Many points during the past 18 months I’ve wished I could clone myself.
My desire has come not because I desire to be a guinea pig for scientific advances, but because I have dearly wanted to be in two places at the same time-our home here in Evanston and my home state of Massachusetts.
Last year, I stayed during much of the time that Dunreith went to Western Massachusetts as her father entered his final weeks and months and I did my best to help usher Aidan through a very trying junior year. I stayed here while Mike and Jon spent weeks and months with Mom as she battled congestive heart failure, going in and out of the hospital repeatedly before eventually having a pacemaker installed, as my stepmother Diane declined before her death exactly one year ago today.
I flew to Boston when I could, and am proud that I did my part to support some of the people I love most as best as I could.
This year has brought a new challenge.
In mid-May, my mother-in-law Helen had a seizure in front of Dunreith just moments after she arrived for what was supposed to be a vacation the two of them had planned to take to Dad and Diane’s home in Rockport.
After a lengthy hospitalization, during which time the doctors went back and forth about the actual nature of Helen’s condition, the diagnosis came: glioblastoma.
For those who are not devotees of the Kennedy family, this is an advanced and inoperable brain tumor.
After making the brave and beautiful decision to see Aidan get ready to attend the prom and graduate from Evanston Township High School, Helen began radiation and chemotherapy a little more than three weeks ago.
It’s rough going.
Although she’s been fortunate in not having much nausea, Helen has been much more tired.
She’s noticed herself losing recall on words.
And, this past week, she started to lose her hair.
The physical symptoms are tough enough to contend with, and of course there is the existential uncertainty we all face every day of not knowing either how much time we have left on the planet and how best to use the moments we have.
For Helen, while the first is and will remain an unknown, the latter generally involves family.
This past weekend Aidan and I flew out and spent the weekend with her and the rest of the family.
Dunreith’s Aunt Ginna hosted a lovely evening for everyone at her home in Wilbraham. Their house abuts a pond stocked with bass that cousins Regan and Dylan caught, and, before the bugs got too fierce, we sat in a rough circle on a brick patio outside the spacious and immaculate house, eating kielbasa, drinking what we chose and soaking in the pleasure of each other’s company.
I sat next to Helen, who was beaming with an almost incandescent light.
The love of family is a welcome and, in the case of the Kellys, predictable source of strength and support.
I’ve also been touched the past few days by unexpected gifts of compassion others have given me.
One of them came from Fred, a gentleman who works at Whole Foods. Bald and muscular, he lives on the South Side and commutes two hours each way to and from his job in downtown Evanston.
We first met a couple of years ago and don’t know too much about each other. But I do know that it meant a lot to him when Obama got elected, that he treasures the holidays he spends with his family, too, and, without his sharing it, that he has known suffering in his life.
He’s a good and decent man with whom I exchange a man-hug when we see each other before he hugs and kisses Dunreith when we see each other at the store.
The day before the trip was one of those times.
Like most of the people in the store do when I show up without Dunreith, he asked where she was.
I explained what was happening with Helen.
Fred listened intently, then asked, “What is your mother-in-law’s name.”
I told him.
“Helen,” he said. “I’m going to put her on my prayer list.”
I thanked him, and he repeated his plan. “Putting her on the prayer list.”
Fred’s generous and compassionate act gave me comfort and made me feel less alone for more than a minute.
This morning, when I returned to work, Leti and Octavio, two colleagues at Hoy, asked after Dunreith and Helen, respectively
I explained that she is losing some strength, but is meeting each day with strength and an upbeat spirit.
“Well, welcome back again,” Octavio said after listening respectfully to my explanation.
As with Fred, my coworkers’ simple expressions of concern touched me deeply because of their spontaneity, because of how they went beyond the initial parameters of our relationship and because they were offered with such generosity.
I’m about to heed Becky Simpson’s advice, and rest and try again tomorrow to be there for and with Dunreith, Helen and Aidan as we all go the next step in this uncharted terrain.
Before I lie down, though, I want to register my gratitude for the small gifts of compassion I have received, and the strength they have given me not to desire to be split in half, but to continue to strive to be the best and most whole person I can.