Friday, September 11, 2015

the circle tightens

I remember the day we met.

It was one of those August days, whose heat and blue skies, could convince almost anyone we were in southern California.  We weren't.  We were in Oregon.  Both of us sitting on the front stoop of Willamette Law School in Salem.

I then knew no one in what would take on the granfaloonish title of Class of 1979.  But Patti Burnett was to turn out to be the first of my classmates I would meet.

Her VW beetle, which I was later to learn was named Sparkle, was adorned with a Ford for President bumper sticker.  He was the last presidential candidate we would jointly support.  But we had great fun discussing the 1976 elections.

There was something about Patti's personality that immediately struck me.  She was friendly, but in a very courtly way.  Manners and civility were important to her.  She could have stepped out of Pride and Prejudice -- had Jane Austen been brought up in Nevada.  To me, she was utterly charming.

Our paths would cross during the three years of law school.  Dinner parties.  Barn dances.  Law revues.

Law school is also where Patti met her husband, Ken.  Upon graduation, they headed off to their lives in and around Olympia, Washington.

And that is where we entered each other lives on a grand scale.  I would perform my periodic duty as an Air Force Reserve JAG officer at McChord Air Force Base -- just a few miles from their home.

They were gracious enough to let me live with them in their home on the 20 days of duty I would perform each year.  But that was just the start.  They would spend frequent weekends at my home in Milwaukie, and I would spend additional weekends with them in Olympia.

Plays.  Movies.  Dinners.  Whatever distractions we planned, it was the company we shared that inspired these visits.  No scalpel could have been sharper than the wit we brought to our conversations.  And each thrust ad riposte added a new layer to our lives.

Somehow, during this period, I moved from being a good friend to being their "son."  That is odd -- because I was older than both Patti and Ken.  Perhaps we had too often used the Old Gregor/Young Gregor joke from Love and Death.

But my rule as the odd son was soon to end.

The three of us enjoyed listening to, and analyzing, the soundtracks of newly-released musicals.  Our reviews were a bit predictable.  Anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber or the Schönberg-Boublil team would have us in stitches.  The big exception was Sondheim.

Into the Woods had just be released before one of my visits.  On our way to dinner at Casa Mia, I asked them about their favorite song.  They both answered in union: "It Takes Two."  A song about what it takes in marriage to obtain a child.  I knew something was up.

And it was.  Patti and Ken soon adopted a baby into their home -- Kimmy.

Three years ago, Patti told me she had been diagnosed with liver cancer.  Like everything else she has done, I suspect I was convinced that somehow the diagnosis would be far different for her than for other people.  That she would beat the disease.

She underwent a series of treatments.  Chemotherapy.  Drug cocktails.

Last September, even though she was weakened by her treatments, she felt strong enough for the thee of us to take a cruise to northern France and northern Spain.  We also stayed in London -- one of her favorite cities -- for several extra days.  I could tell the trip simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted her.

Recently, she underwent a series of drug trials in Arizona that proved more costly to her system than they were beneficial.  Patti decided the trials were not worth the side effects.

On Thursday, Ken sent me an email informing me Patti had entered hospice, and she was in the palliative care stage of treatment.  I knew what that meant.  My father went through the same stage.

He also told me the doctor predicted she only had a few days left.  I contacted Ken in the hope of getting to Seattle before the end.  But he wisely informed me there was little I could do.  That I needed to tend to my own health issues.

He was correct.  This morning he wrote: "Patti passed away at 8:00 AM.  Kimmy and I were there, and it was a peaceful and quiet moment." 

Summing up a person's life in a few words is impossible.  We are complex and contradictory beings.  But we are souls who enter one another's lives -- and forever change the people whose lives we touch.

Patti certainly has done that in my life.  Friend.  Intellectual sparring partner.  Counselor.  A soul who embodied the very essence of civility.  Wife to my friend Ken.  Mother to my pal Kimmy.  And a woman who was proud to call me her brother.

Anne Lamott once wrote: "A basic tenet of the Christian faith is that death is really just a major change of address."  Whimsical though it may be, I believe it is true.  That Patti's soul, in some mysterious way we cannot understand, is in God's presence.

That truth, however, does not fill the void that her death has left in our hearts.  Jesus himself taught us: "Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted."

And mourn we shall.  And comforted we shall be.  With the blessings that Patti has granted each of us in our lives.

Even so, I am going to miss you my sister Patti.  A lot.

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