I always feel this way when I sit down to share a family’s story. I often feel unworthy of writing it, and I never feel like I can do it justice or make the family proud. Something about this story is different, though. I’ve never felt like this before. It’s an ultra-sensitive story, and there are so many layers. I really want to capture the beauty and the pain this family is experiencing, and I hope I can bring it to life the way I see it in my heart. I first read their story on social media— a story of a man who had been given six months to live, and his dying wish was to marry the love of his life in the presence of their family and in comfort of their living room, so that he “wouldn’t die not belonging to someone”. I instantly wanted to share their story with my readers.
I was welcomed into their home by the delightful smell of fresh baked blueberry cake. Jeanne wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I am really glad she didn’t; it was delicious! Over the next couple of hours, I spent some time getting to know this special couple. Rick sat back in his easy chair with a view of the yard through the patio door, and held his Rosary. I sat comfortably, and enjoyed the blueberry cake while Jeanne and Rick helped me understand their story.
Before meeting Rick, Jeanne’s family was no stranger to loss. Bob, the man Jeanne was married to for 20 years, was taken from them suddenly, when he passed away as a result of brain stem stroke. Her twin sons, Michael and Matthew were 26 years old, and her daughter Calley, 17, when their father died, suddenly in 2004 at the age of 55. The death of their father was difficult, to say the least; they were robbed of the chance to say goodbye. For several years after Bob’s death, Jeanne was alone. However, once the kids were off living their own lives, she longed for something she knew was missing. She had lots of friends, and was very social, but she admits “I was lost and I needed a purpose.” She did the unthinkable, at the time, and she went online in hopes of finding companionship. Before long, on a hot summer’s day, she agreed to meet a gentleman named Rick at a coffee shop in the hopes of getting to know him a little better.
Before meeting Jeanne that day in the coffee shop, Rick had led a difficult life. His childhood was dysfunctional, and he had endured years of mental and emotional abuse. Rick fell into the same lifestyle as an adult. As an alcoholic, he made a conscious decision to never have a family. This was his way of ensuring that the cycle stopped with him. He refused to subject children of his own to the same life he endured growing up. “I wasn’t a good human most of my life because I drank” he admits. By the grace of God, Rick started attending AA meetings in 1987, and has been sober since.
Together for 10 years now, Jeanne and Rick had many plans for their retirement. Jeanne’s kids have children of their own, now. Rick retired early from Canada Post, and has been driving a school bus part-time for the last five years, and Jeanne retired from the ministry of education. They were grateful that Jeanne’s sons and daughter lived close by, so that they could enjoy their grandchildren and watch them grow. The couple had recently made plans to take the entire family to Disney World. It was going to be a trip of a lifetime; everyone was going, all three children and their five grandchildren. Everyone was excited, but no one has mentioned the trip since, Rick’s diagnosis.
In late summer of 2017, Rick had been complaining of pain in his stomach and back, and had been finding himself unusually tired. After running a few medical tests, he was told that his white blood cell count was high, but that there was no other reason for concern. On September 8th, 2017— which happens to be Jeanne’s birthday— after further testing and a visit with Oncology at Credit Valley Hospital, Rick was given the devastating news of the massive tumour in his esophagus. It was inoperable and over a course of weeks, three separate doctors confirmed that there was nothing that could be done. Jeanne jokes that she’s sure this was Rick’s way of getting out of buying her a birthday present. Rick was given six months to live. As expected, the emotions varied for the family over the coming weeks. Rick remembers crying during one of his appointments with his palliative care doctor. The doctor asked him why he was crying. Rick looked at him and said, “because I am dying with cancer, of course.” The doctor looked at him and said “Rick, you are not dying with cancer, you are living with cancer.” Rick says this is when he realized that he did have a choice; he could die with cancer or learn to live with cancer.
Although the feelings of bitterness were difficult to ignore, Rick reached deep within himself and his spiritual native Cree roots and decided that he was going to live his last days being grateful and living his life to the fullest. It’s often said that if you are dying, you should do all the things you have been wanting to do. “This is such an unrealistic expectation,” Jeanne says “It’s not a romantic time! Your days are a filled with pain medication and nurses!” This is not the idea that Rick has in mind though, when he thinks of living his last days to the fullest; instead, he is focusing on leaving no words unsaid and no love unshown.
Jeanne’s children and grandchildren are the closest Rick has ever had to a family. Ironically, the man who swore he never wanted or needed family is hugely grateful for the family that has been given to him in his last days. Michael and Matthew were a little more welcoming of Rick than Calley was at first. Understandably, there was some friction between the two, and she wasn’t fully accepting of him right away. Rick tells me, “I never wanted to replace their father. If anything I make a point of acknowledging Bob, especially around our grandchildren.”
