‘Sometimes it’s hard to know if we should be friends with so many cancer patients. We get to know them so well from support groups and treatments and cancer groups.’ He rubbed his beard, squeezing tightly when he reached his chin.
It was unexpected coming from him. But the message was sad. Perhaps the saddest I’d heard.
‘Another of Kay’s good friends died recently. Hard to stay positive. She knows her diagnosis, but she’s lost about 10 of her really good friends to cancer. And one just recently.”
There was pain in his eyes.
‘I don’t know,’ he suddenly seemed to realize what he was saying and shifted the topic. I looked at him.
He felt that way. I can’t blame him or his wife.
I’d had those same thoughts. I can’t lie.
Your friends have left you, my friend
You’ve seen so much suffering
The hard rain will fall and it’s gonna keep on falling
And it’s hard and it’s hard and it’s hard and it’s hard.
There’s a hard rain a gonna’ fall.
Why did you cry, my darling loved one?
The sadness you promised
You’ve been through broken bones and sorry sons
You’ve carried the laundry and continued to fight
It’s hard and it’s hard and it’s hard and it’s hard. There’s a hard rain a gonna’ fall.
‘My husband and I bought this 25-acre property on Lake Omen,’ she said, sitting comfortably on the couch, smiling, reminiscing.
Her eyes drifted from me to the ceiling.
Her smile drifted too.
‘And we developed Mystic Views Bed and Breakfast, with the plan to live a relaxed life.
‘I had to decide what I was going to do now that Steve was gone. I was alone, up In the middle of the woods,’ she smiled, probably realizing that he would be proud of what she’d done.And what did you do when all had forsaken you?Did you fall into despair or bend and break when winds blew through the thick trees in your woods?
You stood and you fought and you brought such love and kindness to all you met
And those things are never forgotten
It’s hard. And it’s hard. And it’s hard and it’s hard. There’s a hard rain a gonna fall.
‘How did you cope when you were caring for Shelly?’ I’d gone to college with him so many years ago. Shelly had made it through chemo and radiation for breast cancer years before. Jack had cared for her.
He’d been there for me more recently, when Tracy had been in her darkest days of chemo treatments.
A simple call, ‘hey Mike, how’s it going?’ Or text of the same sort. They’d brightened me. Sometimes I’d look at those texts all day when I was sitting in the hospital room with Tracy. He’d been there for me. He probably didn’t know what it had meant to me. But maybe he did.
Simple things, but they did mean so much.I never told him.
‘I drank,’ he said. My heart sank. I should have called him. Or texted him. But we hadn’t been in touch for years. I was afraid to reach out. When I heard someone had cancer, I was unsure of what to say. I didn’t want to make matters worse. I was embarrassed to reach out. I didn’t reach out.
I’d watched Shelly’s battle with cancer on her Facebook page. On Jack’s Facebook page. I’d seen the photos of her without hair. I’d seen the pictures of the whole family standing strong, kids and all, during her struggle. Jack put on a brave face. But I knew now, after having done cancer caregiving for Tracy, how lonely it was. How dark those times are. How little things mean so much. Even small, kind messages. I’d assumed that Jack had it handled. Now I knew that he had struggled too. And he could have used a hand to reach out to him. Like he’d done for me.
‘So I thought I’d revisit it. Let us know if you need anything. I have a 13-year old rockstar babysitter, if you need to get out.’
By this time in our cancer journey, the last thing I wanted to do was to get out. I was just glad to be home, so thanked him and declined his offer.
I rehashed some of our greatest exploits in high school. Long before the super soaker, Jim had created his own – a recharged industrial fire extinguisher filled with water. We’d drive around the Minneapolis lakes drenching people with it. Way ahead of its time.
He sent me back a smiley face.
Several months later, I saw on Facebook a message from his wife chronicling his condition: since late Spring, he’d been experiencing severe stomach pains. More recently, they’d been into the doctors and found out that he had a rare form of stomach cancer. He was hobbled in pain. They were trying to get an appointment at Mayo, but it looked like it was a month out. He couldn’t work. They had 2 little kids.
