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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

You've probably heard the story of the "dash" right? It's offered in a friendly way, but it's meant as a bit of a warning as to the importance of not squandering your life in the pursuit of the wrong things. The story tells the tale of what is chiseled into almost every headstone that lines the manicured rows of cemeteries everywhere.

There's a person's birth date, along with the date of his or her passing. In between lies a dash. The simple mark represents the sum total of one's life. Every minute of every hour of every day is contained within that dash. All of life's achievements and all of its disappointments reside there. The joy, the tears, the insufferable madness -- it's all depicted by one singular hammer and chisel mark.

The moral is that the dash is the most important part of the message engraved on any tombstone. The date you are born or the date you check out is irrelevant. What you do between those two occasions determines whether or not the ignition of your soul was a brilliant success or a monumental failure.

I found myself thinking about the significance of the dash as 2010 whittled its way to the dawn of 2011. In doing so, I also thought about some of the strange lessons that have transpired over the 10 years of writing for this esteemed newspaper. What I realized was that often the things that you'll remember from your traversing of the dash are things that happened as a result of you following one path and being led to another.

For instance, there was the time I wrote a column about Rush Limbaugh and ended up defending Editor in Chief Mike Hudson on MSNBC. Or the time I purposely wrote Ed Russo's premature obituary. Most famous was the time I found a purple balloon and turned a column about a little girl in Utah into one of the best-selling books in Western New York history.

What led to this epiphany and walk down memory lane was a column I wrote just before the New Year about Chris Stoianoff and his appointment as the new historian for the city of Niagara Falls. Something happened with that column that had never transpired in my decade of churning out columns for the pages of the Reporter.

When I turned in my copy, Mike Hudson told me he was going to run it as the cover piece for that edition of the newspaper. I've written a number of cover stories before, but always with forewarning of the assignment. When Mike broke with tradition, I sent Chris a text with the good news and secretly wished I'd taken a better picture of him for the cover.

Now, why Mike made the call he did, I don't know. Realists would shrug it off as nothing more than coincidence, or the result of a slow news week around the city. But I've always thrown my lot in with the romantics, the type who would tell you that there's always magic within life's melody if you're only patient enough to train your ear to listen in the proper key.

So the piece runs and everyone is happy. Chris calls and says people are patting him on the back everywhere he goes, and I get a slew of e-mails congratulating me on the way I wove the story for the printed page. All is copacetic until I receive a Christmas Eve e-mail from Chris addressed to both Mike and me that -- well, it's probably better if I let Chris' words speak for themselves.

Last Friday (Dec. 17), my father (Dimo Stoianoff) called me to remind me that I was taking him to his doctor's appointment on Monday -- he was going because his back has been hurting and he thought he had a kidney infection or he pulled a muscle.

A few minutes later, he called back to say that the doctor's office had called him back and asked him to have me come in with him for the appointment, stating that he "should bring a family member" with him when he got the results of his CAT scan. I knew that couldn't be good.

(Stoianoff then described that his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and was prescribed an immediate and aggressive chemotherapy campaign. Before it could begin, he fell ill and was rushed to the hospital.)

My father's organs had shut down and he endured three hours of horrific pain while in the emergency room -- not able to get pain medication in him because his blood pressure was so low.

When they got his blood pressure up high enough and they started pain medication, my father fell asleep pain-free for a few hours before passing away at 5 p.m.

I'm still in disbelief.

Chris then went on to say this to me and Mike:

Why the hell am I telling you two guys this story right now on Christmas Eve? Well there is a point...

As I have told you both before, my father was a huge fan of The Niagara Falls Reporter, so much so that I've had to tell him to quit listening only to Mike Hudson and get some information from other sources -- the Reporter isn't the only side of the story, Dad! He would quote Mike's articles as if the words were his own.

Well, the story Frank wrote about me last week and Mike's decision to put it on the cover was basically like me being on the front of USA Today or on 60 Minutes. My father read the story aloud with emphasis on the parts that needed emphasis and with pride because his son was the star of that week's issue.

I cannot tell you both how much that meant to my father. Yeah, it was awesome for me and a great keepsake in many ways, but to my Dad, (his son) Christopher just threw the Super Bowl winning touchdown and he was there to see it. Both of your efforts made a giant impact. Both the city of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Falls Reporter lost one of its biggest supporters yesterday afternoon.

My point is that, no matter how much flak Mike Hudson or Frank Croisdale might get for the Reporter's weekly writing or the politics that go on, I was given one helluva Christmas present from them in the midst of one of my life's biggest tragedies.

Thanks, guys, Merry Christmas.

I'm sure that I speak for Mike when I say that reading Chris' words was hard to get through dry-eyed, but they meant more than any journalistic award ever could.

For me, events like this one are why I write in the first place. When all is said and done, and this newspaper is but a memory, I'll hang my hat on moments like these, when we set out to do one thing and accomplished something far greater.

So, rest in peace, Dimo Stoianoff. If the actions of the son you raised are an accurate barometer, you made the most of your time on earth before leaving us in a dash, with a dash to remember and admire.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 4, 2011