L’Chaim

“The day you cease to burn with love, many others will die of the cold.” François Mauriac

Carol  Burton 22 April 05:22 pm

Well, this has been a long time coming, thankfully, but Tim has now entered the stage of active dying. The hospice nurse said she couldn’t give us a time frame, but it’s going to be a few days or maybe many days, but the end is near. Of course, he is surrounded by doting family and friends; we sit in a circle around him and send him love. He rarely speaks sensibly and sleeps very heavily, but in some ways he’s still Tim and manages a few smiles and bits of silliness. It’s hard for us all.

I still adore this man.

In the early 90’s, Tim Burton was a vibrant, handsome Jewish man in his mid-30’s with thick, dark hair and equally luscious beard who worked with the emotionally impaired kids at the high school I attended. My friends and I (correctly) suspected that he was in clandestine and therefore deliciously scandalous relationship with one of our favorite English teachers, CJ McNaughton, a divorcee in her early 50’s with grown children. She peered over bifocals with tired, kind eyes and carried a tangled clump of key chains the size of a small cat that jangled and clanked as she walked down the hall.

Tim and Carol were staff sponsors in a peer mentoring program of which I was a part. The group’s primary purpose was to put on weekend outdoor adventure retreats for students at the local middle schools. Once those weekends were done, we still wanted to connect with each other, so every Wednesday, whoever wanted to talk and eat would show up in Tim’s room once classes were over.

After the end of-the-day bell sounded, we’d trickle into his room. Tim would unlock a tall, wooden cabinet behind his desk and pull out a green and white tub of caramel while one of us cut up a few waxy-skinned Granny Smiths with a dull, sticky paring knife. Depending on the day and who got there first, Boyz II Men, Toad the Wet Sprocket or Bob Marley would fill the room with sound from a dusty boom box in the corner. We’d fling backpacks and varsity jackets to the ground, crowd around a paint-stained circular wooden table on molded plastic chairs from the 70’s and dip apple slice, baby carrots, pretzels or corn chips into the caramel dip. Tim and Carol would listen and my friends and I would talk.

We adored them. They were real. In a Velveteen Rabbit sort of way. They didn’t pretend to be who they weren’t and they didn’t patronize us. They cussed. Said shit. And fuck. And agreed that life sometimes sucks. Nothing was taboo. Nothing scared or shocked them. Decades before I had any idea of what “holding space” meant, they were doing it for us naturally, easily, authentically.

Those Wednesday afternoons in the sanctuary of Tim’s room, around the plastic chalice of the ever-present caramel tub became quasi-sacramental for me in years that were confusing and painful. It was a place of nourishing sweetness where I came to be reminded how precious I was, and that my own particular life mattered.

Tim and Carol are some of the first adults with whom I can remember having a different, non-child/adult relationship. They weren’t reaching down; they came alongside, and in doing so, helped lay the groundwork for who I would become as an educator and youth worker. With them, I felt seen. Truly seen. And safe in a way that I never felt in the halls and classrooms of Ypsilanti High School.

After college, I got a job teaching Spanish at my alma mater and Carol was my down-the-hall neighbor. The Emotionally Impaired program had gotten transferred to another facility, so I didn’t see Tim regularly, but occasionally he’d be up at the high school and we’d catch up. I ran the peer mentoring program that had been my lifeline and kids stopped in to talk with me after class about their lives and struggles. The circle had closed. My debt was being paid. It felt very good.

Despite the ways that I loved teaching and my students, I burnt out after three years of trying to save Ypsi High with well-intentioned, youthful idealism, sacrifice and very few boundaries when it came to self-preservation. I made a switch to massage therapy and had just graduated from Utah College of Massage Therapy when I heard that Tim was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw and sinuses. While shocked, at this point in my life, I hadn’t known anyone personally who died from cancer and so that possibility seemed theoretical at best. I was full of 28-year-old optimism, excited about my newly-acquired healing powers and sure I could somehow be of service.

One dark, rainy evening in December, I went over to the home he shared with Carol. She and I cozied him up in a nest of pillows and I gently massaged his head and face, full of tenderness and certainty that he was already beginning to heal. When I finished, he blew his nose and filled several tissues with green mucus. Neither of us knew precisely what that meant, but clearly something had happened.

