On June 13, Philadelphia public transit advocate Peter Javsicas was killed when a car in the Center City neighborhood jumped a curb and struck him. It was a cruel irony that left a family without a husband, father, and grandfather. I was half a world away in Geneva at dinner with a fellow writer when I happened to check my phone and saw the news. It struck like a dagger. Peter was not only the father of one of my oldest and dearest friends, he was a man who helped me when I was in most dire need.
When I was 17 years old, my family began to fall apart. What had been an almost idyllic childhood turned swiftly to acrimony and instability. Few people knew what was going on, but eventually living at home became untenable for me. I was on a scholarship at a prestigious Philadelphia prep school, and my life, my grades, even my sanity seemed to be slipping.
Before things could reach a rock-bottom, I found myself essentially living at my friends’ house for several months of my senior year. Throughout high school I had been a frequent overnight guest with the Javsicases. My friend Aaron and I would spend hours perusing the local video store, then would bring home pizza and watch a movie. His loving parents and perky little sister were like a calm island in the disquiet ocean of my home life.
Without much being said or decided—by me, anyway—I began to be there every night, at every breakfast and dinner around their huge oak dining table. I was privy to family conversations and family outings and every other trapping of what I thought of as a normal family home.
Perhaps because I was so consumed with my own problems, or because at 17 we tend to take things for granted, it didn’t strike me as an odd or special situation. Why wouldn’t I live with the Javsicases? After all, where else did I have to go? In the two decades since, for various reasons, it’s continued to be something I’ve chosen not to dwell on.
‘Go Pray. I Will, Too’
As I placed my phone on the table after seeing the news and muttered, “Oh, no,” my friend asked what it was. I told him and he said, “Go pray. I will too.” I left the table on the big, ugly Geneva street and ducked into an alley. I cried as I crossed myself and prayed and in the midst of that prayer I might have been 17 again, thinking about the things I don’t think about.
Only then and for the first time did I think about what an extraordinary thing this wonderful, smiling, humble man had done for me. What a lost soul I was then. He had opened his home, the most sacred thing any man can have, to me. I was nearly broken, and not an easy guest, but he and his wife, Ann, gave me the sanctuary I needed to finish high school and more.
Now, as a father myself, I wonder if I could do that. Could I take in one of my son’s friends, pay the food bills, submit to the lack of family privacy from an addition thrust on me not by choice nor necessity but by a world that falls apart too often? I don’t know the answer for me, but I know the answer for Peter and I wouldn’t be writing this had that answer not been yes.
Peter, who was a filmmaker before he became an educator and eventually an activist who founded Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions, Inc., took the video of my wedding just a few years after my stay with his family. We recently had the tape converted to disc and his buoyant, happy voice runs through it, interviewing family and friends. It was a joyous day on which my wife and I took the first steps towards creating our own family, and he couldn’t have captured it more sincerely or lovingly.
Rest in Peace, Peter
As the years passed I didn’t see him much. I had moved to New York and fallen out of touch with friends as we do. I was still followed by the tempestuous realities of that end of my own childhood, realities I still struggle with. I had forgotten, or chosen to forget, many things.
But in the slight dim rain of that Swiss street, so many miles from my homes of past and present, I remembered. The memory of what he had done for me sat heavy in my heart and mind with the realization that I had never once thanked him. In my selfish desire to escape the past, I never thought to do it. And now I never will be able to.
The irony of the devastating distance of death is that it brings closer the intimacy of our relationship with the lost. Time only really matters when we run out of it. Peter Javsicas did many wonderful things for myriad people, including many he never knew. There will rightfully be obituaries, remembrances, and celebrations of his accomplishments.
Most of those were more important than helping a scared 17-year-old who had nowhere else to go. But he did it anyway. It is too late to tell him how grateful I am. Now all I can do is remember and hope that I can live by his example, helping those in need and giving them shelter from the too-often terrors of our too-short lives.