My wife and I had a suspicion that her friend Ingrid’s cancer had taken a turn for the worse.
That night, her husband Mike came over to our house. He and I grabbed a couple of Blue Moons and sat in the backyard. After some superficial chatter, I heard him say the words we were dreading to hear. Mike looked at me in the eye and sheepishly said: “yeah, it’s terminal; probably just a few weeks.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that.
I waited to see what he needed from me at the moment. I tried to be a good friend. I thought I’d let him cry if he wanted to. Or talk about something completely different if that’s what he needed. Heck, even if he just wanted to scream and yell in anger, I was ready for it. But he did none of that. He just paused. We sat in silence for a bit. It was a difficult moment. He left shortly after that. I wished I could have done more for him at that moment.
It bothered me all night. And the next day. And the next day…
My wife, Desiree, and I talked about it endlessly. This became the topic of our conversations. For her though, it was a deep pain. Ingrid and Desiree had developed a unique friendship. They spent one morning every week together. They would drop off the kids at school, drive to the must-have Starbucks, and go jewelry shopping at Charming Charlie. It was their thing.
Ingrid loved Desiree. And Desiree loved Ingrid.
She played a special role in Ingrid’s life. I believe that every friend in our lives plays a different role. I have my “deep-conversation” friends, and my “we’re-all-about-being-parents” friends, and my “let’s-conquer-the-world” friends. I even have my “let’s-pretend-to-be-immature-twenty one-year-olds-again-for-a-bit” friends. Desiree played a unique role in Ingrid’s life. She was her “let-me-feel-normal” friend. When they were together, they didn’t discuss chemo treatments or cancer phases. They were just two women in their thirty’s doing what women in their thirty’s do. They laughed. They shopped. They drank coffee. Desiree knew exactly what her role was.
For me, it was different. Watching my friend Mike go through this journey was hard. His wife was dying. And I was just watching from the sidelines. I wanted to do more. Yes – I prayed for him. Yes – I was there for him every time he called me. But I wanted to do something special.
Then, it hit me. I can do what I do best… Let’s host a great feast for Ingrid!
That’s definitely a role I could play. I knew that the perfect meal in the perfect surrounding with the perfect group of people could do wonders not only for Ingrid, but for Mike too. And so the planning began. Preparations were intense. It had to be perfect. I didn’t have much time to pull this off.
First, the right group of people. That part was easy. Desiree reached out to Ingrid’s two other good friends, Kathy and Alicia, and they, along with their husbands, Dan and Dave, immediately bought into the idea. Somehow, it all fell into place, and before you knew it, we had all agreed on the evening of September 12 for our get-together. Surprisingly, we were able to arrange sitters for all our kids at the last minute (a feat that is very hard to accomplish if not impossible, and definitely not performed so quickly – but this was for Ingrid, and it was important to everyone involved, and so we made it happen). Our close-knit circle of friends was officially “booked” and I think, they too, knew, in their hearts, that we were about to celebrate a special moment that none of us would soon forget.
Next step: the location. Being mid-September in New Jersey, the weather was just perfect for an outdoors celebration: a very comfortable 70 degrees with no humidity. Our backyard offered the perfect backdrop.With a barely setting sun, the lit-up pool became the brightest light in the backyard. The landscape lighting, burning Tiki torches, and a few candles, gave off the perfect ambient lighting.
Then, the meal. We wanted something fun. Nothing formal. We wanted a meal that would allow for conversation, laughter, whatever. I also wanted to build a meal experience that would prolong the evening as much as possible, and so it needed to have several phases and lots of opportunity to stand up, walk around, and soak up every moment. Yes, the meal had to be important, but I didn’t want the meal to be the star. Ingrid had to be the star.
I got it…Mexican!
We figured that a colorful and fun Mexican meal would hit the right tone.
The men gathered around the bar while the women sat by the table just a few feet away. The drink options were fun: shots of Patron Tequila and frozen margaritas. I happen to like a very salty rim with my margaritas, but conscious that others may not, I picked up a great trick (somewhere in my life’s journey) of doing a 50-50 mix of salt and sugar. That actually works really well.
For friends that are not margarita lovers and are a bit tequila-shot-adverse, take a soft white wine, like a chardonnay, and splash some of the margarita mix to create a pseudo margarita. For the rest of us, shots of Patron worked just fine.
We had couple of “chori-queso” stations scattered around: melted Oaxaca cheese with good Mexican chorizo, and slightly-thick corn tortillas. It’s simple: you grab a tortilla in your hand, scoop some of this Mexican goodness on it, fold, and eat. It’s fun watching friends trying to pronounce all these worlds (not to mention watching them trying to eat it!)
After a traditional entree of rice, enchiladas, and refried beans, we brought out a chocolate fondue fountain which we placed right smack in the middle of the table to a bunch of oohs and aahs, forcing all eight people, who had mingled throughout the evening in smaller groups, back to the table to be all together (it really is fascinating to see how you can control the flow of a get-together with food!).
The memories from this evening are still very vivid in my head. From the Mark Anthony song that was playing in the background to the jokes that were told. And then there was the endless picture taking. Everyone was snapping pictures with their phones, as if they were subconsciously (or maybe not so much) trying to catalog a record of the evening’s events. I think we all knew exactly what we were doing that evening.
Ingrid passed away five weeks later.
That night was our last meal with Ingrid. We all knew it was. But no one said it. It wasn’t somber. It was fun. It was a lot of fun. It was what Desiree had always been for Ingrid… normal.
For me, I am immensely grateful that I was able to find my role and was given this opportunity to play that role.
Life goes on… I suppose. I don’t pretend to know the depth of the pain Mike must have gone through. But I do hope that, in some small way, this awakened moment we shared will always have a special meaning for the eight people I shared it with.