorry as I can be.
"Whatever transgressions I committed, I want the last chapter of my life to be about doing good. I want to pay it forward. I want to atone for my sins."
"Didn't sound good"
Hirsch went to a doctor in June because he felt a dull pain in his upper mid-section between his ribs.
The doctor immediately sent him for tests. Blood work seemed good. Chest X-ray showed nothing. Then came the CT scan.
"I thought maybe I had acid reflux," he said. "I never ever thought cancer even though everyone on my mother's side of the family died of cancer."
The solemn-faced doctor told him to come to her office.
"I knew that didn't sound good," he said.
The cancer, which started in his pancreas, had spread to his stomach, liver and lungs. Doctors can't predict how much longer he'll live, but 80 percent of people with pancreatic cancer don't live longer than a year.
He told his daughter, Erin, that they would make the most of the time he has left, but deal with death head-on. So when his hair started to fall out on his pillow, Erin gave him a close-cropped haircut.
"She's a thousand times stronger than me. She lost two grandfathers, a mother, a brother and a dog in one year," he said.
That's why he fights to live. He wants to see Erin graduate from high school next June.
He's undergoing chemo, which he calls "an ungodly out-of-body inhumane suffering beyond comprehension. . . . One day before chemo I was a 35-year-old man who could run. The next I'm an old man who has trouble going up one step."
After six chemo treatments, Hirsch recently learned the tumors in his liver and pancreas have shrunk to half the size they were. Maybe the chemo bought him time, he said.
He injects a blood thinner into his "love handles" every day to prevent clots that could kill him.
He had no health insurance but Cooper University Hospital agreed to cover his chemo and medical care until December. He just found out Wednesday that he was approved for Medicaid. "Best day ever," he said, "at least in the last four months."
Void of bitterness, Hirsch doesn't ask why he has to die.
"There's no mystery to it," said Hirsch, who never smoked or drank. "It's just science and biology. I had a defective cell and it multiplied."
Despite support from his Facebook friends, he feels alone and posted that he wants a girlfriend/partner.
"I envy anyone in my situation who has a husband or wife or significant other in their life at this time," he said.
Words for the headstone
Hirsch continues to take on remodeling jobs with his son, Matt, even the same day as his chemo treatments.
"My son does 90 percent of the work. I do 90 percent of the talking," he said.
"I prefer dying in someone's back yard with a handful of broken concrete rather than in my living room sitting on the couch with a remote in my hand," he said.
His friends have helped raise money for him. Since August, the GiveForward campaign established by Lisa Howser has raised $6,700 to help pay for Hirsch's funeral and finish the headstone for his son, Kevin.
"Dying sucks," Hirsch said. "But I'm a dying guy who feels special."
Howser also helped organize a Mickey's Beef & Beer, slated for Oct. 18 at Paddy Whacks Pub in the Northeast.
Until then, Hirsch has preparations to make.
He recently shuffled into the office at Montefiore Cemetery in Jenkintown that dates back to 1910. His parents and grandparents are among thousands buried there.
He sat gingerly as if every bone radiated pain. As he spoke with cemetery directors, each breath seemed labored; his skin, an ashen gray.
Hirsch placed two photos - one of himself and one of Kevin - on the table. Erin helped pick them out. He wants each image etched into their gray granite gravestones.
He then opened a binder filled with photos of headstones and prepared to write the words for his.
"Do you like devoted dad or dedicated dad?" he asked a reporter.
"Devoted," the reporter replied. "Dedicated sounds more work-related."
He settled on this:
Edmond "Mickey" Hirsch
And Friend to All
Feb. 6, 1952-
Father of Kevin, Matthew & Erin
He leaned forward in his chair, staring at the words on paper and smiled. He then walked across patches of rutted grass to Kevin's fresh-looking grave under an immense maple tree at the edge of the cemetery near a baseball field.
"Kevin loved baseball," he said. "I will be buried next to him."
The cemetery marketing director told him he's courageous.
"It's not courage," Hirsch said. "It's just the way you're supposed to do it."
Up to the end, Hirsch will face death his way.
He has squirreled away Ambien, a sedative used to treat insomnia.
"I have 30 of them. I have to make sure that's enough to kill me," he said.
"Whatever I have to take, I will. I don't want to end my life in diapers, helpless, unable to function.
"I want to have control over the end of my life. I want to be able to say goodbye."