Today, in an attempt to finally say goodbye to my dear friend as well as channel my grief into fond memories, I took a long walk along the beach and through the grounds of the beautiful Ringling Museums near my house. It was really peaceful, yet a thousand questions still ran through my mind as well as pangs of deep sadness. I don’t think I’ll ever get over losing him, no matter how young and resilient I may be, but at least I can remember him forever. We’d walked this route before, so I could at least feel that he was with me while I said goodbye to him…
Some of you may know how it is when you lose a close friend of yours. It seems sometimes some of us think of things that we wish we did differently, or wish we spent more time with them in today’s maddening rush to hurry up and live life. I did a lot of thinking along those lines, as much as I couldn’t help it. Steven and I were going to make a go at starting a business partnership together again when he got out of the hospital. We both had lots of ideas and plans to implement once he was ready… That could be part of why I was hit so hard, because it was an assumed given that he would be out of the hospital soon and back home, where we’d meet frequently.
Some of you know how hard it can be to turn around and see your departed friend everywhere, in the form of things we did in the past, pictures, objects, etc. For instance, he really loved the oranges from our orange tree in the backyard. Said they were the absolute best he had ever eaten, and he worked for Tropicana as the Senior Systems Analyst for their fruit system! It was certainly a high honor, coming from him, to hear about our oranges in such glowing terms. 🙂 I’d turn in the house and see various Florida Gator (we’re both Gator fans from the University of Florida) items around the house and it’d remind me of our undying love for college football and us going to an occasional game as well as watching them at our houses on TV, trying out his delicious BBQ sauce he was so proud of. He was also part of one of the most joyous times of my life — when I was married and he was one of the groomsmen at our wedding.. Another fond memory I have of him is us sitting outside in my backyard, just sitting and chatting about things. He’d be smoking his cigarettes, and I’d be puffing on a cheap cigar. Often we’d talk about our dreams of going into business together…
While those are sweet, wonderful memories, they’re also hard on my heart, because they’re reminders that I’ll never be able to add to those memories of him in person. It’s so strange to see an abrupt end to these things. It’s going to take a lot of getting used to. Maybe it’s because many of us take one another for granted, expecting us to be around for the duration of our lives. Perhaps I was young and arrogant to assume he’d be around until we were sitting in old rocking chairs, with long, grey beards, still puffing away, talking about the good ole days. Steven led a rather difficult life, having to fight Hodgkin’s Disease not just once, but four times, with the prior three battles ending successfully on his behalf and him going into remission for several years.
I’ll never forget the time he emailed me as well as told me in person that his cancer had come back, 5 years after remission. You could tell he was disappointed, but also weary. I think he was tired of fighting such a formidable opponent — he really just wanted to put it to rest and be done with it, but sadly it was not to be. He was pretty negative, and rightfully so. I tried my best to cheer him up and encourage some positive thinking on his behalf. He also told me that his loving wife was scared and he was concerned about the future for her. I remember him asking me to look out for her if he died, and I remember laughing, telling him it wouldn’t come to that.
Well, it did, and here I am, ruing that day… I think Steven came so close to making it. His cancer was in remission, finally, but his immune system was so weak from the dose intensive chemotherapy and his white blood cell count so low, that he was still in danger. Sure enough, pneumonia attacked his system and he battled awhile longer, successfully holding it at bay for a little bit, but then it was just too much for him and he succumbed, slipping into a coma for a month. Finally, his liver and kidneys failed, and his family as well as his wife decided it was time to let him go and had his ventilator unplugged last Thursday. He didn’t stop breathing on his own until eight hours later. In a sense, those eight hours defined his life — a long struggle to live, and finally letting go to a better life elsewhere.
Unfortunately, only the immediate family knew of the extent of his battle — he had requested that no one else, not even close friends, know the extent of how his treatment was going or even visit him because he knew it would be a gruesome sight — a person undergoing chemotherapy is pretty much ravaged, physically. I think, in case he didn’t make it, he wanted us all to remember him as he was before he went into the hospital. That’s why his death was so sudden us, but not his family. I hadn’t heard from and remembered his request to be left alone so I assumed things were going well (no news is good news, eh?) and the last time I talked to him, he had promised to give me a good time to come up and visit him at the hospital despite his insistence not to allow visits, and his warning that it may not be a pleasant one.
Almost as soon as I arrived home from a business trip in Texas, I found out that he had died, and it was such a surprise that I thought his wife was joking. Luckily, I had come back in time because his funeral was the next morning and I was asked to be one of the pallbearers. I think this was somewhat prophetic because my original plan for my trip to Texas was for me to stay another day but for one reason or another, I decided to leave a day earlier so I could have time to rest up from the trip… Turns out it was just in time for Steven’s funeral. Had I missed it, it would have been even harder on me.
It was a really rough experience for me because I had only found out about his death the day before the funeral and here I was, right in the middle of it all, carrying the casket holding my beloved friend right next to me. It really was too much for me and throughout the funeral my tears were flowing freely. I couldn’t help it, and I had vowed to remain strong, like I always have at many other funerals. It wasn’t to be and I struggled all day, with grief wringing my face and heart at times. I was embarrassed a bit, at first, but that feeling was overwhelmed by my sadness for the loss of Steven. I think everyone understood. His aunt came up to my wife and said, “Bless his heart.” I think the pain and loss on my face was so clear that a few other guys next to me started using their hankies, wiping tears away from their formerly dry eyes. This was the first funeral I’d ever cried in.
Steven’s wife, Robin, seemed really strong at the funeral. It made sense, though, because she had been through it all, from day one when he went into the hospital for treatment. She had to watch him wither away and die before her very own eyes, for weeks and weeks. Thinking about that makes my anguish a bit more bearable because, my God, think about what she had to go through, in partial secrecy from many of his friends! And, to top it all off, she’s lost a dear and loving husband that she’d been with for so many years… My heart goes out to her and I’ll do what I can to respect Steven’s wishes and look out for her.
And, now, it’s time for me to let go and say “Goodbye, Steven,” as much as I don’t want to let him go. He will always be a large part of my memories, fully cherished. He was a really sweet and wonderful guy — even his face always seemed to glow with laughter, and it wasn’t hard to make him laugh, either. I’d always crack him up every time I saw him, and it was great. Even though we had our occasional differences, communication problems, and misunderstandings , I think we both understood that we were good friends deep down and cared for one another.
I will truly miss him with all my heart and my life will not be the same without him because it had big plans involving him. I’m going to do my best to continue our plans and do what I can to extend Steven’s legacy, and I think he’d like that.
I know that I’ll see him once again when it’s time for me to leave this lifetime and it’ll be a joyous reunion, as with my other long passed away relatives. I also know that he’ll be here, too, while I’m weaving my own life. He’ll be in my heart and mind as well as memories, every day. I can take condolence in the fact that while he’s gone physically, in a spiritual sense, he’ll be far more constantly with me that he was when he was alive.
Most importantly, I can rest assured that Steven has gone to a place where there’s no cancer, where he can really rest in peace and live the life he’s always wanted to live.