with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

We’re Here for the Wedding and My Wife Has Cancer

Waiting for the digital cable folks to show up to set up the cable modem for the new computer I’d installed last week for the campground office, preparing everything for WIFI Internet services, the campground owner and I sat on the couch and visited. The campground was filling up on the start of weekend traffic, and he was waiting for the coaches and trailers to come in.

People came in and out, chatted for a moment, needing directions, or a recommendation on a place to eat, or whatever, and Charlie visited with them all, treating them graciously and helping as much as he could. A tremendously energetic old spirit, Charlie is the true southern gentlemen and the best campground owner any camper could ever want. He goes beyond the call of duty for his temporary or short term residents. When he found out about this “WIFI business”, he didn’t have a clue about it, but jumped on my offer to help. When I asked him how he wanted to charge people to use the service, he asked me how much it was all going to cost, and when I told him that we could set him up for about $300 for everything, he jumped immediately and said he’d offer it for free for that amount of money. I was stunned to say the least.

He quickly explained that it was more important to him to make sure that the campers were happy. We actually ended up spending more in order to make sure we got the best coverage we could. He’ll make the money back as word spreads to the travelers about his free WIFI, choosing this campground over others.

Charlie is an amazing man. Growing up in this campground with his great-grandfather, grandfather, and his parents, watching it change from a fishing camp, to a campground, to a mobile home park, and now turning it back into a campground again, he has grown up caring about the traveler. This need to care for people spilled over into his own career as a fireman, helping people in trouble and eventually training other firemen to help others. Sensitivity abounds in this man, and it shows when he talks to his campers.

I sit on the couch and watch him work with the people as they come in and out, listening to their problems, their stories, and helping when he can and listening when he can’t.

A man walked in, looking more tired than he should for his years. He asks simply for directions to a nearby church. “Niece is getting married.” His words were not crisp or staccato, but an almost monotone drone, short and concise. His next words, though, stunned me to the floor.

“Wife has bone cancer. Found out Thursday it’s metastasized in her liver. Weren’t going to miss the wedding. Drove up from Florida. Rehearsal is tonight. Wedding is tomorrow. Then we head back to Florida to begin the chemotherapy on Monday. Got to see the wedding.”

He said it as if it he was ordering a hamburger, fries and coke. No inflection, just a comment.

Time seemed to stretch. The man stood there. My throat ached to spill out apologizes and sympathy. Still, the quiet sat there for a moment. Then Charlie spoke.

“Let’s look at the map so I can show you how to get to the church, and make it easier on you.” Charlie started walking down the hall to the little library room with a mural map of Mobile, Alabama, filling one wall. The man stood there for a moment, and then leaned into his first step to propel his body forward.

As he passed me, I could see relief on his face. He didn’t want Charlie or anyone to respond. And Charlie realized that. He just wanted to say it, to hear his own voice speak the reality of his own life out loud. He didn’t need sympathy, pity, apologies or any of the other ridiculous air space wasters people offer. There is nothing I or Charlie could say that would change anything in the world for this man. The next few months and possibly years would be filled with hospitals and machines, tests, poking, prodding, and watching someone he loved suffer, and possibly die. Hope would come in waves and then be dashed from moment to moment. Years of shared togetherness would be threatened, and future plans dashed. There are no words.

My heart ached for this man, his wife, and their family. I thought of Brent walking into a campground office or anywhere and spilling out those words about me, and I wanted to cry. I thought about me saying that about Brent to a stranger, and I realized that as horrible and painful as these thoughts were, this is life. This is what happens. It used to be that people got sick and died and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. Today, they can be kept alive for years and years with incredible treatments, but sometimes the treatment seems worse than death, but they endure with hope of health and a pain-free life on the other side.

Still, it’s a fact of life. Someday it will be Brent or I saying these words to a stranger. What would we want to hear back?

What would I want someone to say or do if I spilled out those words about Brent? Would I want their sympathy? Their regrets? Absolutely not. What would I want? An ear. Just someone to absorb the sound of my voice and let me say it. Sometimes saying it out loud makes it real, and maybe even a little less scary once the horror of it has left my head and I hear it echo in the room around me. I would want nothing but silence and the echo of my voice.

When the two men returned to the office/living room area, the man was actually smiling at something Charlie was saying. Charlie had his hand on his shoulder, and the two were like old fishing buddies. “Now, if you need any help getting her into the car or the coach, you just holler.”

“Oh, she can walk good, just not far. She gets tired real easy now.”

“And you have fun at the rehearsal dinner tonight. Don’t be staying up too late, carousing!”

The man laughed, and I saw the years melt away and the worries fade for a minute. Charlie had done his magic. The man left with a little swing to his step, a smile across his face.

Charlie turned to me. “Now, where the hell is that cable guy?”

I laughed. “You did good with that man.”

“What? Oh, him. He just needed directions. Got a wedding to go to, you know. So you gonna call the cable company again or should I?”

I just smiled and nodded. I was learning fast from a very good teacher.

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