(This blog post is dedicated to Annette Adam, who passed away in August 2017.)
Full disclosure, I really wasn’t a close friend of Annette’s, but it is hard not to develop an affinity for someone who was that genuinely nice. In fact, my adoration for her was cemented when one day, she paid me a lovely compliment about my writing. As I passed by her desk in the front office, on the way to my classroom, she said, “I love reading your blog.” I stopped and said, “You do?” She went on to tell me how relatable it was…four kids, sports, working, family stuff…she said it made her laugh.
I thought about that compliment all day. That night I announced to my husband, “Annette Adam told me today she loves my blog and really enjoys reading it. And she seems like such a nice person…”
I never forgot about that compliment, not because somebody told me they like my blog, but because Annette Adam told me she liked it.
So it came as no surprise to me that I felt compelled to write a few things down about Annette late last summer after she passed away, to acknowledge her, but especially to thank Dan, to make sure he knew how truly significant his generous allowance of an entire community into his family’s highly personal journey was. Because for all the difficulty he faced, his regular email updates made us feel a tiny bit better. On more than one occasion when I saw an email from Dan pop up in my inbox, it helped me find my breath, when it seemed like I’d been holding it for awhile, wondering how Annette was doing.
During my brief teaching career, I was privileged to have all three of Annette and Dan’s sons in class. Nate was in my study hall, and frankly, we rarely spoke. In fact, I think he might have had some sort of silent super power where he could communicate with people just by staring at them. I know this because I remember many times his friends talking animatedly to him, the way teenagers do, and they didn’t seem to even notice that he just stared back without speaking. Nobody missed a beat. It was quite remarkable. The second eldest, Chris, was in one of my freshman English classes. He was a thinker, and also a man of few words. He listened to my lectures, and he smiled politely at my dumb jokes from his seat in the front row. I had the youngest son, Nick, in an 8th grade English class that I was a long-term sub for. A little quicker to smile than the other two, but still on the quiet side. I mentioned that to Annette once, and she told me it was strictly a front for class time. I also observed some sort of silent communication method with Nick, mainly in conjunction with his buddy Angelo. There’d be a glance, a couple of subtle head nods this way and that, and then back to work.
I never taught their only daughter, Ella, who has been friends with one of my step-daughters since kindergarten. I mainly got to know her from her occasional visits to our house. Once, when she was about nine, she tried like heck to make it through a slumber party, but as Annette had discreetly predicted would happen when she dropped her daughter off that afternoon, Ella didn’t quite make it through the night. I tried talking to her, to coax her out of her nervousness about being away from home, but it was no dice, so we called and her dad picked her up about 10 p.m. Now, for some reason, because I can assure you I don’t follow her on Twitter, her tweets come across my phone as “people you might know.” I admit, I read them. They’re amusing, cryptic, and I probably don’t want to know more…
So for about 12 years or so, Annette and I were friends outside of the few years I worked at the high school with her, mainly out of circumstance: We’d run into one another at countless sporting events and school assemblies, from grammar school awards to high school graduations, pee wee soccer to championship basketball games. We weren’t in a book club together, we didn’t socialize in the same circles. My husband knew both she and Dan since high school. Dan coached a few of my kids over the years and we’d say hello and chat when we ended up near one another at games and events. Like at least a few of his sons (in my opinion), he’s sometimes short on words, but as I learned later, very long on communication.
And this I found out about Dan through those regular group email updates, the ones that began shortly after Annette’s diagnosis. I also learned something in the year and a half or so that I received those emails: Dan sorta has a funny bone. Not a silly ha-ha funny bone. But he had a way of unearthing humor while simply describing the reality of situations, likely without attempting to be humorous. If you received his updates you know they were not about being funny. They were about an utterly devoted, loving husband and father trying to make sense of what was happening to him, his wife and high school sweetheart, and his children. Somehow, he often seemed to find a lighter side to remark upon, or a lighter way of remarking on something quite heavy. And this gave us all who were reading an opportunity to exhale.
