Following: A Good Man’s Great Act of Love
Three years ago, my sister-in-law Mary was living the life she’d always hoped for. Parenting two beautiful 12-year-old twin girls with her partner of 17 years, working in highly respected position, and living on Cape Cod—it had all come together for her.
On December 9, 2010, it all came apart.
After a long transatlantic business trip, she got up to change planes in Detroit. In the jet way she crumpled to the floor; an embolism that had likely been growing over the course of the flight had traveled to her lungs. She was given CPR for 45 minutes and transported to the local hospital.
I will never forget that Thursday afternoon. A doctor called looking for my husband Tom, who was listed as one of Mary’s emergency contacts. She didn’t say much more than, “Your sister-in-law has had an event. The situation is quite grave.”
An event. Actually, Mary had died and been revived. But 45 minutes of CPR is a long time for a brain to live with only the barest minimum of oxygen. My husband understood this. When I got through to him, he already knew that the situation was, in fact, extremely grave.
Tom and Mary had a special bond; they adored one another and spoke often, discussing family concerns, seeking advice and sharing the joys and challenges of parenthood. They were raised in a loving, tight-knit family. Their father was a remarkable man in many ways, but it was his devotion to his kids that most impressed me. He was a salesman, often traveling all week and coming home to an exhausted wife and six young children. He would take over kid duty, in part to give their mother a break, but also just to be with them. He was famous for driving them all the way from their suburban Boston home to Logan Airport just to mail letters.
My husband is that kind of father; he loves to be with his kids. And yet the best part of his fatherhood is that he follows our four on their own journeys. Our oldest son loves to camp; Tom hates it, but goes on camping trips for no other reason than to be with his son in the boy’s own element. Our middle son is a Yankees fan; every cell in Tom’s being roots for the Red Sox, but when asked if they could possibly go to a Yankees game—in Yankee Stadium, no less—Tom found a way to make it happen.
My husband has made a part time career of following our children to places he would never choose to go if he were not the daddiest kind of daddy.
On December 9, 2010, Tom followed his big sister to Detroit. Mary was on life support, and her brain was slowly dying. Tom arranged for Mary’s grief-stricken partner to travel with him, and encouraged his sisters and elderly mother to come to Detroit the next day, knowing it would likely be their last chance to see Mary alive.
On December 11, the decision was made to remove life support and Mary died. She was a beautiful, loving, joy-filled, wonderful person, and she was taken from us far too soon.
The rest of the family went home to break the news, provide comfort, and prepare for the process of laying Mary to rest. Tom arranged for transport of Mary’s body back to Massachusetts. Because it was the weekend, the paperwork would take a couple of days, and he could have come back then, too, but he called me.
“I can’t leave without her,” he said. “I need to see her home.”
Two days later, I met him at Logan Airport, where his father used to come with Tom and Mary and their siblings to mail letters. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen my husband cry, and he seemed calm when he walked across the terminal toward me. But when I put my arms around him, I felt the tiny gasps in his chest. Oh, Mary, we miss you so.
We followed the funeral van with her body to Cape Cod, talking sadly about how this would be her last time crossing the Sagamore Bridge toward the place she loved the most on this earth. We watched the van pull into the local funeral home, blinking back tears. Tom had done what he’d promised. He had seen her home.
Tom’s fatherhood is like his brotherhood and like his friendship. He shows up for people. When someone he loves is in need, he follows where they need to him to go, does what he can to help. He does this quietly, without need for acknowledgement or thanks. I’ve seen it a thousand times, and yet it was never so beautifully and heart-breakingly displayed as the day he followed his big sister on her final journey. For me it’s come to symbolize who he is at his core: a guy who shows up and helps out.
Our kids love to make fun of his quirks—the hilariously messy way he eats corn on the cob, his dogged insistence on tucked in shirts, his confusion over text speak (for the longest time he thought LOL meant Lots of Love). But behind their teasing is the certain knowledge of his rock-solidness, and that if they need him, nowhere on earth would be too far for him to follow.