Three years ago, the future dissolved in two words.
That Wednesday began in the Happiest Place on Earth. We had flown to Orlando for a medical conference, and left in the wee morning hours to fly to Boston for an appointment of Jim’s.
My tension level as we prepared to leave Florida was so high that I became frantic when the airport bus didn’t arrive at the scheduled time.
“It’s OK,” Jim told me. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
I darted across the road in front of the hotel.
“We can’t miss our flight,” I told the man behind a desk, although, unlike my husband, I knew the news we would hear at the other end would be awful.
The man asked me when the flight was. He checked some schedules and deduced that the bus had come and gone earlier than scheduled. He picked up a phone. “We’ll get you a cab to the airport,” he said. “We’ll pay. Don’t worry. We’ll get you there in time.” He looked at me intently. “Will that make you feel better?”
I couldn’t answer.
The day ended with my husband tending to my very first blazing migraine while we tried to figure out how to tell our four children he was going to die soon.
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth . . . .”
At a few minutes after 2:00 p.m., Jim was sitting on an examining room table in Boston when a physician asked him if anyone had discussed his CAT scan results with him.
“No,” Jim said.
The physician handed him some sheets of paper, computer printed and single spaced. Jim began to read the radiologist’s report. He looked at me and spoke two words.
He had just read: “metastatic disease.”
“What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness. . . .”
Within an hour I was collapsed, stunned, against an outside garage wall in the cold, sudden darkness of a New England November afternoon. I didn’t think I could move. I didn’t know how we could go home.
I leaned my head under Jim’s chin. “I’d really rather you run off with an Argentinian mistress instead of this,” I wept.
He looked into my red, swollen eyes. “Nah, I still think you’d kill me sooner that way,” he told me.
He had a point.
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”
I leaned on him again as we walked to another office building to try to make an appointment with an oncologist. This was a place where patients and their families received news and advice about the worst kinds of cancer.
Jim stood calmly and protectively held my shoulder. The receptionist looked at us, then disappeared for a moment. She came back and said the oncologist was with his last patient of the day and would stay and talk to us as long as we needed.
“Can I get you anything?” the receptionist asked.
A woman who leaving the office looked at us and said, “We got bad news today, too, dear.”
“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”
Three of our children were away at school. Our youngest had been staying with friends. On the drive home Jim called their house. We needed time together to figure out what to say to our children, and how to get them all back home.
“Do you want her to stay with us tonight? I’ll drive her over to your house and we can pick up anything she needs.”
“Yes,” he said, gratefully.
Our friends and family have supported us, just as Jim physically supported me on that scarring day.
The friends who were brave enough to speak to us and each other on that night also were with us when Jim died, and spoke at his service. Their kindness follows us, and our children, everywhere.