Last summer, I went to a funeral.
I’d only met her two or three times. She had cholangiocarcinoma, like Jeff. She was treated at University of Chicago, like Jeff. She and her husband had young kids, like me and Jeff.
I had followed Catherine’s story on Caring Bridge. Diagnosed six months before Jeff, she had a liver resection – and recurrence – before we ever heard the word ‘cholangiocarcinoma’ in our house. After Jeff died, I felt conflicted feelings of joy and jealousy when she responded to her treatments. And then, I started to read in her Caring Bridge the tell-tale signs that I had seen myself. Things were not going well. Options were running out. One of Catherine’s entries made me catch my breath: she empathized with Bilbo in Lord of the Rings when he describes himself as feeling like “butter spread over too much bread.”
But before I followed her Caring Bridge and before Jeff and I met her and her husband at a University of Chicago symposium, I had reached out to the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation for a mentor. I received an e-mail that I had been paired with a man whose wife had cholangiocarcinoma. They had young children, like me. He would reach out to me, I was told. But just as I was hearing the word ‘cholangiocarcinoma’ for the first time, he and his wife were learning that a liver resection had not cured her cancer. Because of that, he never did reach out. But things work out like they should: I ended up having an amazing mentor – who is now a close friend – walk with me through Jeff’s illness and death.
So, when I was at that University of Chicago symposium, and I was introduced to Catherine and Mike, I realized we already knew each other.
“You know, I think you were supposed to be my mentor,” I said.
“Omigod — I am so sorry,” he said, reeling back and bringing his palm to his forehead.
We laughed a little. I said it was no big deal: secretly, I was happy that I had ended up with the mentor I did. And we parted ways.
Two months later, Jeff died.
It was after he died that I started following Catherine’s Caring Bridge. Sometimes she would write the entry; other times, it was Mike. I read about their faith; their three children; their formidable support system; and about the shared sorrow of watching the person you love most in the world be consumed by disease.
Mike and I texted occasionally. Sometimes, the exchanges were logistical (“Was Jeff buried or cremated?”); sometimes, social (“Do you listen to This American Life?”); and always, empathetic (“I know you got less time than we did”).
I told myself that when Catherine died, I would go to her funeral. Unequivocally, I knew I had to go. I knew what it had been like to stand at my husband’s visitation, thinking, “All of these people want to be here for me, but none of them get it.” I could be a person – for someone else – who understood. I could empathize. I could be the person that I had needed… in case Mike needed to know that someone in that line of people had been there… where he stood.
Her visitation was on a summer evening in July. I put on my black dress – the one I had worn to Jeff’s funeral mass – and drove 2 hours to her parish. I stood outside in a line of people, masked up. Everything was eerily familiar and yet totally unrecognizable. When it was my turn to say something to Mike, I wasn’t sure that he would recognize me.
“Omigosh,” he said, surprised.
“I couldn’t not come,” I said.
“Tell me this gets easier,” he said.
He looked down. We both paused.
“It does,” I said. I knew that feeling. “I’ll touch base with you, when life goes back to normal for everyone else.”
And that was that.
I got in my van, pulled up Google maps to navigate home, and then had to put my phone down. I cried.
I want to say that I cried for Mike, for Catherine and their kids… for Catherine’s parents, and for all the people at that visitation whose lives were touched by her death. I want to say that I cried because Mike’s bereft comment hit so close to home. And those are all true. But mostly, I cried because I was so damn glad it wasn’t. me.
I realized that maybe I had gone to her funeral not just for Mike, but for both of us. On the way home, I realized that I had made it past losing my husband, shepherding my children through it, navigating loneliness and isolation in a pandemic… and I was still okay. And not just okay, but content, satisfied, purpose-filled. My kids were okay. And because of that, I had faith that Mike and his kids would be okay too.
I checked in with Mike in August. We talked on the phone. The conversation lasted close to two hours. And when we hung up, I realized something unexpected had happened. I thought, “Shit.” I think I even said it out loud.
I liked him.
WHAT?! Whoa. Whoa. Wait just a minute.
I questioned my motives for everything. Did I have feelings for him sooner than I realized? How awful! Had I gone to Catherine’s funeral for some horrible selfish reason? Omigod! Flooded with emotions from every possible part of the spectrum, I did what any normal girl would do: I called my girlfriends.
Catapulted back to my 20s, I confessed that I liked someone. My friends loved it — for the first time in two years, feelings stirred that I thought might have been buried right along with Jeff’s body. Exciting, scary, thrilling, annoying, suspenseful… I put it on hold and waited. Mike’s grief was so fresh. I needed to calm down.
Time passed. Mike and I texted occasionally. I sent screen shots of those texts to my friends.
“What do you think this means?” I’d obsess.
Eventually, Mike and I started talking every Sunday night. And please believe me when I say that I definitely did not spend the week in between conversations completely overanalyzing every possible thing there was to analyze. Suffice it to say that I have patient friends.
On Sundays, I’d start getting the texts from my friends.
“It’s Sunday!” they’d joke.
“I know what Jess is doing tonight!” they’d tease.
It was exciting, scary, thrilling, annoying, suspenseful… and as it all unfolded, everything seemed to click. Even if you took out the shared experience of watching the spouses we love die from a rare cancer, Mike and I would still be a good match. It just… works.
We’ve navigated through dating in a pandemic (say ‘rapid test’); kissing someone new (wasn’t weird!); introducing our kids (crazy and fun!); and sharing our love with the people we love the most (we have a lot of people cheering for us).
When this all started, I didn’t want to like him: I thought, “I just got my life figured out!” He and his kiddos live two hours away. And omigosh — things are just so much more complicated than they were the last time I did this. But I feel propelled by something much larger than myself. And with each next step, things have just… worked out. Indeed, Mike and I both think that Jeff and Catherine are in cahoots wherever they are.
And it’s working.
If I had written my life story years ago, the plot and characters would’ve looked very different. But that does not take away any beauty from this version. In fact, tragic serendipity is to thank for much of what makes it so beautiful.
You know, I keep thinking about this conversation I had years ago with a colleague. We were scoring essays, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around the Advanced Placement 9-point scale. My colleague and I compared two student essays.
“These are both sixes,” he said.
“What? But they look so different,” I said.
“There are many rooms in the house of six.”
In other words, there was no prescriptive ‘six’ or ‘nine’ or ‘three.’ And it occurs to me, that’s how life works. That’s how love works.
There is no prescriptive ‘joy’ or ‘friendship’ or ‘love.’ There are different rooms within all our hearts — variations of joy, of friendship, of love… and I am in awe of how that makes life so wonderful to live.
I told Mike: “You know, one of us is going to have to do this again.” Of course, the ‘this’ is burying a spouse. The ‘this’ is starting over again — with all the despair and joy that comes with a new beginning.
But when it’s eventually my turn, I will know that I did it all. And that my temporary visit on Earth was totally worth the trip.
Because life is for the living.