The pilgrimage

By Vince Churchill

I’d known for a while that an old friend was in the midst of battling cancer. As I started writing this, I’d known for eight days that his battle with cancer was almost over, and that the cancer was set to celebrate another hard fought victory. When his brother contacted me, I was taken by surprise at the rapid deterioration of his condition. I was still working under the hopeful impression he was receiving an experimental treatment, and we were all hoping for (and kind of expecting) positive results. But surprise – it didn’t happen.

I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great people grace my life, but this was someone I’d known since the opening of Eisenhower Elementary School in 1971. We were teammates on a winning Junior Olympics relay team. We rode the bus together to Armstrong Junior High. We shared one of the greatest Halloween graveyard experiences outside of a B slasher film. He and I shared adventures and created memories that had lasted a lifetime, and despite living two decades on opposite coasts, the bonds of our friendship remained strong.

My initial instinct was to go see him, with a hope one of our Springfield area buddies might also make the trip. No one else was able to pull off the short notice Friday-to-Sunday trek from Springfield to Rochester, N.Y. And then the trip almost didn’t happen because it had never occurred to me he might not want to have folks outside his family see him. Fortunately, my friend’s wife had known me for decades, and knew, despite my love and respect for her husband’s wishes, that I would make the trip with or without his blessing. But he didn’t deny my visit, and I was excited to see my friend.

The week between setting my visit and making the trip saw my friend’s condition worsen, and I began to fear I wasn’t going to see him alive. My anxiety simmered as each day passed. My sleep grew more restless, and the night before the trek east I began to wonder if I would make the trip without mishap.

Leaving out before day Friday morning, I felt fresh and alert, but every time my phone rang or a notification sounded, I feared it was his family reaching out to tell me he’d passed.

East of Chicago, a classic Doobie Brothers’ song from the late 70s, “What A Fool Believes,” brought me to tears. Hearing the tune took me back. As teenagers, my friend and I made a bet about who could learn the hit song the best. I think I sang it the best, but I can’t remember who won the bet. He wasn’t much of a vocalist, and it’s the only memory I have of him singing.

The half-a-day drive played out in both slow motion and fast forward. Cleveland and Buffalo came and went, sunshine changed to overcast sprinkles back to sunshine. The closer I got to the state of New York, the surer I was he was teetering on the brink of death. I just wanted to get there, to see my friend one last time.

His little brother had warned me how the cancer had taken a toll on him and I was prepared for the worst. The sun was setting as I reached Rochester and I drove straight to the hospital. I got lucky with a parking spot and getting to the hospice was easy. Many of his family and friends were gathered in an open waiting area at the center of the hospice. After some brief introductions, I was taken into his room, and the instant my eyes fell on him, my heart swelled to see him alive, but it almost stopped when the reality of his condition struck me.

Cancer is pure, biological evil. Its relentless quest to consume, mutate and conquer is withering.

I’d never been so happy to see someone. It felt good to take his hand. It felt good to have made the journey. But the feeling of being helpless to save my friend felt like a Mike Tyson uppercut. The courage he displayed in dealing with his pain while struggling to stay present for his family during his last days was inspirational.

The next day, we had the pleasure of spending some time alone. I didn’t intend to cry in front of him, but the feelings and the moments were too powerful. Even though I left him later that Saturday evening, that alone time is when I really said goodbye. The actual goodbye was tremendously difficult, and I caught myself wondering what he was thinking and feeling. By then he wasn’t speaking much, and his expressions were limited. Leaving him in that hospital room almost felt like I was deserting him.

I left Rochester early Sunday morning, March 20. The drive back was an uneventful blur. I actually slept well that night.

My friend passed away four days later. My relief for his release from his pain was stronger than my grief from his passing.

He’d found peace.

And left us a beautiful world where death and loss battle birth and mercy on a daily basis.

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