Every so often, reality hits you with the bluntness of a hammer on a fragile sheet of glass, smashing your dreams and illusions of safety into a millions shards. That happened this morning at 6 a.m. when my friend, Karen, whom I have known since I first moved here, called to tell me her husband Jeff just died.
This wasn’t totally unexpected. Jeff suffered intermittent infections and complications from diabetes. He was hospitalized several times over the past few months. Yesterday, in the morning, the ambulance rushed him to the hospital and he was placed in ICU. Dan and I spoke to Karen several times during the day and planned to go up to Baltimore to visit. Last night, Karen called to let us know Jeff was transferred to hospice. We told Karen we would come up today after work to see both of them. We knew the situation was dire. But his death came much faster than we all thought. Doesn’t it always?
Dan and I met Karen and Jeff eighteen years ago, when I first moved from Jacksonville, Florida to Northern Virginia. Dan moved here about a year before me to start a new job, while I stayed behind to sell our house.
While Dan was living in Southern Maryland and working at Camp Springs, his old college roommate, Daryl, brought him to meet his cousins Delores and Joe. They were Karen’s parents. Her father, Joe, had just been diagnosed with what would turn out to be a deadly melanoma. But at that point, he was a bluff, hearty man, who loved a good laugh, a beer with friends, and his Fighting Irish. He was a Notre Dame graduate. In fact, at his funeral, they played the Notre Dame fight song to honor him. Since that all happened while I was still in Jacksonville, I never met Joe, but I sure heard a lot about him, most of it funny and endearing. He was missed.
About two weeks after I moved here from Florida, the new widow, Delores, invited Dan and me, along with Daryl, to her home for a cookout. That’s where I first met her daughter, Karen, and Karen’s husband Jeff. That’s also when Dan and Jeff discovered their bitter rivalry - Jeff was from Pittsburgh and a Steelers fan, Dan a Browns fan from Cleveland. Naturally, we became fast friends.
For Delores’ first Christmas as a widow, Daryl, Dan, and I bought her a Christmas tree, set it up, and decorated it for her. In return, she cooked us all a lasagna dinner, with scrumptious deserts. Karen, Jeff, Delores’ sister Frannie, and her daughter all came and helped to decorate Delores' lovely house. A Christmas tradition was born and every December, on the first Saturday, we all descended on Delores with a tree. It became the first party of our holiday season for years.
As so many customs do in our fast and disposable society, the Christmas tradition faded, for various reasons, about five years ago when Delores moved from her private home into a high-rise condo and stopped putting up a tree. But we stayed in touch, and Dan and I helped Karen plot a surprise for Jeff’s 55th birthday last September. At a baseball game in Baltimore, during the seventh inning stretch, Jeff’s name, with the words, “Happy 55th Birthday,” flashed on the scoreboard so that a few thousand of his most intimate friends would know he was getting old. “I’ll get you guys for this,” he promised, as we all laughed at our cleverness at having surprised him - or “gotten him good.”
Secretly, he was pleased to be remembered so publicly. Karen told us that later.
Tonight, Dan and I will go up to Baltimore for the difficult but necessary task of comforting a new widow, saying farewell to an old friend, and remembering and telling each other our stories about Jeff. Through our stories, we keep our loved ones alive and always with us.
Meanwhile, I will be out of pocket for a few days sorting fresh grief.