Photo credit: Gary Kelley
On September 3, while 64-year-old Diana Nyad was swimming from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage, succeeding, on her fifth attempt in becoming the first person to do so, my 52-year-old cousin Spyro Economou had a massive heart attack at his home and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
All day on Facebook, people were commenting on Nyad's incredible feat -- sharing how inspiring they found her determination, celebrating her hard-won accomplishment, noting how extraordinary her achievement is.
And all day, on my cousin's Facebook page, his friends, family and customers kept sharing how he inspired them, how deeply he has touched their lives. Along with his brother Freddy, Spyro took over his parents' pizza place, the Westboro House of Pizza, later transforming it into a restaurant named The Westboro House (or, as he liked to call it WHOP). He never swam to Cuba -- it would have never even occured to him to try. But in his role as a business owner, he worked miracles.
"You were a huge contribution to who I became as a person," wrote one woman on his Facebook wall. "You gave me my first job. Took me out of my shy shell I was hiding in. Gave me confidence. Taught me how to cook. How to dance to James Brown. How to stand up for myself and most importantly how to be sweet, kind and funny like you. This world is losing an amazing person. You were famous in our little town and have touched the lives of so many people. I will miss you and your ever-so-bright smile."
"Spyro Economou, you were such a father figure to me," wrote another. "You gave me advice, looked out for me, and showed me guidance every time I needed it. You made me smile and laugh and made the past five years that much more enjoyable. You were family, I will miss you always, but you will forever be in my heart."
And another wrote, "If I touch HALF as many lives, w/ half of the love, compassion & laughter, in my lifetime as Spyro in his, I will be the richest woman around."
As the day went on, people began leaving bouquets of flowers in front of his restaurant's shuttered doors, creating a shrine for Spyro much like the ones to Princess Diana that sprung up after her death. And then, in a sign of the technological times we live in, others who stopped at the WHOP photographed the tributes, and posted the images on Facebook. "Spyro, did you know how many people you touched?" wrote one such commentator. "People are leaving flowers at WHOP! Amazing statement about you!"
Spyro was amazing -- he was funny and smart and kind and capable of so much love. It was almost a natural phenomenon. He gushed love like a geyser. A massive heart attack is cruel and unexpected, but it's a fitting way for him to go because his heart was truly massive.
When my brother and sister and I were kids, Spyro used to pick us up at school and play Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" on his eight-track. As I've been pushing my daughter's stroller around Miami Beach today, humming the song and crying, I've been thinking about how Spyro's life, in comparison to Diana Nyad's or Princess Diana's, was ordinary -- he lived in the same town his whole life, ran a business, busted his friends' chops.
But the way he touched people's lives is truly extraordinary. And while Spyro was one of a kind, I know he's not the only "average" American like this. There are teachers who inspire hundreds of students in the course of an ordinary career, clergy who comfort entire communities before quietly retiring and other business owners like Spyro who stand behind their bars offering a joke or some company.
I think there should be a word to describe the beauty and the amazement in ordinary things -- not just people, but all the every day miracles that surround us. The smell of cut grass, the taste of a really good tomato, or the not-really-that-surprising surprise of walking through the park and coming across a bride and groom taking pictures. If there were such a word, maybe we would be more likely to appreciate the every day miracles as they happen, instead of noticing them in a blinding flash when they're gone.
Diana Nyad does inspire me -- to try harder, to be fitter, to never give up. And Spyro will always inspire me to love and laugh loudly, and more often. I haven't been able to come up with a word to describe the beauty in ordinary things, but I will try harder to notice them. It's the best way I can think of to celebrate Spyro's amazing achievement: his life.
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