Steve and Tommy

When I was 25, my uncle Steve died at the age of 35 on Cinco de Mayo, ending a 10-year saga of medical drama that started when he was 25.

That's a lot of 5s, I never noticed that before.

Funny how one little sentence cannot possibly convey who Steve was, what happened to him, when, where and how he died and surely, we'll never know why. I know that my dad's only sister was the most dedicated caregiver to her high school sweetheart who was the father of three children. I know that lots of people participated in Steve's journey and caring for my cousins so their mom could care for their dad. And then, in a torturous 36-hour finale, we said good bye to him.

Until that weekend, the only other contact I had with death was my dad's dad who died when I was nine. I didn't know him very well. Frank Valli (born Valinotti) was a man who was a New Yorker in every fiber and cell of his being and at the time of his death, he had been a fish out of water if there ever was a human version. He moved from NYC to sunny San Diego for his daughter Jo, who fell in love with California while visiting her bro -- my dad. Can you only imagine? A teenage girl seeing California for the first time?

But those are stories for another day. On May 3, 1996, I left San Diego for another visit to the hospital to see Jo, Steve, Scott, Christina and Thomas. It was one of many times I headed up I-5 to see them that year. And even though it wasn't my dad who died, it was the most traumatic thing I had ever experienced. It is awful when someone dies, more when they're young, more when they've been sick, more when it was for a long time, more when they've fought like hell against every setback, more when they are loved by their wives tirelessly and endlessly, more when they leave three beautiful children behind.

These three beautiful children have been left behind now too. Their dad Tommy, and their mom Kerstin? I have been in the lymphoma battlefield with them for nearly 8 years now. Can it be that long? But what does it matter how long, it only matters now that he is gone.

Since Steve died, I've gotten more experienced with death. My dad died three years later and my beloved grandma followed her son a few years after that. They are all buried together in San Diego: my grandpa, my dad and my grandma. Then my college roommate Corey died tragically when Jaden was one. He is also buried in San Diego. Then my Harpo. Oh Harpo. She is not in San Diego. Most recently (for now, as such is life) Opa died, he was the oldest person I knew to die and in the six years that I knew him, he taught me a lot about family & what it means.

Since I wrote this note in Austin almost five years ago, my lymphoma family has lost more beautiful and brave people. Back then, our other Kerstin had lost her Shawn, another brave husband and father. Now in the past year Cleo lost CW, and we all lost Trudi, our online matriarch. We had a good long streak going, but it will never be long enough for me. It wasn't long enough for Tommy.

Each death is different, just like each life was different of course. It makes sense when I think about it that way. But death to me continues to be senseless. Why do we have to die when there is so much living to do? I have (almost) always wanted to cling to life eternally. In elementary school, when I was taught that our sun could burn out "someday" -- I cried thinking about life ending everywhere. I still cry. I have learned more about life through all of these deaths, some lessons stay strong, others ebb & flow, but all are in my heart.

I could ask my aunt Jo now for some advice to give to Kerstin, but I already know a little of what she will say. "In the beginning, you will get out of bed each morning because your kids require you to get out of bed. And that might be it, the only reason you get up for awhile." I was there when someone gave her that advice.

As for how to transition back to the non-hospital world after MONTHS of the hospital life? I remember some of that too because I was there for that part also. Find some joy and hold on to it because that is what Steve and Tommy did, they held on as long as they could to the love and joy they gave and received. Jo is one of the best that I know at finding joy, not sweating the small stuff and having fun every single day.

Tommy, Kerstin, Cody, Riley and Hannah, I am sending a whole lot of love is coming straight up the West Coast tonight. Soon, I will send the fun. For now, je suis triste, tres tres triste.