I received the text February 22, 2016.
Hey Tamara. I have a kind of difficult question to ask and would like you to call if you could. Don’t be too surprised if the answering system comes on. If it does please try calling again over the next several days – I should be home soon. Thanks! Chris
I called Chris back three nights later, but he wasn’t home, and his mom answered his phone. I told her Chris had asked me to call and she explained that he was in the hospital for a follow-up after his January illness. I fumbled a bit, trying to explain that I knew nothing of what had happened in January. I had wished Chris a Happy Birthday on Facebook, January 23, and he had responded, no mention of illness. She told me he had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia mid-January, stayed a couple of days and went home. And then, with continuing problems, had gone back mid-February and was diagnosed with a very aggressive lung cancer.
Chris had never smoked. He was employed by a local phone company out of college and worked in an office for years, tried substitute teaching but decided not to pursue education as a second career, and had worked on his family farm most recently.
In high school Chris and I had been very close friends, but not romantic. We were in classes together, sang in chorus together, were lab partners in Biology and Anatomy. Chris had good work ethic paired with academic integrity and lived by the rule that if he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything. He was kind to everyone, quiet and polite, and I liked to think we had a lot in common. We were both Sunday School teachers, accompanists at our respective churches, each had a younger sister, and we volunteered in the community. But the fact is, Chris outclassed me, outworked me, and outshone me in every aspect of our lives, although it was not competition for him. He was just naturally a golden-hearted person. Sometimes I would tease him and tell him what a good monk he would make. He would smile and mildly reply that I’d make a lovely nun. The night we graduated was the last time I would see him for about six years, while our young adult lives took very different trajectories.
When I moved back home to take a teaching position, I began to run into Chris at charity fundraisers and volunteer events in the community. It was good to see my gentle friend again. Seeing him reminded me of the days when we were carefree and I had not yet made mistakes that I still regret, even now, almost forty years later. It was sadly sweet to reminisce when we were “the monk and the nun,” just for our brief social visits.
On Tuesday, March 1, I drove to the hospital after my school day ended. Over the weekend I had researched the kind of cancer Chris had. My own experience with cancer, taught me how a positive attitude was crucial to survival, and how vital it was to remain hopeful. A good friend, another survivor, had taken my hand the day of my diagnosis and promised to walk with me every step of the way, and I was prepared to walk this journey with Chris. After checking in at the nurse station I stepped into Chris’ room. His mother, father and sister were keeping company with him that afternoon. It didn’t seem the right time to ask about the favor he had mentioned in the text. We chatted for a little while and I asked if I could give him a kiss. On the forehead, of course. He smiled and said he would like that. His skin felt cool to me and he asked me to come back Thursday evening so we could talk.
Wednesday came and went, and before I could get to the hospital Thursday afternoon, Chris’ sister posted on Facebook, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” That could not mean what I thought it meant. I tried to call, but no one answered his phone. I drove to the hospital as soon as I could, but his family had already left, and Chris was gone.
What was the favor my friend had wanted to ask? Hot tears spilled over my cheeks as I began to grieve that I would never be able to grant him his favor. What could it have been? Why could he not just text me, or call me, or tell me when I went to see him? For all the years of kindness, respect and honor he had shown me, I would never be able to return those favors or even to thank him. And we would never celebrate his survival.
My phone rang Saturday morning, and when I answered, I heard Chris’ sister say, “I need to ask a favor.” Tears spilled again, as I told her my anguish that I would never get to grant Chris’ favor, and she cried too as she explained that yes, I would, that was the reason for her call. On the previous Thursday morning, as she was caring for her brother, he took her hand and whispered to her, “I’m going to die soon.” She leaned closer to hug him and he asked her to ask me to play for his funeral. And then he closed his eyes and slipped away as quietly as he had lived. And that was it. That was the favor.
Wednesday morning dawned sunny and cool. The sturdy white church was brimming with family, congregation members, his college roommate, former co-workers, and several of our high school friends. A bagpiper stood in full regalia, ready to pipe Chris to his final resting place. The gospel quartet he had been a member of in life now lifted one of his favorite hymns to the heavens. The pastor told of a man who directed his choir, accompanied his congregation, mentored his young friends and nephews, visited his older friends, baked cakes and pies for his church and his community, and wrote devotions for fellow followers. She spoke of a steady man who honored his family, kept company with the lonely, honed his skills at the piano, and enjoyed much meditation before he passed into eternity, away from the noise of this life. He was not political, followed no celebrities, stirred no controversy, expressed no temper, never made the news, He was fifty-one years old.
All the hymns I played, “When We All Get to Heaven,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Beyond the Sunset,” “Sweet By and By,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “We’re Marching to Zion,” spoke of a time in the future, when I know I will see Chris again, healed and whole. But for now, I need to ask a favor…
If you have a friend who has shown a kindness, tell them what it meant to you. If you have a friend who lifted you up in a dark time, tell them how their light shown a way. If you have a friend who made you smile, return that smile. If you have a friend who shed tears with you, marvel that their heart could feel what yours did, and rejoice at your human connection. If you have drifted from a dear friend, reach out a hand. Today.
We don’t have to have millions of dollars to bring joy to the world. We don’t have to be in an international spotlight to be a light. We don’t have to rub elbows with the politically powerful to bring peace to our corner. And we don’t have know the future to point each other toward hope.
Wishing you all these things today friends – joy, hope, peace and light…