When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ – Fred Rogers
I have wanted to write about the last two weeks for a few days now and have struggled with how to approach it. I love the above quote from Mr. Rogers and think it’s enormously helpful. It is totally in line with the notion of practicing gratitude even in the midst of tough times and tragedy.
I have been humbled by the love, concern, prayers, cards and messages that have been showered upon me since being diagnosed with Breast Cancer. My prognosis is great and it’s amazing how after the initial shock of hearing the big C word, you quickly realize that this is totally beatable. My heart is so full of gratitude for all the kindness that has been shown to me through words and actions. Freshly baked scones on my porch on a Monday morning, offers of fast tracking me to appointments at prestigious Cancer hospitals, the gift of a special bracelet from someone I have never met who reads my blog, the offers of rides to my appointments, offers to help with my boys, lovely cards, sweet texts, phone calls, reassurance from women who have been there and done that. The list is endless. Even if I wanted to be alone, I wouldn’t be allowed to be!
June 14th, 2017 is a date that Kerry and I now refer to as the “Longest Day”. She had kindly offered to take me to my MRI at 7:30 that morning which would determine if my tumor had company and potentially alter my current diagnosis which my son Rory refers to as “hitting the jackpot of breast cancer”. This makes me smile as I know it brings him comfort. As Kerry and I sat together in the waiting room, we remarked on how lovely it was that there was a volunteer coming around with coffee and tea. It was nice and soothing to enjoy a cup of tea before my procedure and Kerry and I chatted away until my name was called. We had been so immersed in conversation that I had neglected to read the flyer about the procedure….oops! So in I go to lie face down on the bed, boobs hanging through two holes and preparing to be moved into a narrow tube. The lovely technician lamented about how surely a man had invented this machine as she produced various towels to pad certain areas to make me feel more comfortable. I think the feel of the towels and the position she put me in with my arms stretched over my head made me feel like I was lying on the beach enjoying the sun, so that’s where I took my mind. I hadn’t realized it would take 40 minutes so as the buzzing, clicking and beeping continued (thankfully muffled by the ear plugs they provided), I started to wonder if they were finding more tumors. This is where yoga breathing kicked in and I got through the rest of it with no problem. Despite being a little disoriented at the end, I gave myself a chance to feel a bit better then Kerry and I hit the now go-to spot of Wegmans as our post-appointment treat. Food paradise, and supplier of my new and far healthier diet. Nothing like a cancer diagnosis to make you think about how you fuel and treat your body. More on that another day…. I should add that I have since discovered that my MRI was clean. Great news.
After Kerry and I both returned to work in the afternoon, it was time for the usual Ladies Night on my porch. A surprise delivery of a chilled bottle of bubbly from Judith (yet another act of kindness) added a festive atmosphere to the evening and camaraderie, warmth and support was in bountiful supply. I even posted a photo on Facebook commenting on how it was such a delightful end to the day.
But this is where the tragedy starts for it was not the end of the day. Just as I was clearing up the last remnants of our lovely evening, a car raced up to the porch and out jumped Derek who was in a complete panic trying to locate Kerry. “Bart’s brother is dead” he exclaimed, “I have to find Kerry”. Bart is her longtime boyfriend. I told him that she had just gone home and he could find her there. After a couple of phone calls that confirmed that Bart’s brother, Nelson, had tragically died by suicide, I found myself driving over to the house in Colonial Heights to be with Bart, Kerry, Bart’s sister Teresa and her husband as well as some of Nelson’s Library coworkers and neighbors. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but, after sitting in the warm glow of the porch, now standing in the street in darkness, weighed down by damp air in mostly silence that was occasionally punctuated by cries of despair, sobbing and whispers, while we all watched the police officers from a distance complete their work, was something I will never forget. I witnessed raw grief, emotion, love and loss firsthand. I hope the hugs I dispensed were helpful, I know I’m grateful for the opportunity to be there and I do remember saying to Bart the exact same thing that he has said to me just 4 days before, “I love you and I’m here to support you in any way that I can”.
