Sunrise. Dawn of two family friends’ last morning before cancer took them away.
Almost five years ago, a week after my husband Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of these friends strode into our lives. We were then only just getting to know his oldest child, who has become like a son to me.
It’s an understatement to say it was a delicate time in our lives, given the shock and awe of that diagnosis.
Chris and his son arrived in the driveway and powered over the old pine boards to the green door where many others (who’d known us for years) hesitated and others shied away, not having any idea what to say to us.
Chris had already outlived a dire prediction after being diagnosed more than two years earlier with metastatic cancer.
He shook my husband’s hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said. Radio voice: clear and sonorous, with a dash of gravel. “I’m sorry about your diagnosis.”
Perfect. Warm and direct and compassionate, with no dancing around.
And then he looked at me–quivering, wet-eyed, bereft me–and sensed I could use just a little something more, a soupcon of hope. He said, “I know it’s hard . . . but look at me.” And here he held out his hands theatrically, palms up to the sun, and he did indeed look terrific: “I’m still standing.”
And both Jim and I smiled for the first time since we heard the words, “This is your tumor….”
One of this world’s great blessings is a family of friends: an entire family that blends with another and develops friendships all around. Like ours, the family of which Chris was so justifiably and enormously proud includes two sons, followed by two daughters. And each family has a wacky curly-haired mom with a background in law enforcement, a proclivity towards acquiring puppies with behavioral issues, and deficiencies in the meal preparation department (“I fed him lasagna that tasted like cahdboahd!” my Doppelganger said–she has a Boston accent– after Jim drove to their house with our daughter for the first time).
I could not even begin to catalogue the kindnesses Chris and his family have given each one of us since Jim died. Even as Chris’s own health deteriorated, his capacity to welcome people in didn’t waver. Bear hugs all around every time we saw him. Whenever he and any combination of kids came to our town, they’d coax me out and insist on feeding me. And they’d make me laugh.
Once, soon after I’d moved, when all of my own children were away, he invited me for dinner with the family. I was having a tough time organizing belongings, and would have stayed inside the house alone and cried myself to sleep, but I knew begging off wouldn’t work. Resistance was futile. I spent the evening with all of them as they regaled me with hilarious family lore, alternately embarrassing their children with stories–just as it should be.
His elder son brought Chris and his wife to my Moth Mainstage show in Boston last spring. The theme was “Coming Home,” and the three of them endured my describing how we brought my husband home to die.
It’s not been an auspicious year so far in my household. It began with a spate of injuries and illnesses, though mercifully nothing unmanageable.
And then I found out Chris had died at home, where his wife and children tenderly took care of him. I drove north yesterday and parked on the icy surface of an already packed driveway. I had intended only to drop off a card, but one son was in the driveway assisting his grandmother, and gave me a big hug and told me to go in and see his mother.
“You’ve got family here. I don’t want to intrude,” I said.
“You’ve always got a family here,” he said.
I had not known that Chris was still there. He was in a room in which his favorite music played. His wife, far stronger than I, had cared for his body herself and tucked him under a sapphire blue blanket.
On the way home, I had to pull over several times. The sky was stunning, perfect crystalline blue hearts cushioned by silver and white and heaven-lit by extraordinary beams of sunlight. A deep blue blanket of clouds lay atop the White Mountains, a seamless space between heaven and Earth.
I cried at the side of the road, as I had after Jim died, about how Chris just shouldn’t be missing this sight.
And then it occurred to me that the two of them now have the best views of all.