Yesterday Bill and I attended the funeral of a dear friend named Bob Erwine. I’d come to know Bob through another very dear friend and mentor, Mae Packan, an institution in the annals of Coventry High School. Bob and I, having graduated 14 years apart, were both former students of Mae’s a long time ago. Mae, a surrogate mother to me and five other Coventry alums, have had lunch together for many years – every other month at my home where I prepared a home-cooked meal, going opposite months restaurant-hopping in various spots in the Akron/Canton area.
Mae had spoken of Bob so often and how much he meant to her that one day I told her to bring him to my house so I could meet the man she loved like a son. As they walked up the steps to the front door, I came out and hugged him hello, telling him I felt like I’d already known him for years because I’d heard so much about him. He was the legend I’d been looking forward to meeting. He said he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to live up to all the hype.
It was the beginning of a long friendship and many lunches where I regularly tested new recipes on the two of them because they were such willing guinea pigs. Mostly, my experiments worked out well but not always. At those times, we’d have a good laugh and I’d whip up something else on the spur of the moment. It wasn’t about the food nearly as much as about the friendship, and the love. We were family.
When several trees in our backyard were toppled onto our house in a storm, we had a screened in porch built to replace the damaged deck, and Bob, Mae, and I ate lunch out there as much as possible. We even braved the cooler spring and fall temperatures wearing jackets. Once when the spring temperatures warmed up unexpectedly and the porch furniture had not been put out yet, we set up a card table on the porch and ate outside anyway and had the best time.
We did a lot of fun things. Several years ago when HBO ran the series about John Adams (starring Paul Giamatti), Bill ordered HBO so we could watch it. We recorded all the episodes, then invited Mae, Bob, and Dick, over to watch it in segments over the course of a week. (If you’ve been following my blog, you already know that Dick, my first husband, gradually became an integral part of these lunches.) We were like fans having a week-long super bowl party. Bill and I rearranged the furniture in the family room closer to the television to make it easier for Mae to see because macular degeneration made seeing increasingly difficult for her, put Dick on the side of the sofa where his hearing was best, and strategic placed numerous pillows around on various chairs for Bob. Even then, he was having difficulty with his back and his legs; he would periodically have to stand and walk around to ease the pain. He never spoke about it. Never complained.
When Dick died almost five years ago after an extended and complicated illness, my daughter Laura took her father’s seat at our lunch table, always bringing her dog, Mojo, another much loved addition whom both Bob and Mae adored. We’d gone from two to three, then to four. Without realizing it, Laura helped us make a difficult transition after her father died. Occasionally, Bill also joined us, and that helped a lot, too. Gradually, we were able to move on.
But it’s going to be harder this time. Harder to be just two again, like when we started. Dick was two weeks shy of 80. Bob was 80. Mae is 100 and lost her only sibling just last month; he was 93.
Bob missed last year’s Christmas lunch/dinner which always took place in mid-afternoon just a few days before Christmas, and Mae elected to put off our holiday get-together until Bob could be there. So thinking he’d be back in the swing of things by January or February at the latest, we waited. But those months came, and went, and Bob’s health issues mounted. Mae and I continued to eat out because lunch at my house just wouldn’t feel right without Bob. I felt the same way – it would seem like some kind of betrayal to have lunch here in his absence, like saying we could get along without him when we couldn’t. “Let’s wait for Bob,” she said.
He got better, then worse again. Better, then worse. The last time I spoke to him, the week before he died, he said he felt stronger and was hoping to come home in about a week or so, and I started thinking about the celebratory lunch I would make in honor of his return to us. “Love you,” I said to the man that was much like an older brother to me. “Love you, too, my dear” he replied. Our last words to each other.
The minister was speaking about wild beasts and angels and how both come to us in a variety of forms. Wild beasts are carcinomas, they are lies. These beasts are nourished by hatred and prejudice, gossip and negativity. They come in many forms – some made of toxic individuals who poison others’ lives in many kinds of ways, both big and small.
But the angels – the angels come into our lives for a reason, and they are angels because they comfort us, enriching our lives by their very presence. They make us smile, laugh, think. They give of themselves and never ask for something in return. They are kind and generous yet never boast of their accomplishments. This, the minister said, was Bob – an angel in the lives of all those he touched. A quiet and modest man whom most people didn’t even know had graduated from Yale. Angels make us better people by their very presence in our lives.
Despite the wild beast of cancer that finally defeated him and about which he very rarely spoke, Bob was this kind of angel – always giving of himself but expecting nothing for himself in return.
Having been advised the night before that Bob’s situation had so quickly become dire, Bill and I were hurrying to see him early Tuesday morning when we got the call that he had slipped away in the middle of the night. I didn’t get to say goodbye. To tell him what his presence in my life meant to me. I just can’t get that out of my head, or my heart.
That homecoming lunch will never be made. Instead of celebrating Bob’s return, we celebrate the life he lived and those precious, intangible gifts he gave to so many others. When Mae and I can face having lunch at home without him, we will remember and honor Bob. We will talk about how much we loved the honest, selfless man, the humble man who fought off the wild beast as long as he could before taking his place among the angels.