The next morning I think we all woke up thinking we had endured a horrific nightmare but alas, it was all a reality. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Nelson well, I had seen him from afar but knew how close he was to Bart. I’m grateful to live in such a close community because it’s amazing how quickly folks rally around those who are hurting. We all found ourselves at Ammo that evening, Terry and Ann fully aware of the circumstances and about 40 people showing up, not to crowd Bart but to simply be there. It was a lovely evening. Many of us sat outside enjoying the craft beers, wine and delicious food while supporting not only Bart, but each other. Nelson worked at the Petersburg Library and one of the most poignant moments of the evening was watching half a dozen of his coworkers say goodbye to each other. No superficial hugs or air kissing, only hearty, I-really-mean- it embraces. If Nelson’s passing had inspired this, then let’s be grateful.
Nelson suffered from depression and had done so for many years. I’m no stranger to this as I’ve known people close to me who have suffered both the situational and the clinical types. I’ve employed people who endure it, I’m related to some and I’ve been a friend and neighbor to others. Indeed, three years ago, I actually remember feeling such searing emotional pain that whilst driving down I-95 one day, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a huge tractor trailer truck barreling towards me in the next lane and for just a second I thought, if I just swerved into that lane right now, I wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore. I didn’t, of course. I possess an internal switch that prevented this and the feeling was so temporary and so situational. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to be consumed with thoughts like this all the time, to live your life in a constant battle with mental illness, to have to deal and manage it every day.
The days that followed produced more acts of kindness. Kerry’s brother Tom came home from his family vacation to support Bart and Kerry. Our Ladies Night group produced food and wine when the family was finally all together after some had to fly in from the West Coast. We delivered Chicken Divan, Pasta Bolognese, salads, cheeses and fruit, cookies and and then a gorgeous Apple Tart made by Alain. Friends appeared from all over and everyone was available whenever needed. Photos and old video footage were produced and Nelson’s music was played and remembered. Kerry and I have talked a lot since then about how lovely it is to have a house full of people gathered together and how sad it is that we all tend to feel most bonded at times like these. Why don’t we all get together more? We get too immersed and busy in our everyday lives…something to think about.
The last time I attended a Memorial Service for someone who died by suicide, it was for another lovely sweet soul who lived locally, Whit Blake. I’ve thought a lot of him over the last few days as Nelson’s Service reminded me of his. At Whit’s, friends recalled him as one of the kindest people they had ever known. We were all urged to honor his memory by committing a random act of kindness. I took that to heart and a couple of weeks later, committed mine. While bearing the immense burden of their grief, his parents asked for his legacy to be kindness. Amazing.
Just one month ago I spent an evening up in Wintergreen with a couple of people including a widower who had lost his wife 5 years ago. Our conversation had started with the subject of midlife dating and I had asked if he was divorced and he replied that no, his wife had died by suicide 5 years ago and that she had left not only him, but their two children who I believe were middle school age at the time. We went on to talk for hours about what it had been like for him. I believe his wife genuinely thought her children would be better off. She too had fought depression her entire life. It was fascinating and of course, completely heartbreaking to hear his story and I was grateful for his honesty and the insight he provided.
At Nelson’s service on Friday, all three of his siblings spoke. They spoke with such love, candor and raw emotion that you just wanted to reach out and hug them. My mother and I had one square of toilet paper each to mop our tears and it was entirely inadequate. We left dearly wishing we had known him as we now felt we did. He was a brilliant musician, an amazing employee, he looked out for his elderly neighbors, he loved his friends, he made people feel important and worthy, he was always helping people. He apparently made the best Paprika Chicken and was the kind of person who didn’t just look forward to having dessert, he savored it when the time came. He was an utterly devoted and beloved Uncle. Witnessing the depth of their loss and love for their brother and seeing his 8 year old nephew who is named after him, made you beg for an explanation as to why he could possibly have done this. But such is the vice-grip-like and paralyzingly malignant nature of depression. As one person after another talked of Nelson’s kindness, Kerry summed it up when she finished her tribute by saying “he really was perhaps too kind for this world”.
After the service, the large crowd moved to Saucy’s where Tom, Liz, Eric and Christina and the crew had worked hard to put on a huge spread. It was an act of love and caring and there is nothing like great food and drink to bring people together whether in happy or sad times. Saucy’s was Nelson’s favorite place to eat and he would often play his guitar there.
I would like to think we all came away from all of this with the inspiration to live life more simply and certainly, more kindly. I know I got a healthy dose of perspective along with the heaps of kindness that had preceded this. Rest In Peace Nelson, we’ll do our best to honor your legacy and take care of your loved ones.