I used to see him occasionally around town but I was never sure if he knew me so I hesitated to talk to him. Besides, he was a tall, imposing figure with an intense demeanor that kind of scared me a bit. He was a former colleague of my husband so I knew of him but very little about him.
Several months ago our paths crossed unexpectedly at a radiologist’s office. I was there for my daily radiation treatment for cancer and he was a new patient. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter. I said “Hello,” and he looked up at me with a searching look, but my husband was there beside me so perhaps he made the connection. What I saw in his eyes troubled me. He looked terrified and like he was definitely not feeling in control of what was happening to him. It startled me to see a man who normally had so much composure look so frightened. We tried to be comforting to him and his wife,
Several weeks ago we learned that he had died. His cancer had metastasized and he was unable to tolerate the radiation treatments. A month and a half ago I learned that my cancer (which had also metastasized) was in full remission. When my husband told me the news about him I felt a shiver go through me. I was the lucky one; he was not.
Today my husband and I attended the memorial luncheon hosted by his wife and family to celebrate his life. His wife had chatted amiably with my husband and me during our brief encounters at the radiologist’s office. She and my husband often sat together and waited for me and for him to complete our treatments for the day. She seemed very grateful to have my husband’s company during this very difficult time and they grew close in a very short time.
I learned so many wonderful things about him today through the words of his former colleagues, neighbors, family friends and family members that I wish I had had the chance to get to know him better. I learned he was a natural-born master gardener, historian and journalist, and to top it off, a great father and husband. I learned that The Student Briefing pages in Newsday that I used often with my students to address a wide variety of topics were largely written by him. He also wrote a highly regarded book on the history of Long Island, As if all this were not enough, he was in the first group of volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the early ’60s. His wife was in the second group, and not more than a year later, he proposed to her.
His daughters who both eulogized him were tearful and conveyed a picture of a father who cherished everything about them. His departure clearly left a big hole in their lives. His wife, a gracious and lovely woman, spoke of their early romance and the 50 years they shared as a couple. He came from a very poor background but managed, nonetheless, to live a very full and complete life. When I thought again about that look of panic on his face described earlier, I felt it must have been very difficult for such an accomplished and sensitive man to know he was facing his final days. His body was failing him, but his mind grasped every nuance of the terrible situation he was in.
I am so glad I got to learn more about him today and it made me think about my own life. What will I have accomplished? Who loved me more than life itself? How will I face my own demise? These are not happy thoughts, but they are profound human thoughts that we all experience. Hearing about this man’s life today made me want to live an even better life in the days, months or years that are left for me to live.