A life well-lived, though short, offers lessons in gratitude

I recently heard a story — a heartbreaking, heartwarming story that I felt compelled to share because the lessons it imparts resonate deeply in this season of love, good will, and hopefulness. For me, it all started with an achy hip.

The pain had been with me for some time, the inevitable result of genetics and time. As I prepared for hip replacement surgery, I sought the services of physical therapist John Kwon, owner of Core Performance in Newport Beach.

I had been treated by John years before and knew him to be a top-notch professional and an all-around great guy. During one session, as he worked his magic on my sore hip, he mentioned that he was headed out of town for a long and very special weekend.

Years ago, John explained, he met a young man named Alex Cho. During their first encounter, at a flag football game organized by a mutual friend, John was taken with Alex’s athleticism and warm personality.

When a minor altercation with the opposing team broke out — more chest-thumping than punch-throwing — Alex jumped in to defend his teammates.

“I remember that moment vividly,” John said. “He didn’t really know us, but he wanted to protect us. He had our backs.”

From that point on, John and Alex were fast friends. Indeed, Alex became a leader — the “focal point,” as John put it — of their social circle. Big and strong, Alex excelled at sports, but he was equally appreciative of the arts. A movie buff and a foodie, he loved fine wine, music and stylish clothes.

“He had this magnetic personality that people gravitate toward,” John told me. “Whatever he did, he did it to the fullest.”

Even more compelling, he said, was the loyalty and caring Alex showed to his family and friends.”What impressed me was that he was good friends with everybody. He could open up to anybody.”

When John first met him, Alex had been working in pharmaceutical sales in the Los Angeles area. He later relocated to Reno, where his parents lived, to help his father open a car dealership. But their friendship endured.

One day, Alex began to cough up blood. The diagnosis was grim: Stage 4 stomach cancer. John’s seemingly invincible, larger-than-life friend had just months to live.

John and other friends flew to Reno, and every moment of that trip is etched in John’s memory. The group decided to drive to Incline Village in Lake Tahoe. The air was crisp, and the snow-capped mountains were staggeringly beautiful. They went for a hike, and everyone shared with Alex how important he was to them.

“It was male bonding at its best,” John recalled.

He continued to visit Alex until the last time, just a few weeks before his friend died in 2012 at age 35. At the service, John met many of Alex’s other friends for the first time. One night they all met at a bar and shared stories.

“By the time the night was over we were hugging, crying and laughing. I felt these were guys I had known all my life.”

Then an idea was born. Every year, up to 15 of Alex’s friends from all over the country gather in Reno to reminisce and pay tribute to their buddy. Most of them are married with children, as is John, but whenever possible they drop everything and go.

They spend time with Alex’s family, and plan the kind of activities that Alex would have loved, like rounds of golf and dinner at his favorite restaurant. They visit his grave. There’s always more laughter, and more tears.

For the latest reunion, in October, one friend produced a video in which everyone in the group talked about the impact that Alex had on their lives. Alex’s father has told them that although he lost a son, he feels that he has gained 15 more.

Also this year, John presented another idea to the group, a way of paying forward Alex’s generous spirit and zest for life. He proposed starting a nonprofit, the Alex Cho Foundation, dedicated to helping underprivileged children in the Reno area. Everyone in the group is now pitching in to get the organization launched.

Alex’s life was far too short, John said, but his legacy lives on.

“Everyone in that group considered him a best friend,” he said. “He definitely left a footprint.”

After hearing Alex’s story, I couldn’t help thinking about my own life.

In many ways, 2017 has been a tough year. I lost two beloved family members. On a trip to Peru I contracted an illness that laid me up for a month. My dog died. The hip.

But the story of Alex and his boundless optimism made me realize that I could choose to view those challenges and heartaches from another perspective, one of gratitude. I was lucky to have two amazing women and a lovable lug of a mutt in my life, and though they are gone I cherish my memories. Illness aside, Peru was spectacular. My new hip is a medical marvel.

Yes, Alex’s time was cut short and there’s no escaping the sadness of his passing. But it’s also evident that his life was rich in what matters most; it continues to inspire those who knew and loved him, and now, strangers like me too. That’s a life well lived.

This Article is written by Patrice Apodaca who is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Link to the LA Times Article:  https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/opinion/tn-dpt-me-apodaca-20171204-story.html