Jeanne recalls the day that Calley saw Rick in a different light. Their son, Michael’s six year old twins had stayed for their usual weekend sleepover. The following morning, Calley happened to drop in, and overheard the twins saying good morning to a photo of Papa Bob. Calley later asked Jeanne how it was that the kids knew who her dad was. She was surprised to hear that Rick often spoke of Bob to the grandchildren, and told them that he was their grandfather way before they were born. Later that day, Calley texted Rick to thank him.
As I sat there, in their well kept, cozy family room, I was distracted by the many sticky notes that were all over the walls, furniture, and even the fireplace. Upon taking a closer look, I realized that they were in a child’s handwriting. Rick and Jeanne’s eyes gleamed with pride while they explained to me that Michael’s twin boys are very concerned for Papa Rick. They worry he would become so ill that he would not know where anything was. They created dozens of sticky notes to label objects all over the house. The speakers, the picture frames on the walls, the toys, the fireplace, even a hello and goodbye note at the front door.
Jeanne has seen her family grow so much closer in the months after Rick’s diagnosis— they are closer than they have ever been. There have been instances that have brought Rick closer to the family he never imagined he would have. This past Christmas, the family had planned to celebrate at Michael’s place. As the hours approached, Rick just wasn’t feeling well enough to leave the house. Jeanne almost cancelled Christmas altogether; Michael wouldn’t hear of it! The family took everything over to Jeanne’s, and they enjoyed Christmas huddled around Rick’s bed. The love and support Jeanne’s children have for Rick is more than he ever thought he deserved. “I have grown to love her children and their children like my own.”
One afternoon, after Jeanne and Rick were on their way home from a swimming lesson with Michael’s sons, one of them asked Rick, “Papa, are you still dying?” When Rick confirmed that he was in fact still dying, his grandson answered, “I love you Papa, but I know why people have to go to heaven. It’s so that we can make more room for babies.” Their grandchild also asked “Grandpa, will you make sure to call me everyday when you get to heaven, cuz I’ll miss you”?” Rick marvels at how well Michael, Matthew, and Calley are raising their children, and he makes a point of telling them often what great parents they are; “I want them to know that they are doing a great job.”
Looking out at the yard from his chair, Rick tells me about the the days after his diagnosis. “I sat here and looked out at the yard and I was angry. I couldn’t help but think that I would never see the kids playing out there again.” Jeanne says, “as time passes, I find his mindset has changed. He is more grateful, and instead looks out, with a smile and says things like, ‘remember when I sat on the rock by the pool and had that conversation with our grandchild about bugs?’ Rick has committed to practicing gratitude and a positive attitude at all costs. He has resolved to make things right with as many people in his life as possible, while he is still on this earth.”
In the recent weeks leading up to my visit with Rick and Jeanne, they had hosted many get togethers in their home. Rick insisted on hosting 30 of his friends and coworkers from First Student Bus Company, where Rick was a driver for five years, and then a trainer for the last two years before retiring. He loved that job. He took the opportunity to tell each and every one of his co-workers the impact they had on him. He thanked them for being in his life.
They will also be hosting a get together with 35 of Rick’s nieces and nephews, and their families— many with whom he had lost touch with. Jeanne cooks up a storm and stresses over there being enough food, “I am, after all, Macedonian/Greek” she laughs.
Rick’s demeanor is calm, pensive and gracious. He puts great emphasis on gratitude and love.
He shows me the many letters and pages of journaling he has been writing daily. Letters to loved ones, letters to Jeanne. So many letters to Jeanne. Jeanne has set him up on Facebook to keep in touch with his bus company friends, and his nieces and nephews, and he now sends messages every morning and night to everyone, reminding them how precious life is. He loves that he feels connected to everyone now. He recently received a heartfelt message from a woman who suffers from severe depression, and that she was so moved by his courage and his inspiration to reach out to people and teach them to appreciate all the small gifts in life. She thanked him graciously for his inspirationally brave outlook.
I spent the afternoon with a man who was living his last days on this earth. I wanted to learn his lessons. I wanted to learn Jeanne’s lessons. I hesitated a little, almost as if I was not ready to learn, when I asked, “what is the greatest lesson you have learned, and what is the loudest message you would like to spread before you go?”
I held my breath, and Rick sighed. “Never leave this world with things unsaid.”
Rick and Jeanne were married in the comfort of their family room surrounded by Michael, his wife Sally, and their twins, Matthew, his wife Hang and their two year old, and Calley and her husband Darryl and their children. The doctors have given him six months—maybe it will be longer. In the meantime, Rick is grateful for the ten years he was given with his family, and he finds comfort in knowing he belongs to someone.