Do you remember Man of Science, Man of Faith, a story about my friends Frank and Nancy?
Frank was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer last month. He was given 3 months to live.
It hasn’t been a month yet.
Three weeks ago, Frank and Nancy were still kind of hopeful. Even I am not quite sure what I mean by this. Maybe just that they believed Frank had some good time left and that he would surpass the three month expiration date he’d been given?
Exactly three weeks ago (a couple of days after learning about Frank’s updated diagnosis), I stood in my kitchen chopping vegetables and browning chicken for homemade chicken soup. I was making it for Frank. When the people I care about are sick and I feel helpless, I am compelled to make chicken soup and bring food. I certainly felt helpless when I heard about Frank’s stomach metastasis, so out came the big soup pot.
A few hours later, when the soup was finished and packaged in big, blue glass bowls, I walked next door to Frank and Nancy’s house. I dragged my husband along so he could deliver the large bag of organic fruits and vegetables I had picked up at the grocery store for Frank and Nancy.
I knew that Nancy would understand my response to her husband’s illness. I knew this because she has showed up on my doorstep with food a number of times since my diagnosis.
Nancy accepted the big red bag full of produce. But she did not want me to leave the soup. She said that three families from her church had dropped off three different kinds of soup that weekend.
I insisted that Nancy keep the soup. I said that they didn’t need to eat it, but that I had made it just for them, so they could freeze it or toss it, but I wanted them to have it. I needed them to accept it. I’m usually not this forceful, so I surprised myself with my insistence. But they had to take it, for my sake, because I had to help in some small way.
A couple of hours later, Nancy called me to tell me that she hadn’t wanted to say anything, but Frank was only eating soft foods. She said that he had tried the other soups but couldn’t eat them (or didn’t want to). She told me that he tried mine and enjoyed it, including the soft vegetables and mushrooms it contained. She said that he had even managed to finish a bowl. She was so happy that she had to call. And I was so touched that I felt a hard lump develop in my throat.
So two weeks ago when Nancy said that the soup was gone and she asked me to make more, I was delighted. I was just getting over pneumonia and was so tired that it took me most of the day (with rests in between!), but I was honored that Nancy had asked.
This time I decided to roast a whole chicken. I stood in the kitchen dressing the chicken, thinking about poor Frank and Nancy. As I placed rosemary sprigs and a freshly cut lemon into the chicken, I recalled that day two summers ago. Nancy had arranged a surprise 50th birthday party for Frank. As I rubbed the herbed butter I had just made onto the chicken and under it’s breast skin, I remember how excited Nancy was. She wanted everything to be perfect.
Nancy even went so far as to plan the party in a large and lovely space in the new town hall building — in another town a half hour away. She didn’t want him to suspect. She told Frank that the party he was going to was a graduation party for a girl they knew.
I was now chopping vegetables, placing them in the roasting pan beneath the chicken, and dousing them with olive oil and salt and pepper.
When Frank walked into the party room, we were all there. His closest family and friends. Nancy had even flown Frank’s brother and sister in from out of state. So when he walked in and saw the fake graduation girl and noticed his own friends and family behind her, I think he was just as shocked as when everyone shouted “Surprise!”
I opened the oven and slid the roasting pan in. It was time to start working on the soup now.
Frank was clearly surprised. So surprised and touched that he wept. Frank is a very tall man, so to see this tall man with a commanding presence stop in his tracks and begin crying was a moving sight.
I filled a large pot with water, chicken stock and salt and pepper, and I began washing and chopping more vegetables.
It was a great day filled with smiling and laughter. Genuine happiness. Nancy had done a beautiful thing for Frank. Though she didn’t have a lot of money to spend, she made the party seem like she had a large budget to work with. She worked hard on this day and she asked people to pitch in where they could. She knew it was an important day.
It would come to be more important than she ever could have realized.
I gently dropped vegetables into the pot and added a touch of olive oil and seasoning to the stock. Soon I would take the golden brown chicken from the oven and add juicy chunks of chicken and tender, roasted vegetables to the stockpot. And then I would walk next door to Frank and Nancy’s house with my pot and with the hope that Frank would be able to eat my humble offering.
That was two weeks ago.
One week ago, Nancy said that Frank was now only able to drink the broth.
And things got progressively worse this week. I remember hearing the distress in Nancy’s voice whenever we talked. She was tired from worry and from caring for Frank around the clock.
And when Frank and Nancy’s son came over in need of a ride to school on a couple of the mornings (because he had missed the bus so he could help his mom take care of his dad), he was noticeably quiet.
Nancy was having trouble keeping Frank hydrated. She was using a syringe to wet his lips and mouth. I took Pedialyte popsicles over so she could melt them down and replenish some of his electrolytes. But we knew they wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
Despite her vigilance, Frank had also developed a bedsore. Nancy said that the nurses had’t been caring for it, so I took a special cream over that would help to soothe it and form a barrier. But I was afraid that it would get infected and I knew that it must be causing pain.
Early Thursday morning, the phone rang when it was still dark outside. It was Nancy. She said that Frank was unresponsive and that he had wet himself. I tried to conceal how upset I was to hear this, but it was no use. I talked to Nancy for a little while and told her I would bring some adult diapers over. They had given me these when I was hospitalized for my hysterectomy last year and had been hemorrhaging and pads were not enough. I was sad when I realized that I had no idea back then that they would be going to Frank.
Frank came around again that morning and was able to talk to Nancy and his kids, but I knew that these things were signs that he would be gone soon. My guess was that day. Frank and Nancy’s son came over for a ride to school after he helped his mom clean and diaper his dad. He was visibly shaken. It was heartbreaking. He is a good kid and a good son. I was upset that he had to experience this. His prom was the next night and instead of worrying about what kind of corsage to get his date like his friends, he was worrying about losing his father to cancer.
The day went on and night came. At 2 a.m., the phone rang. I knew it was Nancy. I picked up the phone and heard a small voice on the other end. It was Nancy telling me that Frank had just passed. She sounded both upset and relieved. His pain had ended and his suffering was over.
Cancer claimed another life.
Frank was just 51. He is survived by his loving wife, son, daughter, brand new (5-month-old) granddaughter, and a large group of friends and family who loved him.