The first update, sent to everyone who signed up on the email update network, arrived on November 21, 2015. It was very short, and like every single one to come after it, it made me cry—not exactly because of his words, but because of why he had to write them. But then, in late December of 2015, the first of several updates arrived that made me smile. It described a secret Santa who had been leaving presents in a box near their gate every day.
“Thirteen days ago, a box was dropped off at our gate with presents and a note. The last twelve days someone has evaded our attack dog and been able to re-supply the gift box. Sometimes completely undetected, but a few times we caught just enough of a glimpse of them to know that they are humans that drive cars. That is all we know…”
But at the end of that same message, the humor gave way to a kind of eloquence that I hadn’t really ever heard from Dan. I mean, when you are talking about sports, and that’s about all I had ever heard Dan talk about, usually to my husband standing nearby, eloquence really isn’t part of the equation. Truth be told, I never really listened very carefully to their sports talk. But I was listening to what he had to say now. That late-December update ended with a few words about hope, in both capital and lowercase letters, conveying his understanding of hope’s different forms:
“We have lived such a blessed life that we have never needed, and therefore experienced, HOPE. We thought about hope, like I hope our kids do well in school, I hope the Steelers win, I hope we can pay all of our bills this month, and so on. HOPE is an entirely different sensation, I use the word sensation because HOPE is felt physically; I feel it. We feel it, because of you. All of you give us HOPE every day. Grace has never been my strong suit. I will DO better.”
By February of 2016, the updates gave me hope that the family was in a groove; it sounded like a bumpy, topsy-turvy, pitted groove, but the updates felt flooded with determination and perseverance. One particularly stands out:
“Again, thank you for all of the prayers, thoughts, meals and gifts. This !@#$%^& thing would be a lot worse without her family and friends. Whoops…it’s Lent isn’t it!”
I finally could not resist how his words touched and amused me, so I sent a reply. After a brief thank you for keeping us, and the community updated, I closed with this:
“…your updates are quite compelling. You are a very good writer, and I would say you fall into that category of writers who write exactly like they speak. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I typically just do both and that seems to feel right.”
There were many updates that made me stop and compose myself before telling my husband, “I got an update,” or “I forwarded you the latest update.” Because just saying those few words was enough to make me catch my breath and have to choke back the emotion of knowing that a perfectly lovely family was suffering. But those updates always left me feeling grateful that she had him by her side on this journey.
Over the course of the next 15 months, I opened each update the same way I suppose that everyone else who received them did: while holding their breath. Good news. Medium news. Bad news. Rinse, repeat. And every time I finished reading, I’d forward them to my husband’s inbox and wonder how, and why.
And then one day, there was this one, and another one of those light moments that helped me to breathe my way through the note.
“…just received some fantastic news. Annette’s sick pay was going to run out in a couple of weeks and so we had been discussing options. Not too many good ones other than selling our children. The school district creatively found a way to have people donate their sick time…”
So, Dan, thank you for including the community through the arduous and very personal journey that you and Annette took together. Thank you for providing the conduit for us to stay connected to her, through your emails, and by allowing us to bring meals into your home. And thank you for giving the community yet another opportunity to contribute. Because at the end of the day, as everyone here knows, especially this time of year, it’s not just receiving that provides comfort, it’s also the giving.
Post Script: After a few months of wondering whether I should or not, I recently shared this with Dan via email, following a dinner to fund the Annette Adam Memorial Scholarship, which is the reference I made to “yet another opportunity to contribute” that I mention at the end. (The scholarship idea was suggested to Dan by a friend of Annette’s, and after getting his permission, she got the ball rolling.) Dan sent back a reply a few days later. In it, he told me to publish it and that he trusted me with Annette’s legacy, and that she talked about my blog all the time. Of course, that was the easy part of the email, because that’s not all he said:
“…Thank you for your kind words. She was my muse, and truthfully, the only person I have ever wanted to impress. Everything is so much harder now that I can’t show off for her.”
I read his note to my husband, barely able to get through it a second time, and said, “Boy is he right. She really was his muse.”
I don’t know that I can be trusted with anyone’s legacy, but as I told my husband, I do know one thing: “I am never opening another email message from Dan Adam!”