Jim and I met May of 2004 when I was with a mutual friend and we ran into him at a concert. After that, he had been somewhat absorbed into friend group outings. After only a few times, we knew we wanted to spend time together without all of the other friends around. We decided to go to Festival together. I went to his house first, bringing the nerves of a first date with me. I walked up the front steps, and someone else opened the door.
I met Jim's parents on our first date. They had dropped by because they were in the area. We talked for a few minutes, and they cleared out. I soon met the rest of his family in his parents' backyard. They have a pool, and since meeting the whole tribe, we've spent many Saturday afternoons together - swimming in the warm weather, talking in the living room while the 4, and then 5, and then 6... and now 9 grandkids churned around us in a cloud of laughter, cookie crumbs and toys.
I had a hard time calling Jim's parents mom and dad. I have my own set, and those titles don't describe the relationship I have with Jim's parents. I came to them as a fully formed adult with capabilities and opinions and a lot of love for their son. Frankly they were thrilled that at their son (then in his late 30s) had found someone.
Over the years since first meeting them, Jim's dad and I have shared a lot of secret winks or half smiles over the quirks of family members. He shared with me his pride in his son who had become a husband, a dad, and a successful professional. We talked about his concern for his wife who has had health challenges of her own. He would remember historical Grand Rapids, often forgetting that I am not native. So he would patiently tell me the lineage of a particular building or family. When I would express frustration with our small house, he would chuckle and tell me stories about growing up in this house. Those stories of 9 kids in this house put my space and single bathroom frustrations in perspective.
Yesterday, I had to call Jim (who was in Traverse City for work) to tell him to pack up and come home. Telling him that his dad took a sudden bad turn, and was now dying was one of the hardest things I've had to do. The other was telling Willa and Henry that their beloved Grandpa T. died.
Grandpa who remembered which grandkid liked which lunch meat or candy or cookie, and would ensure those things would be stocked in his house. Grandpa who loved few things more than Saturdays in the pool with the grandkids. Grandpa who was always ready with hugs and "see you later alligator... " when we would pack into the car at the end of a visit...
Willa and Henry are processing this news the way a 4 and 6 year old should. They seem to think it's their job to keep Jim and I happy and distracted by doing choreographed dances and telling jokes. They will miss their grandpa very much, but they don't understand fully right now.
I was there yesterday, as was Jim, the rest of his kids, another daughter in law, his wife, and most of his 8 brothers and sisters. We were there around him when he drifted off peacefully, thanks to the morphine.
In the end, he had been in the hospital for 66 days. In the end, he had beaten leukemia, as proved by the biopsy results that came back yesterday. But the chemo wiped out his immune system, and a fungus took hold, eventually spreading to his spleen (which was removed after rupturing), his liver, and then his brain. It has been a very long 66 days for all of us. Now he doesn't have to fight anymore, and his faith sustained him until the end.
It was strange be be in a room at the funeral room giving information for the obituary, deciding which days, which rituals... Having children is a milestone in the generational cycle. Now, suddenly, we are all older. The next few days will be a blur. Henry needs a haircut. Willa needs funeral clothes, because sparkles and bright pink doesn't feel right. We will meet his friends and family and remember great stories and help each other to say goodbye. We will be exhausted from the marathon grieving and celebrating. He leaves behind a legacy of kindness, and patience, and love. He leaves behind a family that will support each other in the next days, and beyond. He leaves behind memories that we will treasure always.