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Joseph Karszen, 91: 'The Impossible Dream' From 'Man Of La Mancha'

Courtesy of Daniel Hunt

Updated June 15, 2021 at 1:22 PM ET

More than 600,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 since the pandemic hit this country and the world just over a year ago. NPR is remembering some of those who lost their lives by listening to the music they loved and hearing their stories. We're calling our tribute Songs Of Remembrance.

My grandpa was a big fan of Broadway showtunes. He used to play them on the radio every Sunday when I was a kid and he would talk about going into the city with my grandma to see all these musicals, but Man of La Mancha was among his favorites. When we got an Amazon Echo, that's what he would ask it to play, over and over again.

My grandpa was a first-generation American, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. His mother died when he was a teenager, and he began losing his vision when he was about 12 years old. He had stories about the Great Depression that painted a pretty bleak portrait of his early years. But despite all the hardship, he liked to say keeping a positive outlook helped him get through it all. Part of that was that almost daily ritual of listening to "The Impossible Dream."

I think "The Impossible Dream" represented the way he saw life. It was his anthem. Stay positive, no matter what. Don't give up when the going gets tough. And dare to dream big. My grandpa preferred the original cast recording which featured Richard Kiley as Don Quixote; he sang in a powerful baritone that is unmatched in other versions. He brings a force to the character that grabs your attention, but his voice is capable of being gentle and sweet. It's overwhelming the way he sings about all the trials and ordeals he would gladly face in pursuit of his impossible dream. He would march into Hell and back and die happy knowing he gave everything he had in him to achieve his goal. For someone who experienced his fair share of adversity, "The Impossible Dream" was one of my grandpa's sources of optimism.

It's hard to not think about my grandpa's final moments when I hear "The Impossible Dream" now. My family took care of my grandpa prior to the pandemic, but we were working around the clock when he got sick right when the pandemic first swelled in March. We took him to the hospital, but they had no room for him and we had to take him back home. He asked if we could stop off for an ice cream on the way back. We slept in shifts, washed him, gave him medicine, massaged his legs when he was too weak to move, and fed him what we could to keep his strength up. He said the protein shakes tasted like a Frostee from Wendy's. For about five days we were prepared for the end, but my grandpa somehow stayed positive and tried reassuring us in gasping breaths that he was feeling much better. When he finally stopped breathing, I was surprised by how peaceful things were. It was a sunny day outside and I felt OK letting my grandpa go.

Then my mom put on "The Impossible Dream." And I just broke down. As the song played, I imagined him being able to see again. Seeing his mom and his dad and my grandma after so long and riding away while this song played.

I hear that song now and it sounds like a goodbye. Not in the unpleasant sense that this is the end, but as a thanks for all the good times. It's a victory theme to a life well-lived. I'll never be able to separate this song from my grandfather's final moments, but at the same time it makes me think of all the other times I was able to spend with him. The final verse of the song really stands out to me now. I can still hear him singing along to it. "The world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star." —Daniel Hunt, grandson

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.