Our paths didn’t cross again for the next twelve years, during which time I moved to California for a teaching job and he fought cancer. Part of his upper jaw was removed and a plate inserted. New teeth. Synthetic bone. They had to stop the cancer from reaching his brain. I kept in occasional touch with Carol, but couldn’t bring myself to come see them when I was home for visits because I was just too afraid. As I write this, I have a hard time articulating exactly what I was afraid of. That he might look different? Sound different? That my witnessing his suffering would mean that he actually was ill and might die? What is very clear now is that I hadn’t yet learned to sit in a raging fire over which I had no control.

Last summer I threw shower for myself to celebrate becoming a foster mother of one of my students. Carol and Tim attended. He seemed normal. Healthy. Happy. He’d been cancer free for a while now. Sure, his voice had changed – the removal and replacement of his upper jaw made him sound slightly nasal, and he was thinner and had begun to go grey, but he was in his 50s. None of us are immune to the passage of twelve years.

A few months ago, while scrolling through my Face Book newsfeed, I saw a post from Carol, mentioning that Tim was now on hospice. Evidently the cancer had come back and was progressing rapidly. I had no idea. I thought he’d beaten it.

When I went home for Christmas, I made plans for a visit. I brought my massage table. No longer with an agenda of fixing or curing him, but wanting to make up for the fearful years of staying away. Wanting to just BE there with him, with whatever it was that he and Carol were experiencing. To enter the flames consuming my friend and not run away this time.

It was a brilliant Michigan winter day – the sun was out and there was snow on the ground, two things that rarely happen simultaneously. Tim was in his pajamas, propped up with pillows on a recliner in a patch of sunshine. He was thin – really thin, with hollow cheeks and graying hair. He squinted into the bright sun coming through the living room window. I saw no lingering traces of the robust man he had once been.

He greeted me with a dry-lipped kiss on both cheeks and rasped in his new voice, “The last time I saw you, besides last summer at your party, it was this time of year. I had just been diagnosed with cancer. You came over and gave me a massage.”

“I know,” I responded, my eyes blurring and my voice going thick. “I was…I was so sure I could save you.”

“But sweetheart, you did.” Tim looked straight into my eyes. “You gave me twelve more years.”

Twelve more years. I gave him twelve more years? I smiled brightly at him through tears, and then dropped my gaze, overcome. After a few pleasantries, I set up my table and he slowly peeled himself out of the recliner. He shuffled over and sat on its edge. Removed his T-shirt and dropped it to the floor. The knobs of his spine and every rib were easily countable. His briefs hung at his hips. With a grunt of effort, he heaved his legs up and lay down. Carol handed me a sumptuous white blanket and together we covered him. She left to feed the cats and Tim and I were alone, in the sun, in the peace and brilliance of that quiet afternoon.

As I removed a bottle of massage oil from my bag, I had a mental picture of the Marys hurrying to the tomb, laden with herbs, spices and aromatic oils with which to anoint Jesus’ dead body and prepare it for burial. It struck me with heavy, anguished sweetness that I was being given a gift – to be able to anoint the body of my friend while he was still alive. To lavish love and care on him while he could still receive it. And yes, in a certain way, to prepare his body for burial. To ready his earthly shell to return to the dust while his spirit moved unhesitatingly toward the Great Mystery that awaits each of us.

My hands moved of their own accord that afternoon, seeking to be an unrestricted conduit of love and comfort. My heart was full, as were my eyes, brimming with tears the entire time. Tim drifted in and out of sleep, snoring softly. One of the cats, a large Siamese, sat on a nearby chair and kept a surreptitious eye on me.

The rays of afternoon sun slanted and turned the shadows of trees on snow a deeper shade of blue. Our time came to a close and I kissed Tim softly on the forehead, silently blessing him and asking for grace and courage for both him and Carol as they faced the last months, weeks, days, hours, of life together. That they would live those times deeply and not miss a single moment of goodness.

In closing, I don’t really believe that my amateur massage gave him twelve more years of life. But then again…who knows? We are fragile, mysterious, remarkable beings, and if the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing on one side of the world can create a storm on the other, why couldn’t that massage have been bigger than we both knew? What I do know for certain is that his generosity in that moment of greeting and acknowledgement, his steady presence through my high school years of pain, and forgiveness of my years of fear are a substantial, solid, radiating thing that nestles in my heart like a sun-baked stone, seeping warmth into places that might otherwise have gone cold.

Carol Burton 26 May 07:32 am

My dear husband Tim died early this morning from the adenoid cystic carcinoma he lived with for thirteen years. As we’d hoped, he never had to leave our house and he had a peaceful death among family.

Bless you, bless you, bless you, my friend. May angels rush to greet you and your memory be for a blessing.

 

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