I never met Hugh James Sutherland who died on Sunday, May 5, 2013, but I know he loved the New York Times crossword puzzle, Scrabble, Starbucks, and walking at dusk with his wife. Nor have I met his wife, Karen, but she is my friend. We first bumped into each other on the blogosphere, via a comment she left on my New Year’s Day post. Signed TC (diagnosed with ST IV metastatic BC, december 16, 2012, now NED) it reminded me of the first time I ventured into an online breast cancer forum where all the guests signed their names not with the typical first-initial-last-name standard, but instead the ironic pedigree that included in the following order: date of diagnosis-type of cancer-size of tumor-stage-grade-node involvement-estrogen and progesterone positivity-HER2/neu status. Conjuring for me a bookish teacher from my childhood, admired by my parents for the “string of letters after her name,” I must confess that I still cannot recite by heart the line and lineage of my particular cancer and still resort to looking up the answers in my pathology report).
An engaging and elegant writer, Karen, surely had a blog or a website. I searched high and low to no avail. When she shared her story with me, I understood why there was no blog. Her husband, Hugh, had been diagnosed in October 2009 with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the blood that originates in the bone marrow, and although treatable, is incurable. It had been the couple’s 42nd wedding anniversary, and Hugh was putting something in the front seat of the car when his femur snapped in half. Next came the trauma of the diagnosis, followed by an unsuccessful surgery to rebuild his leg. He was in excruciating pain as he endured physical therapy, chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. From her ring-side seat and her thirty years experience as a hospice nurse, Karen planned to write a blog from the caregiver’s perspective, knowing it would help others. Her blog did not come to fruition, because in December of 2011, cancer visited again. This time, it was Karen who would receive the diagnosis of Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. Seriously. Because cancer is just that cruel.
A double nightmare as each observed the other endure the relentless assault of treatment that included chemotherapy and depression for Karen too. Eventually she would hear what we cancer patients all want to hear – “No Evidence of Disease” (NED) and by late summer in 2012, Hugh was responding to the stem cell transplants and no longer suffering from depression. By this time, Karen had become well informed about the diseases that had been visited upon her and the love of her life, largely from blogs written by patients and caregivers. Grateful for the information and buoyed by the support she found within the blogosphere, Karen decided to make her mark by commenting. It was a way to pay it forward for all the support she was finding in our virtual village:
I comment to lend support, to provide comfort and understanding and compassion, to share aspects of our story that might help others, to validate, comfort, encourage, commiserate, rant and rave, and thank bloggers like you, dear yvonne, who spend so much time and emotional energy to share your stories, to let you all know how much I appreciate all the profoundly and beautifully written words, many that will remain etched upon my heart and soul forever.
Thus, Karen TC (The Commenter) makes her mark on the lives of those who write in this online and close-knit community, and it was to them she turned the day she found her darling Hugh in their bed, unresponsive with no heartbeat.
“Karen The Commenter Needs Us . . . blared from AnneMarie Cicarella’s blog, and from all corners of the globe, we gathered around the couple we have never met, each of us having been lifted up by Karen’s comments sprinkled like breadcrumbs to help us find our way home, because we frequently get lost on our respective treks through through cancer country. We became ‘the commenters’ for Karen, as she began to accept the new realities of living without Hugh, missing him and realizing he would not be here for all those days marked on the calendar, those “first” days without him like this Sunday – Father’s Day – which leads me to my promise . . .
On Valentine’s Day, Karen had left a comment on a piece I had written, Ronald Reagan’s Love Medicine in which I was bemoaning the lost art of letter writing. I was touched by her comment, a gem of a story about how her family also cherishes words set down on paper. Recognizing its universal appeal, I asked her if I could re-post it when Father’s Day rolled around. She loved the idea, so here it is – for Father’s Day, for Hugh and those who loved him:
dear yvonne … here’s a little story about how we’ve treasured the written word. a few days before last father’s day, i was cleaning off a shelf in hugh’s closet. way in the back behind the shirts in cleaners’ boxes was a fathers’ day card our son made for his dad when he was 9 years old. adam had listed all the things he loved that he and hugh did together and illustrated each in his precious, childish style. i shared the find with hugh and we both shared some tears of joy that it survived so long – our son is 40 years old! adam has a son, our only grandson, brian, who, to our great joy, is a near clone of his dad. and it turns out that all those things adam had expressed to hugh in writing and pictures all those years ago are the same things brian loves and enjoys with adam. and what a happy, meant-to-beness it was to realize that brian was now also 9 years old, just the age his dad had been when he made that special FD card. when the kids came to our house for the big father’s day celebration, we took brian aside and showed him the card his dad made for his papa 31 years ago. he beamed when we suggested passing it on to his dad. adam was blown away to see written proof of happy history repeating itself within the words and pictures of the card. he was so overjoyed to see the love he had expressed for HIS dad was now being given right back to him by his darling boy. i, too, revere many things written by hand from so many family members and friends. i keep all our calendars, too, where i’ve scrawled so many milestones of so many lives. one of the greatest losses of things written down that still feels heartbreaking is the big thick cookbook my mom always had at hand. she stuffed it with letters from my grandmother, little love notes from us, her children, old photos, and emphemera of all sorts. with 8 children, and litttle of her own space to keep her little mementos tucked safely away, i guess the old cookbook was her file cabinet. somehow, it just diappeared. i’d give up my kindle gladly, just to have one more look through it’s pages, brimming with such marvelous history, pages of favorite recipes dog-earred, stained messy with beloved flour-egg-chocolate cake battered fingerprints of my mom and me, cooking together. i love this post, yvonne – it bought back a lot of wonderful memories. thank you. love, XOXO, karen, TC
I knew not what to say to Karen after Hugh died. I didn’t have the right words so I turned again to poetry and to something Seamus Heaney had written in Station Island, about himself as a father and his own father as well. This Father’s Day weekend, I am thinking of Hugh Sutherland and those who loved him, of his son and grandson, “taking the strain,” of the “long tailed pull of grief” . . .
A Kite for Michael and Christopher by Seamus Heaney
All through that Sunday afternoon
A kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blow chaff.
I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I’d tied the bows of the newspaper
along its six-foot tail.
But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to life a shoal.
My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.
Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand here in front of me
and take the strain.
Memorial contributions in Hugh’s name may be made to Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation with Multiple Myeloma in the memo of the check in order to designate the funds. The mailing address is 360 Essex Street, Suite 301, Hackensack, New Jersey 07601.