I ran into an old buddy from high school today at, of all places, the outlet mall on the outskirts of town. The last time I’d seen Phillip was about five years ago. He looked about the same, except had shaved his head like a lot of men my age are doing these days, an honorable strategy in my view, as the bald spot expands to make comb-overs look ridiculous and pathetic. By dint of whatever mysterious combination of genes were knitted together at my conception, I haven’t had my hair start falling out…yet.
I asked about his family. He asked about mine. We were in a clothing store–a most unlikely place for two nearly-fifty-year-old men to be wandering around on a Friday afternoon, but a happy fortuity. He said his wife was just getting past treatments for a Hodgkin’s disease diagnosis about a year earlier. He asked about my son. He said he’d been keeping up with him on Caringbridge, and thought about calling and telling us he was praying for us. I told him there was no need to call. I knew without being told that his thoughts and prayers had been with us all along. But I was humbled again, like before, at the thought of him praying for us, while his wife was afflicted with Hodgkin’s disease. This was my son’s second bout with leukemia, and I had been so consumed by it that I rarely thought outside of our troubles. This was Phillip’s second round of cancer in his family. First his daughter, then his wife. Yet he had been praying for us.
It’s not that Phillip and I were that close during school. We ran in the same pack. We played football together. We suffered the same indignities of hot August two-a-days before football season started, and basked in the glory of Friday night lights after it began. We got drunk together and smoked weed together after the games. Talked shit about girls together. But really, we were just mates in the sense we were part of the same group of guys. Sometimes they get to be your close friends, and sometimes they mostly remain acquaintances. Phillip grew up in a different neighborhood, a good ten miles down the road from mine, which might explain why our friendship never made it past the close acquaintance stage. Regrettable. A whole lot of who we are and how life turns out resolves to just accidents of geography and time.
I was always a bit envious of Phillip. He seemed to have something I didn’t, but I wasn’t sure what. It was hard to quantify. It wasn’t because he was tall and lanky and I was shorter and stubbier. My red hair and all the jokes that came with it hardened me to concern about physical attributes that I couldn’t control. It wasn’t that he was a star on the football team and I just a scrub. We were pretty closely matched in athletic abilities. We both played yeoman roles. I was a left guard. He was a tight end. I was better in the classroom, but who in high school–at least among my friends–really cared? He’d always had good-looking girlfriends, but then, so did I, or at least I did whenever I wanted them. It was something else. There was some magical quality to him or in him that I couldn’t put my finger on. Not until today.
When he told me that he’d been praying for my son, the memories of all that had gone before came rushing back. And after I motioned for my son to come over and say hello, that was when I knew what was special about Phillip. He bragged on me. He made me feel special. He told my son about what a great athlete and student his dad was, even though Phillip was at least as good or better an athlete, and like I said, nobody cared, least of all me, about the academics back then. He actually asked me, in front of my son, how I’d been able to do well in school and also be such a good football player. I changed the subject. Doing well in school was just a matter of lucky genes and I was hardly that great an athlete. Then I remembered what he’d told me the last time I’d seen him. He’d said that he’d been berating his son for his grades–that he had a buddy in high school who managed to do just fine at school and play sports–that he had been using me as an example for his son! It might have been the nicest thing anyone had ever said about me. Phillip was special because he made everyone around him feel special.
Which is how I finally came to understand his daughter. See, the last time I had seen Phillip was at his daughter’s funeral. She’d finally succumbed to the cancer that had stricken her at about age seven–the same time my son was first diagnosed with leukemia. I had been a blubbering mess at the funeral. I pushed through the crowd, because there’s always a crowd when a twelve-year-old dies, to get to Phillip. I had to tell him what a beautiful girl his daughter was. And that was when, through my slobbering and tears (because I just didn’t get the injustice of it all) he had comforted me, changing the subject by relating the story where had used me as an example for his son, telling his boy that he personally had a buddy that played sports and did well in school, and so he could, too.
I tried to tell Phillip about his beautiful daughter and how she had so touched my life. It was almost like today, when he needn’t have called. He knew. There was no need to say anything.
So later on, after I met back up with my son in the food court to get a bite to eat, I asked him if he remembered Katie, Phillip’s daughter. He was only seven at the time he’d met her, and with the leukemia diagnosis, there was a whirlwind of activity going on around him. He confessed that he hadn’t. I told him that after he’d been first diagnosed with leukemia when he was a kid, we’d run into them at the hospital. Phillip was with her, and I was with him–both of us dads pulling the wagon by playing the caregiver role during a trip to the clinic for a dose of toxic chemicals that might cure our children. When I recognized Phillip and said hello, Katie sort of stumbled over with him. Phillip explained that she was nearly blind from the combined effects of the chemo and the cancer. I had been so consumed with my life that I didn’t have any idea that Phillip also had a child with cancer. About as I realized the utter selfishness with which I had lived my life, I witnessed the most remarkable show of love I have ever seen. When Katie got close by my son, she held out her hand to him, sort of carefully groping for his touch through the dark of her eyes. When he took it she said, calling him by name, that she’d heard he had cancer, and had been praying for him.
After I told my son the story, waiting there in the fast-food line to place our order, neither of us could speak. The tears welled up in both of our eyes. For once in my life, I wished for the line to slow down.
Katie is gone now. But–and this is what I tried to tell Phillip that day at her funeral–her life was not lived in vain. Phillip didn’t need me to tell him that. He already knew she was special because she lived what little slice of life she’d been allotted trying to bring a little happiness to those around her. I realized today that Katie had learned how to do it from the best. It’s what made her the sweetest little girl I ever knew.
God Bless you Katie and Phillip.