March is the seesaw month when scowling winter wrestles with sunshine and southerly winds. Finally, it gasps and lets go, like it did with my Uncle Tom in Cleveland 19 years ago.
In 2000, as my father dangled and spun downward at the end of his 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer, Uncle Tom was quietly finding his own spring. He had lost his wife to cancer 28 years earlier. At my father’s hospice bed, he unexpectedly found love again.
Like so many miracles, it started with barely a whisper. My mother had cared for my dying father at home, but finally, worn out, she moved him to hospice two weeks before Christmas. He was placed in a gleaming little spark of heaven called Keithly House. Every few days, a volunteer would visit at his bedside.
My father never met a stranger. He was a retired radio news director who never lost his thirst for asking people questions and hearing their stories, even as the candle of his life was dimming. He learned that Clara, the hospice volunteer, had worked for Cyrus Eaton, an old Cleveland industrialist who had ties to the Soviet Union. She even knew Vladimir Putin. My father had been to the Soviet Union with then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959. He and Clara had plenty to talk about.
Every morning around 11 a.m. Uncle Tom showed up for a visit, bringing with him a basket of his family-famous homemade chocolate chip cookies. This scrumptious family legend contained a secret ingredient: a dollop of ketchup. Tom brought them to every reunion, every picnic, every anything. My father could no longer eat them, but the nurses loved them.
As it turns out, so did Clara.
When Tom, who was retired, arrived around 11 every morning, Clara was often there. He would offer her a cookie. They began to talk. As my father’s strength wilted, they kept talking.
By Jan. 4, my father began to shrink toward death. I’ve written about that before, how his siblings began arriving from distant states and surrounding his bed. How the women hurried to his bedside to talk to him and to stroke his arm. How the men stayed back, hugging the walls. How we took turns sleeping in his room at night so he would never be alone.
As death and family tiptoed in, Clara stayed away. As Tom arrived each day to be with my father and his siblings, he would scan that little crowd searching for her, but she was not there. He looked for her at my father’s visitation and funeral, too, but she was not there. A few days after the funeral, after out-of-town family had departed, Tom called Clara. He had gone to Bloomington, Ind., to stay with his daughter and her family and regroup after losing his brother, but he needed Clara.
He called. She answered. They talked. They talked the next day, and the next. They were in their 70s, but they talked for hours like teenagers. Six weeks after the funeral, they stunned the unknowing family with news of their engagement. Both had been single for decades, and they knew, especially after my father died, that life was short. If not now, when?
In late March, as spring whispered its promise outside, they were married in Clara’s apartment amidst a gaggle of flowers, friends and smiles. Tom’s daughter Missy applauded the decision. “If she makes him happy, why not?” she said.
Up in heaven, we knew my father was applauding, too. He loved making people happy, often going miles out of his way literally and figuratively to brighten people’s lives. He knew as he was dying that he had one last gift for Tom: Love.