Finding Gibby—After the Funeral
About a week ago, a friend and colleague called me, and with sadness, he said: “I don’t want you to have to read this in an email tomorrow; Gibby died tonight.”
I sat on my couch, closed my eyes, and took a deep, loud belly breath. “I know you and he became very close,” my friend continued. “Thank you,” I said—knowing that my friend had done more than he needed to do in calling me that night—for considering my connection with Gibby and honoring my relationship with him. I wasn’t surprised; I have lost many to cancer since my own diagnosis—and before that, as well—and I can recognize the end game, but I still wished that Gibby hadn’t died. What I really wished is that Gibby had never developed cancer; that he never had to undergo treatment; that he never had to endure chemotherapy; that he had not had to leave us—not like that.
After Gibby was initially diagnosed with cancer, I saw him at a folk music festival in Geneva, IL—maybe 3 or 4 years ago. He smiled at me when we came upon each other, and he told me that he was undergoing treatment for cancer. He knew I had been diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years prior, and because of this: there was a solidarity between us, and we were both comrades in the war against the disease. He was optimistic that he would beat the cancer, which was very different than my own approach to the disease. Because my mother had died of breast cancer when I was four, I was sure I would also die—leaving behind my own daughter, Lily, who was only months old when I was diagnosed. My mother’s narrative would be my own; of that, I was convinced. But not for Gibby: he talked about returning to the community college where we taught; he talked about playing music; he talked about how lucky we were to be enjoying the folk music festival.
After that meeting, our relationship changed—we understood each other, and we shared our stories, our fears, and our ways of dealing with the disease and its equally destructive treatment. We enjoyed an intimacy that only people who have been diagnosed with cancer can share.
At some point, he and I began to text. I would check in with him. He would ask questions about a new chemotherapy that he would be taking. Even once, he asked me to have crepes with him. I wasn’t able to meet him that day, and I told him we’d reschedule. Sadly, we never did. I should have tried harder to do so; I regret that.
After Gibby began another type of chemotherapy, Taxotere, one that I was very familiar with as I had taken it when first diagnosed with breast cancer, he faded from life at our community college as my life too. He posted on his Caring Bridge site and shared major news with the crowds who followed him, and while his posts were upbeat, the posts became fewer and fewer. It was obvious that as the cancer spread and the methods to control that cancer became more aggressive, Gibby was going away.
Gibby’s funeral was last Sunday. I went. I knew the routine of funerals and death. Some people went to show respect and admiration for Gibby; some went to grieve with others feeling sad about the collective loss; and some went to say goodbye and gain closure. I guess I went for all of those reasons, and I expected Gibby’s funeral to be just like the others I’ve attended.
At first, Gibby’s funeral seemed standard: there was a line for mourners to visit with Gibby’s widow, Susan; there were tissues scattered around the room for teary visitors; and there was an explosion of black wardrobe. Even the beginning of the service was routine as someone sang one of Gibby’s favorite songs and others read moving textual passages speaking of life and death, but then something changed. A man—I don’t know who he was—delivered a most inspiring eulogy. Usually, at a funeral, the main speaker reiterates what everyone already knows about the deceased and encourages us to achieve closure, but that is not what this man did. There was no closure at the end of Gibby’s service; instead, there was a call to action—a challenge to live a better life—a life more like Gibby’s.
What’s funny is that this man was doing exactly what Gibby had been doing his whole life: teaching. Gibby had taught at our community college for 40 years, and he was the first faculty member to receive Faculty of the Year Award—only the first award among many to follow. I learned that Gibby’s real name was not even Gibby; in fact, he was named Stanley at birth, but Stanley’s father—who owned a club in Chicago—received a shipment of Gibson liquor on the day Stanley was born, so with inspired excitement, the father nicknamed his son “Gibson”, which then changed to Gibby—something that stayed with him his entire life.
I also learned that upon moving into his dream cottage in Geneva, one of the first things that Gibby did was hang a favorite poem upon his wall. The poem was “The Lake Isle at Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats—a poem, written in 1888, that spoke of nature and beauty and peace and truth. According to the man delivering the eulogy, Gibby was able to live in two worlds: the outer world of his reality that afforded pain and pleasure—and the inner world of the poem that afforded serenity and respite. And just as the narrator of the poem finds that which is natural to be sacred, so too, Gibby found there to be no separation between the secular and sacred in everyday lif–for all was holy. Gibby possessed a reverence for the world that made him ever-curious. He traveled. He photographed. He read. He ate. He listened. He played. He talked. And through it all, he connected with other people. That’s the thing about Gibby: he developed substantive connections with others, and that is why he really was someone whom everyone loved.
Toward the end, Gibby’s wife asked him why he wasn’t angry at the cancer, and Gibby, it seems, just laughed and smiled. Cancer didn’t define him, he said. He kept doing all of the things he loved in life—until he was gone, and so cancer, for him, hadn’t won. Cancer may have shortened his life, but that only inspired Gibby to put more life into the days he had. He packed it in. He would not be shortchanged by the disease.
Since Gibby’s funeral, I’ve been trying to make sense of his death, but what’s different this time is that I am not only processing his absence but also reexamining my life and finding inspiration in Gibby’s.
Even after his death, Gibby is even more present in my thoughts and my actions. I want Gibby to continue doing what he did best—to teach me and show me how to live a better life. Today, I will print out Gibby’s favorite poem: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, and I will frame it and hang it on my wall. There I will find him standing by the shore—gazing up at a glimmering ceiling of stars.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.