Tuesday morning of this week I was on the Northwestern University shuttle between the Chicago campus and the Evanston campus. It was a pleasant morning by Chicago standards… a bit cloudy and misty, unlike the day before. When I arrived on Monday, it was sunny and pleasant, a welcome respite for Chicagoans who had been fussing with yet another cold and snowy winter. In order to understand the intense emotions I felt that morning on the shuttle, though, I need to digress and talk about my dinner the night before.
Out of respect for the family’s privacy, I will not reveal with whom I had dinner. For the purposes of this story, it is enough to know that Maureen and my path intersected with theirs in our early days at Apple in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We were more than colleagues but weren’t necessarily close friends outside of the office. However, Monday night at Gino’s East, as I reconnected with my Apple friend, our conversation started as if we were friends that had been talking every day these past 25 years. We didn’t skip a beat after we got past the reality of 25 years. My bald head, shaved in honor of Kethan, who exited this world too soon due to the side effects of leukemia, and her naturally black hair, rather than the blond I remembered, were temporary exterior hiccups that preceded the giant hug that followed.
We hugged because we share something far deeper than our connection at Apple. We have spouses that we love; spouses with whom we have created life (3 children in my case, 4 children in hers); and regretfully, spouses who have been faced with cancer. My Apple friend and I had reconnected last fall on Facebook, and she had also sent down to Austin some awesome Chicago-style pizza that the kids had first experienced when we traveled to Chicago as a family last September. Her love story with her husband has as many interesting twists and turns as Maureen and mine. They were destined to meet; they were destined to fall in love; and they create and share the essence of their love in beautiful ways every day.
The depth of our connection first made itself clear over the Christmas holidays. I was busy cooking two of the deep dish pizzas she had sent when I received a Facebook message from her. It cut to my heart the instant I read it. Her husband was dealing with a metastasis of a sarcoma from his leg that had reached both his lungs. As I have written separately, I have been provoked by cancer, because as a loving spouse and caregiver, I unfortunately knew every layer of emotion that was surging through her beautiful heart at that moment. As our priest said at Maureen’s celebration of life, “cancer sucks.” However, at Gino’s East on Monday night, the connection become even clearer and even more divine.
We had finally ordered after talking for about an hour (it had seemed like only minutes). As we were awaiting our salad and deep dish pizza, my friend gracefully and beautifully shared a story with me from the day that Maureen had passed on Tuesday, October 21, last fall. As she related to me, she sat bolt up in her bed that morning, after a stark and vivid dream. Maureen’s soul, as it was exiting this earthly dimension and entering its heavenly realm, had visited her in her dream. I will share the contents of the dream first, and then share why it is both amazing and divine. As my friend explained, in her dream, Maureen and I had walked out on to a deck (for clarity, my friend has never visited us or our home). I was drinking coffee; Maureen was drinking tea. As she continued, Maureen was dressed in a flowing white robe (more like a confirmation dress than a wedding one). We were talking, and then Maureen lowered her head and passed from this world to the next. As my friend described it, she was at peace. She was ready. Maureen knew it was time.
Obviously, a story like this one not only brought me comfort in hearing it but a few tears as well. The tears, though, were driven by this. I always drink coffee. Maureen always prefers tea. We do have a deck, and we would frequently enjoy these beverages together in the mornings on it. The visuals my friend was describing felt more like a typical morning than a dream. I suspect that happens when the earthly plane and the heavenly plane come close to each other, when the veil is pierced for a moment. It was clearly pierced on the morning of Maureen’s passing.
As I shared with my friend after hearing this powerful experience, the importance of tea didn’t stop upon Maureen’s death. Just like the powdered donut ritual we observe on the 21st of every month, I observe another ritual. Just like when Maureen was here and getting weaker, I would make her lunch to take to the office, along with her morning tea. I suspect my kids chuckle a bit as I do this now, but I kiss the box of Pacific soup, containing her favorite cashew carrot ginger, then I kiss the oatmeal packet she would eat upon getting to her office, then a final peck on her granola bar. Into her Vera Bradley lunch bag it all goes with a little hug of it to my face. Then I set it down in the same spot in the corner of the kitchen on the way to the garage, Maureen’s place. Once lunch is packaged up, I turn to take the tea bag out of her favorite traveling mug, add a little squirt of agave nectar and an ice cube to cool it. I screw on the cap of the tumbler and place it on the counter next to her lunch.
I do all of this not just for the sake of ritual, but because it is only when my heart is most completely open to the love I feel for Maureen that I can feel her presence. I believe love is the dimension upon which heaven is based, which brings me back to Lake Shore Drive, the Northwestern shuttle, and the intense emotions that surged through me, in me and around me on Tuesday morning. Maureen would frequently mix up words, a bit like her dad, and come up with funny sayings. For example, on our first trip outside of Chicago to New Orleans, she ordered a cream cheese… with a sesame bagel on the side. I would tease her endlessly about these tiny twists of words, because she was so cute, and we loved to laugh together. She had a great laugh, a really great laugh. When we were first dating, we both lived not far off of Lake Shore Drive in Lincoln Park. So, on the way home from one of our dates, our cab driver, sensing we were headed home from a dinner date asked what any Chicagoan would ask, “shall I take the Drive?” To which, my dear sweet Maureen answered, “no, it is OK, you can go straight there.” After it dawned on her what he meant, we laughed about it then and many more times over the last 24 years, including our trip to Chicago with our kids last fall.
All of that washed over me on Tuesday morning as the shuttle passed not only the spot where this infamous comment occurred but at many other spots of consequence from our early days in Chicago along the way to Evanston up Lake Shore Drive. I was deeply connected to the love dimension that morning, and I know Maureen was with me, just like she was with my friend in her dream the morning of her passing. And the more I’ve thought about it the last few days, I think this is the ultimate question we must ask, shall I take the drive or shall we go straight there? Maureen and I took the Drive not only on that date but every day of the 24 years we were married. That is the whole point of a full life, and I know my friend and her husband, who is undergoing treatment for his cancer, are taking the drive as well.
To bring this story full circle, though, I can’t stop there. I must share one last experience and one last image from my Tuesday morning. As a Northwestern University alumnus, I frequently go back to the Norris Student Union when I’m on campus. This time I went after my meetings to get some purple NU clothes for my kiddos. As I walked downstairs, this image on the glass greeted me. “Let’s Beat Cancer.” After my experience and emotions on the shuttle, I was not just speechless but breathless upon seeing this. I knew my Maureen was not just speaking to me but guiding me. And trust me, sweetie: I am still listening; I still love you; and I’m still on the drive with you.