"The wasp stings the tear-stained cheek."
A friend said that to me recently as I was lamenting a string of personal bad luck. The proverb, which he attributed to the Chinese, means that just when you think things can't get any worse, a wasp lands on your tear-streaked cheek and inserts his nasty stinger.
At which point, you can either leap off the roof, or laugh at the irony of the human condition.
I'm here to tell you that the proverb is true, but I'm leaning toward the roof. Today, the last day of a terrible year, is also the worst day of my career. One of my best columns ever - the one in which I praised the quiet heroism of a woman named Eileen Stanley - turns out not to be entirely true.
I was snookered by a good story. But more important, I was incautious in my role as reporter. I didn't check it out thoroughly enough, and there's no other way to explain my way out of this one. I wish there were.
The story was glorious and, in fact, Eileen Stanley, who died four days after 9/11 (coincidence only, it turns out) really was a hero to the many addicts and alcoholics she helped during her life as a psychiatric nurse. Here's what else was true:
Eileen had a difficult childhood. She lost herself for years to drugs and alcohol but managed to come clean. She returned to school, became a psychiatric nurse and worked with addicts until her death.
As I wrote earlier, she watched two hijacked airplanes hit the World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11 as she drove to work across the Brooklyn Bridge. She probably did embrace strangers as she and others got out of their cars to watch in horror. She was by all accounts the type of woman, loving and generous, who would reach out to others.
She did die four days later. But it is not true that she worked triage after her regular shift at the hospital and died of exhaustion. "She just died" says her husband, who is understandably upset about the original column in which I erroneously painted Eileen as a hero of 9/11 who worked herself to death trying to help others at Ground Zero.
Did I make up this story? Of course not. Why would I? It's unlikely I would scan the Staten Island obituaries looking for someone recently deceased about whom I could make up a fantasy and create fame where none was deserved.
I was told the story, as I explained in the original column, by one of Eileen's family members. Another family member repeated the story again. I believed them. When I called Eileen's husband to verify that she, indeed, had died, I spoke of Eileen and my column as though we were both on the same page.
It was easy, as we hung up, for me to think we were talking about the same facts, even though I didn't read the column to him. Looking back, I'm reminded of David Mamet's fabulous play, "Oleanna," In which two people have a series of conversations that each hears and interprets entirely differently.
I accept all blame for this misunderstanding. In journalism, the rule is this: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." I didn't check it out enough. Even though I was told the story as truth, I do not blame the source. I think it's entirely forgivable that people thought so highly of Eileen Stanley that they may have embellished her life just a little. I hope it is also forgivable that I believed them.
My apologies to all, especially to Eileen's husband, whom I've inadvertently hurt, and to my readers who have made my 15 years as a columnist continuously rewarding, if occasionally imperfect. May the New Year bring fewer tears to our troubled world, and, God willing, fewer wasps.