Be Like Steve.

I am publishing this with the permission of Steve’s wife, who is a brave badass and forever in my heart as are all the melanoma wives.

Steve was a guy I never met, but he changed my life in immeasurable ways for the better. I want to be like him, but I’m not. I’m entirely too selfish and pessimistic, but I hope to raise my son to be like him. 

When Garry got sick and we were in the early “notification phase” we were sent on a collision course to meet Steve.  The “notification phase” is the part where you have to decide who needs to know you have cancer and how much you tell them, and carry the guilt that you have just given someone you love the worst news of their lives. At some point I recall Garry saying, “I can’t keep doing this. I’m tired of hurting people”. We took care of family first and then chipped away at our friends. 

One of Garry’s early conversations was with his friend Jeff. Jeff is a teacher and a summer raft guide like Garry, and we go on family trips with them every summer. Jeff is also a coach. Two weeks prior to Garry’s call, Jeff had taken a similar notification call from his good friend and fellow coach named Steve. Steve had melanoma, the same melanoma. He also had a wife and a baby and one on the way. Jeff quickly connected Garry and Steve. 

At first they text each other, comparing notes on what they understood about their diagnosis and treatment options. Garry was scheduled for a massive surgical lymph node resection that would likely leave him with debilitating edema. Steve had already been to Anschutz in Aurora and was going to start a clinical trial that did not involve surgery. Garry was all on board for that. He didn’t want to lose his mobility. He had always been an athlete, and that defined who he wanted to be as a father. He wanted to teach Bo how to work an oar frame, and snowboard. He had no intention of being a sidelines dad. He told me almost from day one. “If I have to die I want to die snowboarding and rafting.” Mobility is key to my husbands quality of life, and that has driven most of the decisions we’ve made in regards to his treatment. 

I remember eavesdropping on their first conversation on the phone. It wasn’t hard, because Steve was loud and I could hear him pretty clearly. More than his words I remember his tone and his laugh. This guy was a breath of fresh air. He was the sun shining through the storm clouds. He was full of encouragement and grit. At the time, Garry and I were in a very bad place. My dad had died of a lesser form of melanoma not five years earlier. I was a hospice nurse and knew full well what a death sentence this was. We were grim. We were beyond grim. I couldn’t set us right. I tried to be encouraging and hopeful, but we were still listing hopelessly with no shore in sight. Steve’s conversations were like the hand of God reaching down and setting us back on our feet. I felt like Steve’s voice was the one convincing voice that told us to pull our heads out of our asses and get in the game, because we could still win this. Sometimes when you’re at the end of yourself, you need someone else to set your horizon line. Steve did that. Steve was a coach. He was our cancer coach. 

There is something remarkable about a man who can reach out of his crisis to pull you out of yours. Like I said I want to be like Steve, but I am so far from that. Garry and I joke about our level of compassion fatigue. Sometimes I can barely tolerate hearing about other people’s problems, let alone try and put them back on their feet. Steve paused his own crisis and reached out to us, he knew we were in psychologically worse place than he was, and he knew why. Garry had told him about my dad and my work. Steve said, “this is really in your face then”. He acknowledged that we were there and validated the reasons why, but then found a way to  grab us by the hand and pulled us out. He put us on the right road. He was sunshine. He didn’t have to do that. He was fighting for his own life. It’s a hard place to give from, but he gave. He gave abundantly. I will love him forever. It’s a debt I can’t repay. 

Steve died that July. We didn’t go to the service. I had hip surgery and was non weight bearing on crutches so getting around was hard. Plus, I don’t think we could face it. It was so close to home. I’ve always regretted that though. I would have liked to have been there. I would have liked to give thanks for a life well lived. 

I remember asking Garry if Steve had a wife and kids when they were first connected. He said he didn’t know, and I said I wanted him to find out so we could make them our new best friends. He said, “I don’t think they want to hang out with us. I don’t think they are as depressed as we are. I’m not sure we’d be good for them.”  I realized Garry was right. I don’t think we would have been good for them. 

I found out Steve died because of an article in the newspaper about the death of beloved coach. Garry and Steve had text less and less as they started treatment. I think there was apprehension in wanting to know how the other person was doing. Unless they were both responding well it would be hard. For one of them to be successful while the other was not would be hard. I had never known Steve’s last name, so I wasn’t certain it was him, but I was pretty sure. It was a sucker punch. God, I wanted him to beat it. I wanted family barbecues with the two surviving dads and their families. That was the dream. Then I saw the name of Steve’s wife and I realized I knew her.  We had gone to college together. She played basketball and was very good. She was funny and smart and just a solid cool chick. My heart broke for her, and for her babies. It could so easily have been me and my baby. I was scared to tell Garry about Steve. Garry was responding well to treatment, and I was scared this news would have an adverse effect on that. That night I showed him the article. He held the newspaper and sat down hard on our hearth, one hand going to his temple. It was blow. I could see that. He had believed it would be Steve that would fly through treatment and beat this. He looked at me and said, “That was so fast”. I know this beast, and it’s brutal and fast. Steve’s disease course was very normal. Garry is the outlier. 

