The last time I had seen Don, he was beaming with more than happiness and strength—he seemed downright victorious.
“Man, am I glad to see you!” I said as I gave him a bear hug around his now-scrawny frame. I didn’t mention that it was because Don had been battling cancer for months and had just been told that the brutal treatments had been successful.
Though months of treatments had resulted in him now being half of his original size, he hadn’t been a skinny fella before the diagnosis, so he carried his new frame well. In the dimly-lit downtown lounge, he, my brother, Don’s military-pilot son, and I shared drinks and caught up after almost a year apart. Though we weren’t necessarily toasting to Don’s victory over his cancer, it definitely hung in the air like a delicious aroma.
I still have a picture of the four of us together, taken by a kind stranger whom my brother had asked to snap a picture. A mere selfie wouldn’t do.
Don isn’t a family member, but he might as well be. He’s my brother’s ex-father-in-law — which makes him my…friend? Despite this, my brother and I share an affinity for Don that we don’t have with many biological relatives. He’s larger than life, so to speak. He’s always been the life of the party and the someone you can call when you’re in a jam. Everyone he knows has a Don story — and he’s quick to tell you what actually happened…though his version isn’t any less hilarious or crazy — he would just tell it as though the events were no big deal. Classic Don.
Months after that night at the downtown watering hole, the pandemic hit, and everything went into lockdown. I didn’t hear from Don because I hadn’t really heard from anyone. Before the pandemic, I had opted out of social media in lieu of personal interactions and was beginning to regret it a bit. One night, the topic of Don came up with my parents—the few people within my germ circle who were also on social media.
“Man, I miss Don. How’s he doing?” I said with a smile.
Both of my parents’ faces drooped and they looked at each other, so as to say, “oh, yeah…he doesn’t know.”
“His cancer came back. That’s about all we know,” my mom said.
The rest of my evening was fairly deflated and thoughts of Don swirled.
A few weeks went by. While working in my home office, my brother called.
“Don is in hospice.”
My heart sank and my feet started to physically tingle with shock. After a bit of silence, my brother asked if I was still on the line. I was, I just had to take a bit of time to regroup. Don, whom I’d always seen as the pinnacle of strength, bulletproof, and always ready with a snarky comment, was now dying. This new reality left me shaken and disoriented.
“I’m coming to town this weekend to see Don while I still can,” my brother said.
Over the next few days, I wrestled with myself whether or not I would accompany my brother.
I should see him. No, I shouldn’t. He probably doesn’t even want visitors. No, he’s Don — of course, he wants visitors. No, I don’t want to remember him that way. Ah, what do I do…
I tried to justify not visiting Don by telling myself that he likely wouldn’t even recognize me in a mask, or that he’d be too weak for visitors, or something else—anything to hide the truth: I was terrified that seeing this version of him — Dying Don — would shatter my image of the Don I knew and cherished. I didn’t end up visiting him with my brother in that instance due to sheer logistics, but that didn’t remove the option of visiting him from the table.
In an odd twist of fate, we all received this news around the same weekend that was Don’s birthday — likely his last birthday. Pandemic precautions meant no usual party, but Don’s sons arranged a drive-by birthday celebration. I felt better about this — I’d get a little bit of closure out of actually going to see him…without actually visiting with him. My version of Don could remain intact.
Before the drive-by party, my parents drove over to my house. We all decorated our cars with birthday greetings. Posters held firmly to the sides and fronts of our cars with masking tape read sayings like “Wild Man Don!” with a cartoon portrayal of him in his prized Jeep and other greetings covered our cars. We met up with a good dozen or more cars covered in signs and balloons with mask-wearing friends and family of Don.
As we approached Don’s house, his sons had pushed him outside in his wheelchair to his porch and wrapped him like a burrito in a blanket, topped with a stocking cap. As the parade of honking cars made their way past Don’s house, they would slow to a near stop to wave and proclaim their birthday wishes. Don, though obviously very weak, cold, and thinner than I’d ever seen him, was grinning from ear to ear.
Our car was up next. I briefly stopped my car with myself, my wife, and our sleeping toddler son in front of Don’s house and stopped to honk and wave. As I waved and yelled out happy birthday wishes, I noticed Don’s eyes squint to try and make out who this person was. Soon after squinting, his eyes shot open wider than I’d ever seen them in life with a smile that revealed every tooth in his mouth.
“KENNY!” he exclaimed—not only my name but my nickname only reserved for family and the closest of friends. Most people knew me as simply as Ken. His ecstatic face almost made me think he was about to throw off his oversized blanket and run over to the driver’s side of my car and hug me through the window.
“Wow…Kenny!” he said, eyes returning to their normal size with a sleepy grin. He settled back in his wheelchair as I let the next car approach.
As the cars pulled down the street, we soon realized that this was a dead-end and that we’d have to pull back around and pass Don’s house again. Some cars went by and then on their way. Others pulled over. I followed my parent’s lead and pulled in behind them. Many of Don’s family members got out of their cars and began to gather in his front yard — all spaced out and wearing masks — to sing happy birthday to Don. Others sang from their cars on the streets. I thought I would be among these people until Don made a special request.
“I want to see Amir” – my sleeping toddler in the back seat. Not about to deny the request of a dying man on his birthday, I gathered the snoozing Amir from his car seat. Donning a mask and 30-pounds of snoring toddler, I walked up to Don’s stoop — staying around a dozen feet away.
Don’s face softened with a smile as though he was listening to a favorite song as he gazed upon Amir’s sleeping face — a face he’d not seen in over a year or longer. Don’s eyes then lifted from Amir’s eyes to my own — falling upon them like a warm hug from four yards away.
“Man, am I glad to see you,” he said to me with a gentle smile, repeating the words I’d said to him that victorious night in that dimly-lit downtown bar.
“I’m glad to see you, too.”
The Don I knew was still there. The Don I know will always be there, and nothing will ever change that.