by Tom Snell
More than thirty years ago my first wife and I went through a year’s struggle with cancer in our youngest child, five year old Timothy. Finally, in February 1975, the disease, which had spread to his lungs, reached the point where we had to tell Tim, “There’s nothing more the doctors can do. Do you want to stay here in the hospital with all your nurse and doctor friends, or would you like to come home?”
“I want to come home.”
We didn’t know if we would even make it there, but we bundled him up against the cold and drove 65 miles from Mass General to the small Quaker school in New Hampshire where we taught and which we called home.
That’s when marvelous things began to happen.
First, the high school student from Maryland who had baby-sat our other children the previous summer arrived on our doorstep. The next day another student who had graduated flew in from Michigan. Our next-door neighbor spent every day with us, and my wife’s sister and parents flew in from Montana.
Faculty members from the school came in shifts, while other faculty babysat their children. Some came and stayed only a while, filling in where they could. Others came but got freaked out and left. But nearly all contributed something. It was a real community effort.
In a couple of days, we had a rotation schedule with pairs of people on eight-hour shifts. Their only job was to be with Tim and to support each other. These pairs were never alone… there was a whole crew cooking, running errands, listening to each other and helping out in a million ways.
We didn’t have a lot of beds, so most of us hot-bunked: When people needed to sleep, they slept in any bunk that was empty. When someone went off-duty, they woke the next crew and crawled into their warm bed. People slept in rotation all over the house.
One neighbor arrived to tell us we should send Tim back to the hospital. After spending a half hour in the house she left, saying, “Now I know why I came. Not for what I thought, but to be transformed by the love and generosity present in this house.” Others were affected in similar ways.
Finally, after two weeks, Tim died peacefully with two wonderful people sitting beside him, holding his hands and talking him through his passage. Tim, as commonly happens, chose the one time in the two weeks when both my wife and I were out of the house.
Today, thirty years later, I hold each of those wonderful people in my heart, still grateful for their amazing kindheartedness and generosity. They helped us survive the most devastating thing that can happen to a parent, and transformed a nightmare into a community of love.