I stood at Mitch’s hospital bedside, my hand in his, praying in silence. The face, the ventilator, the silence in the room, told a grim story. My childhood friend had summoned me to say “Good-bye…”
“Please, Mitch, don’t leave us now – the country needs your voice; Rose and the children need you…and God, alone, knows how much you mean to me…don’t leave, please…”
His cheeks were puffy and red, a stark contrast to rest of his face which was snowy white, so pale. That notable silvery head of hair and bushy handlebar mustache, always meticulously groomed, that gave him the eerie appearance of the notable Armenian author, William Saroyan, was now tousled in sweat and the only audible sound came from the ventilator which was breathing for him, as his body tried to fight the deadly infection that had invaded him and appeared to be taking command of his lungs and body.
Mitch was battling for his life and all I could do was stand there and pray that he would win…as he had in the past.
I kept saying to myself that my childhood friend would survive. He must survive…
Rose moved close to me and whispered, “Tommy, do you want a chair?” I shook my head silently. I stood there, dazed, not knowing what to do – or say – and my heart hammering as if it would shatter into pieces. The hopelessness of it all. It was excruciating.
And, then it happened. Mitch opened his eyes…I squeezed his hands. “It’s me, Mitch…It’s me…” He smiled, recognizing me, and I went on, “You son-of-a-bitch…you son-of-a-bitch…you’re trying to get out of our contract!”
When The Repatriate was first published and readers were commenting how it should be made into a movie, I shook my head and said dream on. Disingenuous as one may think I would be if such an offer would be forthcoming, I felt uncomfortable having my life and those whom I respected and loved for all to see, although writing about it had not bothered me at all. I suppose it is the idea of it being right there for all to see, rather than “hidden” between the covers of a book. My result of my research surprised me when I discovered many authors feel the way I do.
I wrote my memoirs in order to offset what had been written about me in the Soviet Union, and the report in Batch 13, of the Investigation Into the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy where my name is among those on the same page of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Mitch, who wrote several promotional and news articles about my book tour, took a different view of promoting the book and, if fortunate, bringing the story to the silver screen.
“We must do it if the opportunity comes,” he said.
I said no.
“But you’re not seeing the big picture.”
“And that is…?”
“The possibilities are endless and we could really tweak the noses of those damn Turks…the genocide…Stalin…the gulags…and the sex. It will make a beautiful movie.”
“And they’ll also want a movie script, and I’m sick of writing.”
He echoed my thoughts.
“So, am I. But, we’ll do it. We will make this thing come alive.”
I knew that whatever Mitch set out to do, he accomplished. And I soon found myself agreeing with him. And then he asked me what I thought of the movie starting off like…”There are these two old men – you and me, sitting in a bar with a glass of beer…”
“No,” I interrupted, “No beer. I hate beer!”
“Okay, bartender, make that a bottle of Five Star, Armenian Cognac.”
“Well, after a toast to God and country, we begin arguing, like most elderly Armenians do.”
“Argue about what?” I innocently ask.
“Politics, you idiot, and then about you going to the Soviet Union…about how crazy an idea it is, that you’re leaving the United States for what? For a gulag, that’s what!”
“Mitch, you’re full of s—!”
“But…then you get on that damn Soviet ship….the…”
“And, you’re lonely…you meet Kiva…and …It will be the movie that we’ve all been waiting for. Let’s do it!”
“And, you’ll help write it?”
“We’ll have as much fun writing and selling the script as we had selling ice as kids.”
I was about to extend my hand and shake his hand and say, “It’s a deal!” when I saw in my mind the old men in the bar drinking the cognac and said, “I’m in, but on one condition…”
“And what is that?” Mitch asked.
“That neither of us shall die until we have this project finished,” I said. “If you dare die before we complete this project, I will sue the pants off of you, even if I have to chase you all across the universe, hunt you on each of all of the planets to find you.!”
Mitch laughed and agreed.
The verbal contract was sealed with a toast of cognac and a handshake. And we began working on the manuscript before this sudden illness hit him. It was inevitable, for both of us were living on borrowed time.
Mitchell “Mitch” Kehetian’s services were conducted on February 27, 2020, at St. Sarkis Church in Dearborn, the Rev. Father Hrant Kevorkian officiating. Despite the wintry storm that engulfed the Detroit Metropolitan area, and the arctic winds that accompanied the icy storm, the pews of the church were filled to pay homage to one of the icons of the community.
After the traditional Armenian prayers and services, Father Kevorkian told the mourners that during his solemn visits with Mitch at the hospital he admired what an extraordinary human being Mitch had been, his contributions as a journalist, his love of country and the motherland, and his remarkable drive and energy in raising funds for the rebuilding of Nor Keghi (New Keghi). Keghi was one of several villages in Turkey that had been torched and its unarmed Armenians inhabitants were massacred by Turkey military during and in the aftermath of World War I It was part of a genocide that claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million Christian Armenians who for centuries had lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire sultans.
During one of his visits with Mitch at the hospital, Father Kevorkian said he asked what Mitch’s thoughts and concerns were. He had been touched and pleasantly surprised at some of his answers.
“….teach your children to be proud Armenians and Americans and, above all, if possible take them to Armenia to feel and touch where their roots began. Make sure they study Armenian history as well as their heritage…we must keep faith in who we are and also all in our beliefs and church.”
Father Kevorkian went on to say, “Mitch also asked me to make sure I pass on his message to the AYA (Armenian Youth Association) for the children, our children are the future of our country.”
In his eulogy, Father Kevorkian also noted, “Mitch Kehetian’s exemplary life is a profile of courage and patriotism. Mitch is one of those rare and remarkable human beings who dedicated his life to helping others and building bridges….we are here today because we are thankful for what he has accomplished and proud of having known him…”
The 200+ mile ride home seemed much longer than usual.
Read the full “Mitch and Me” series:
Mitch and Me: A Posthumous Tribute to a Childhood Friend
Mitch and Me: The Years of the Great Depression
Mitch and Me: Iconic Moments of Friendship
Mitch and Me: Challenges in a New World
Mitch and Me: Explaining the Inexplicable
Mitch and Me: A Divergence
Mitch and Me: The Final Chapter to an Epic Life
Mitch and Me: The “Contract” is Null & Void