He had a lot of friends. He was a unique sort – part poet, part musician, part philosopher. Strange and crazy sense of humor. Loved music more than anyone I’d ever known. Many of my memories with him were bouncing around different Minneapolis music venues in our early 20s.
His friends rallied around his family. They’d signed up for the Meal Train and people were covering meals, kid rides and other things around the house. They were helping his wife with things.
Unsure of how to approach it, I messaged, ‘fuck cancer. Thinking of you, Jim. Let me know anything I can do. The Mayo is a great place.’
‘Still trying to get in.’
Several weeks later, I messaged him.
‘How you doing, Jim? How is Paula?’
I checked out Facebook. A week earlier they were told by Mayo that he would be put in hospice. Just a day earlier he had come home.
He died the next day.
Where have you gone my long, lost friend
Why did you go when you had so much to live for. So many people who loved you.
I hear your laugh from beyond 30 years
I see the pain in your family and friends on their posts
I see pictures of your kids – the tragedy of one so loved lost.
There’s a hard rain that’s gonna fall.
It was 2010 – our summer vacation at Kalahari water park in Wisconsin dells. The kids were little. Real little. Late morning. We were heading back up to our room from a late breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I looked on my phone – there were 10 messages from Doug from the day before telling me to call him immediately.
Tracy got a call just as we walked into the room. It was from Tracy, the wife of another friend from high school. I could see her face drop.
‘How did it happen?’
‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘John died yesterday.’ She said. I sat back on the bed.
John was my best friend. I met him freshman year in high school. We’d gone to college together. We did so many things together. We’d been in each other’s weddings. We knew each other’s parents and siblings well. We’d done so many things as young men. Every time I could think of in my life it was peppered with memories of John. I didn’t understand.
This one hurt like nothing had since my dad had died 16 years earlier. I cried without abandon. I could barely make it through the receiving line at the wake. I could barely talk to his parents or his wife.
I’d seen him for lunch a couple weeks earlier. He seemed fine. We were talking about our parents getting older. He was very concerned about his dad’s health.
I was grasping for an explanation. Unfortunately, when Tracy got off the phone, she didn’t have one. No one did.
All I heard was that he’d started getting exhausted about a week and a half earlier. Had taken the end of last week off work. Had checked himself into the hospital earlier this week. Had been told he could go home several days ago. And had mysteriously ‘code blued’ at the hospital the day before.
I called Doug. He was crying. I called John’s wife. I cried. She was stronger and cried too. She didn’t have answers either.
The mystery continued. Some sort of contagious disease was suspected but we wouldn’t have answers for a while. Until after the autopsy. He’d been to Mexico several months earlier.
6 months earlier, over Christmas, he’d been hospitalized and told me they found benign tumors in his lungs – ‘not to worry,’ they said. They’d put him on steroids for something.
A month went by and I got a call from Priya.
‘I wanted to let you know we just got the results of the autopsy. It was Lymphoma. Only 20 cases of this type of Lymphoma have ever been recorded anywhere. That’s why they didn’t know how to treat it.
‘He loved you, Mikey. He really did.’
I left work. I walked to the park and cried.
Why did you leave so soon my friend? Why did you leave when you had so much to live for?
Such a great family. So many friends.
I saw your old father cry at your wake
I saw your two small children who will grow up without you
I saw so many people who loved you brought down
About the prospect, the reality, of life without you
I saw your wife standing tall at the funeral
As the casket rolled up to the alter
And the friends of mine, we all sat together
And even the toughest shed a tear
I heard so tell of all you left on earth
And I did cry and I did laugh
I’m going inside before I get flooded
And all I can see is the dense falling water
And all I can hear is the groan of the world
When everything is covered in water
And nothing around me I can walk on
And the hard rain is taking us all down
That day a hard rain fell on me
that day a hard rain fell all around the world
Mike McGarry is a caregiver for his wife, Tracy, who has multiple myeloma. Mike and Tracy have 2 boys, Joseph, 13, and Jacob, 11. Mike is a member of Jack’s Caregiver Coalition.