It was a hard week. It started in the hospital last Sunday when I was paged, just a few minutes after I arrived, to the ICU. The person on the other end of the phone wouldn't give me any information about the patient, nor would the nurse sitting at the entrance to the intensive care floor. So when I walked into the room to which I was being called, I wasn't prepared. I wasn't ready to see, laying there and on life-support, the young man I had come to adore over the course of the many months he was on Shep Four, living among my cancer peeps. His brother had made the agonizing decision, minutes before I arrived, to remove him from the ventilator that was keeping him alive, and, over the next few hours, nurses and patients and doctors flowed in and out of his room, devastated that this boy was taking leave of our world.
The young man had come from the most hardscrabble of circumstances, and, in the nearly-nine months he spent on Shep Four, he created, by virtue of his tenacious, lovable, mischievous-bastard manner and never-ending hijinks, the family he never had. He was everywhere, all the time, bothering everyone, chatting with every pretty nurse, checking in on fellow-patients, sneaking downstairs to get soda. The first time I met him, I walked into his room and he greeted me with "I don't want whatever you've got." "Too bad," I told him, "I'm coming in anyway." Thus began our friendship. It turned out that he did want what I had: time. I had time to sit and listen to him talk about his dreams and his life back in upstate New York. I had time to learn about the music he loved, his passion for hunting and all the things he wanted to do when he was done being a cancer patient. It wasn't anything fancy or extravagant; he just wanted to be out of the hospital, out in the world and alive.
Everyone who knew him came to love him. It was not OK last Sunday, that, at the tender age of 21, he was going to die. That he died.
When I left his room, I was called to another, where a mother, sister, grandmother, aunt -- woman my age -- was also being removed from life support.
The week was filled with loss and grief. And lots and lots of questions: Why? Why does this happen? How are we to go on? What do we make of this? In one week my life was touched by death in the form of suicide, accident (human and canine) and cessation of heroic medical procedures. It was a lot. I didn't get much school work done.
Last night I was asked by my great and beautiful friend, Lauren, to take photos of her family during her mom, Carol's, 80th birthday party at their home atop a hill in southern Vermont. It was a perfect day, weather-wise; the timing of the color-changing of the foliage was just right. Everyone looked amazing. I know Lauren and her family well enough to know that they, like all families, have endured their share of struggles. Last night, though, was a moment for them to come together to celebrate; to be present for one another. I felt inordinately blessed to have been asked to be there with my camera, and I stayed long enough to hear two of Carol's sons toast her. One quoted Scripture, the other recited a poem. I would have stayed all night, but I recognized it as a really sacred time in the life of the Shehadi family, so I snapped photos until my camera batteries died, then I snuck away as they were preparing to eat dinner.
I took something really important with me, though. Wandering among that giant, funny, playful and loving Shehadi clan, watching them talk to each other and hug each other; watching big ones pick little ones up; sisters and brothers and cousins romping all over the lawn, I remembered that life, in addition to being sad and scary and unpredictable and full of death, is also filled with kindness and beauty and warmth and love. So much love. Enough love, some days, to neutralize the loss and the grief. What Carol Shehadi and her husband, Fred, have wrought is tremendous: five kids and fourteen grandkids. Last night it felt like 500, there was so much goddamned genuine love on that hill.
I left the family to their birthday dinner and their gift-giving and their toast-making and I took with me a lightness; a joy. And a renewed sense that it was going to be OK -- that love could bear the burdens we all carry. That in love lives the hope that will get us through another day.