My friend John McHugh is always telling me things, things that younger men need wiser, older men to tell them. Things like whom to trust, how to love, how to live a good life.
Not long ago John lost his wife, Janet, to cancer. God knows she was a fighter, but in the end the disease won their eight-year battle.
One day John pulled a folded paper from his wallet. He’d found it, he told me, while going through drawers in his house. It was a love note, in Janet’s handwriting. It looked a little like a schoolgirl’s daydream note about the boy across the way. All that was missing was a hand-drawn heart and the names John and Janet. Except this note was written by the mother of seven children, a woman who had begun the battle for her life, and very probably was within months of the end.
It was also a wonderful prescription for holding a marriage together. This is how Janet McHugh’s note about her husband begins:” Loved. Cared. Worried. ”
As quick with a joke an John is, apparently he didn’t joke with his wife about cancer. He’d come home, and she’d be in one of the moods cancer patients get lost in, and he’d have her in the car faster than you can say DiNardo’s, her favorite restaurant. “Get in the car,” he’d say,” I’m taking you out to dinner.”
He worried, and she knew it. You don’t hide things from someone who knows better.
“Helped me when I was sick.” is next. Maybe Janet wrote her list when the cancer was in one of those horrible and wonderful remission periods, when all is as it was—almost—before the disease, so what harm is there in hoping that it’s behind you, maybe for good?
“Forgave me for a lot of things.”
“Stood by me.”
And then, good service to those of us who think giving constructive criticism is our religious calling: “Always complimentary.”
“Provide everything I ever needed.” Janet McHugh next wrote.
Then she’d turned the man she had lived with and been in love with for the majority of her life. She’d written:” Always there when I needed you.”
The last thing she wrote sums up all the others. I can picture her adding it thoughtfully to her list. ”Good friend.”
I stand beside John now, unable even to pretend that I know what it feels like to lose someone so close. I need to hear what he has to say, much more than he needs to talk.
“John,” I ask,” how do you stick by someone through 38 years of marriage. “let done the sickness too? How do I know I’d have what it takes to stand by my wife if she got sick?”
“you will,” he says. ”If you love her enough, you will.”