‘So what is your new book about?”

I’ve been having problems with that question. When you wait six years to write something new, when you pour your heart and soul into making it good, explaining it seems hollow and unworthy.

“But what is it about?” How do you answer? Strangely enough, seeing those images on the anniversary of Sept. 11, I think I found a way.

You see, I had this uncle. He was big-jawed and barrel-chested. His name was Eddie. I’ve met plenty of tough guys in my time — football players, boxers — but Eddie remains the toughest man I ever knew. From the day he could stand up, he fought.

He fought with a tough father. He fought bullies in the neighborhood. He fought fights for his brother and sisters. Later he fought for his country in World War II.

Still later, as a New York cab driver, he fought off an attacker who tried to slice his throat from behind. My uncle grabbed the knife with his hand and squeezed so hard, the punk ran away.

As an old man, my uncle fought off every disease you could imagine. His rock-solid body dissolved in the final months — he was on oxygen the last time I saw him — but he still tried to punch me in the arm to say hello.

He died on the first day in May, and our family grimly joked that he had hung on through a coma until the calendar changed, because his Social Security check came on the first.

Now that’s a tough guy.

Tough guy, tender heart

Eddie used to tell this story every year at Thanksgiving: One night, he suffered chest pains and was rushed to the hospital for emergency heart surgery. The doctors worked feverishly. Sometime in the middle of the operation, Eddie awoke, lifted up from the table and saw all his dead relatives waiting for him.

“What did you do?” I asked.

He grinned. “I told ’em, ‘Get the heck out of here. I ain’t ready for youse yet.’ ” And they disappeared. And he lived for years.

I never forgot that story. And I never forgot my uncle. Like a lot of tough guys, he had a tender heart, one that never truly attained what it yearned for. He never really went anywhere. He never found work that made him happy. He admired the way I got to travel for my work — he got excited when I called from airports — and I could never, in my youthful limitations, tell him how much I loved and admired him.

When time came to write a book after “Tuesdays With Morrie,” I found myself drifting back to Eddie. I wondered if, when he finally died, those people were still waiting for him.

Fixing rides at a seaside park

So I wrote a story. It’s about a tough old man, a war veteran, who thinks his life has been insignificant, and his work — fixing rides at a seaside amusement park — is inconsequential. On his 83rd birthday, he dies trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. And he awakes to find a heaven in which five people are waiting for you. Some might be loved ones. Others might be people you barely knew, but whose lives intersected with yours and were changed forever.

One by one, these five people show the old man that the things he thought insignificant were anything but, and that all lives influence others. As he progresses through heaven, he searches for the answer to his final question:
“Did I save the little girl? Did my life end with a redemption?” Simply put, he wants to know if he mattered.

The old man’s name is Eddie. And I realized last week, in hearing those names read off in my uncle’s hometown, in seeing orphaned children cry, in feeling pain for strangers in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, that this is how I answer that book question. It’s a story about how all stories touch other stories, and how no one on this earth really lives alone.

I hope my uncle — and those lost on that tragic day — know that now, wherever they are.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Albom’s new novel, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” will be released Sept. 23.

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