I won’t speculate on why Garry is here and Steve is not. That is a dangerous exercise in futility and nothing good will come of it. What I do know is Steve was that guy who saved us. Who set us right. I wish I had known him. I wish I could thank him. I will tell my son about him, and try to remember what he did for us, for me. I will try to be like him. I will fall short, but I will try. 

Love is White

I can’t remember the last time I visited my dad’s grave. I used to go religiously on holidays and his birthday. I would tell him all the news of my life, and the ways BD was growing and changing. I used to feel his presence there, but that faded overtime. At some point I knew he wasn’t there, and my visits declined. Plus, I read a terrifying statistic about women being sexually assaulted while alone in a cemetery. I told myself I’d get over my fear of guns and get one. Then I’d go back to regular cemetery visits while packing heat. I’m still scared of guns and still don’t have one. Additionally, life has been busy, and cemetery visits have been the last thing on my mind. 

Last night I had dinner with an old friend from highschool. I met her my senior year, and first year back in public school since the second grade. I was a senior and she was a sophomore. We took speech class together. On the first day of school we had to answer a bunch of questions as an ice breaker. One of the questions asked what “what color is love?”. She and I were the only ones that answered with the color white. We were friends instantly. To this day she’s one of the people I love, respect and admire most. 

We spent the evening catching up on my marriage, her recent divorce, and how we are surviving everything while trying to navigate the complications of a life we never expected to face. We compared notes on how to make good humans out of our children. She grew up without a dad, and mine died in 2011, so we talked about our moms and their politics. Somehow the conversation wound its way to my dad. She said he was wonderful, and recalled how gentle he was and how rational. He was always the voice of reason. When friends who knew him remind me of who he was it fills me a warmth I can’t explain. It makes my memories real again. I’ve come to doubt a great deal of my memories for a lot of reasons. Confirmation of how I recall him is very comforting. 

We had dinner in Old Town and the cemetery was on my way home. I wasn’t in a rush for once. I love that cemetery. It’s old and has lots of big trees. Often I see deer there. My dad is buried under a twisted pine tree that sheds all over the stone bench marking his grave. I used to bring flowers for him and apples for the deer, but last night I came empty handed. I hoped to see deer, but it was just me the tombstones and the mosquitoes. The evening was warm and the sun was low over the mountains. It was quiet and pretty, but it didn’t take long until the mosquitoes got the best of me. I got in the car and as I drove away a thought hit me. It was light at first, but the weight of it grew until I felt it push the air from my lungs, and the tears from my eyes. When dad died, I lost my softest place to fall. I realized I’ve been free falling for three years. In that moment I desperately wanted my dad to catch me, and I let myself slide into the misery of it all.  I’ve needed to have a good cry for a while. It’s been creeping up on me, and I’ve ignored it. I’ve escaped the tears through the protection of a busy life. Last night it wouldn’t be ignored anymore and I guess that’s okay, I’ve earned it. 

I didn’t know it growing up but my dad understood suffering in a way most of us never will. He was not a perfect man, but he was the perfect father for me. He was exactly the daddy I needed. He was everything I’m not and everything I wish I was. He was a listener more than a speaker, but when he spoke his words were measured and thoughtful and full of wisdom. His words carried a weight mine never will. His eyes were bright blue like my brothers, deep ocean pools. Mine are blue grey like my mother, but I have his smile. He was consistent and fair. He considered the position and intentions of everyone and encouraged me to do the same. He was a brilliant introvert. He loved a good story and books were his oldest friends. Profoundly slow to anger he would raise his voice once every five years. If he raised it at you it was terrifying, but only because it was so rare. He was gentle, and loving, and kind. I always knew my brother and I were his greatest joy. I knew he was proud of us. He was the person in life that I felt I understood most and was the most understood by. 

In many ways I believe he gave me all the tools I needed to navigate his death and life without him. I often know exactly what he would say if he were here, and I were to go to him for advice. I can still hear his voice in my head, but my heart longs to be a little girl again with physical access to him. I loved the comfort of being in his office, back when he smoked a pipe. Vanilla pipe tobacco is still my favorite smell in the world. I love bookshelves full of law books. I can remember the feel of their spines as I’d run my finger tips along them. My bare legs sticking to his overstuffed leather chairs on summer days. To this day I’m freakishly comfortable in an attorney’s office. I haven’t had many reasons to be in one as an adult, but when I am I don’t want to leave. 

When I was in college, my dad told me he didn’t worry about me. He said he knew I would always be ok. I would always find a way, and I’d always be happy. So he didn’t worry. In many ways he was right. I will always find a way, and I’ll be damned before I live a life in misery. I still believe that love is white. It’s pure, utterly without an agenda, and full of hope. Like the love of a father for his daughter. Grief is a funny little beast. It sneaks up so unexpectedly as if time and distance from the loss didn’t exist. It’s a jerk that way, but it often brings gifts if you are willing to really look it in the face. Sometimes grief brings comfort. Sometimes it has to bitch slap you in a cemetery to do it, but it’s worth it.  Go to the cemetery, and remember that love is white.