Josh Brodesky: One last toast to a bike guy who jumped at life's chances

2011-12-08T00:00:00Z 2012-07-25T07:44:04Z Josh Brodesky: One last toast to a bike guy who jumped at life's chancesJosh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 08, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The medical staff had brought two sixers of beer to the hospital that morning, and Steve Vihel proposed a toast.

He didn't have much strength and had to sip the beer through a straw, but he raised the bottle to his father, godmother, brother and girlfriend.

"Here's to new beginnings," he said.

He was not scared or anxious. Even as his family had wept around him in recent days, he stayed calm, comforting them with a smile. Only once did he cry, but that was because he loved them all so much.

Sometimes the currency of gratitude is tears.

He was a teenager in Flagstaff when he first learned the left side of his heart was too big, constricting blood flow.

Dilated cardiomyopathy. An enlarged and weakened heart.

It ran in the family.

His mother, Rhoda, had been diagnosed with it after a heart attack in 1994. One of Steve's older brothers had died from it in 1978, two years before Steve was born. His other older brother Geoff Keppel has a more moderate form of it. And Steve Vihel had it, too.

"He was 13, and his mother and I sat down with him and said, 'Look, you can't just sit around and wait for something bad to happen. You could die at 80 and have wasted your whole life. Just engage life. Jump into it, and go for it,'" his father, Richard Vihel, said. "And he did."

Steve Vihel graduated from high school at the age of 16. He went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in geology. He was fluent in German and spent his junior year abroad in Germany.

It was during that time in Europe that he had his first heart scare - congestive failure - but doctors were able to bring his heart back. He was 20. He would go through another scare at 25.

He didn't talk much about those near misses. He just pushed on, moving to Tucson after college. His mother lived here, and his brother Geoff still does. In Tucson, he worked at bike shops and played ultimate Frisbee. But by 2006 it was off to Thailand to teach English for a year, and then to the University of Colorado-Boulder for a master's in computational linguistics.

Just engage life. Jump into it.

"I think Steve just did whatever he wanted because he knew he didn't have the luxury of time," his girlfriend, Lila Garcia, said. "Because of his condition, we never really talked like future, future stuff. We never talked about getting married."

Time pressed down on him. Just as he wrapped up his master's in 2010, his mother fell into heart failure in Argentina, where she spent her summers. He flew down there without hesitation.

"He said it was the most difficult decision of his life to turn off her life support," said his godmother, Muriel Hart, who also flew to Argentina. "You know what he said to me after she died, he says, 'The reason you have godmothers is so when one dies, you still have a mother.'"

He returned to Tucson to settle his mother's affairs, and he opened up his shop, There & Back Bicycles, on Speedway near the university. A commuter bike shop in this economy? His father, a retired lawyer, didn't hesitate to back him.

Just engage life. Jump into it.

Steve had a big laugh that would fill a room and make him choke on his words. It rolled and churned like a wave, and his bike shop captured that part of his spirit.

He found the shop's name in the lyrics to "The Golden Girls" theme song - "Thank you for being a friend, traveled down the road and back again."

"I wanted to evoke something that inspired trust and confidence and friendliness, because those are things that I want to have in my shop," he told a University of Arizona journalism student.

The shop was a success but it stressed him out. He was always working, and he worried about the summer months when sales would dip. In the spring, he began to not feel so well. By the summer, he could barely walk across his house without pain. His heart was failing him again.

In September, Steve went into University Medical Center, and he never left the fourth floor. In October, he had an artificial heart transplant, which gave us all hope, but complications followed.

For a month or so he was mostly unconscious. He was jaundiced, skeletal and kept alive by machines.

"Are we keeping him alive for him or for us?" his godmother asked a doctor.

"That is always the question, isn't it?" the doctor said.

Steve Vihel did regain consciousness, but that only brought awareness. He had seen his mom die in a hospital, and he did not want to cling to life through tubes and machines.

"It was skin and bones. It was heartbreaking. When I looked at him I would cry," his brother Geoff Keppel said. "He said every minute was like 20 minutes. And every 20 minutes was like an hour. And every hour was like a day."

Time. He never had the luxury of time.

Awake again, he told his brother and godmother they needed to become closer.

He told his father to be more adventurous.

He told his girlfriend, Lila, he would have loved to have married her.

And last Thursday, a gloomy day when rain clouds covered the sky like newspaper, Steve Vihel died at the age of 31.

That morning, he had some ice cream and the hospital staff snuck some beer into his room. He took a sip from a straw, and proposed a toast.

Here's to new beginnings.

Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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