Note: Linda and Kenny were my neighbors neighbor and truth be told I didn’t know them that well. I was a child and I didn’t comprehend all the events going on in my world. But I knew their story. They were legends in my cul-de-sac and they lived a life worth sharing. I don’t know if they wanted their story to be shared so the names Linda and Kenny are used instead of their real names. Enjoy.
Kenny was the balloon Linda devoted her life to. She held onto him for thirty years with a grip full of love and compassion, but as time went on the grip would grow looser than ever before. And soon Linda would be left alone with a face full of tears as she helplessly stands back and watches the balloon slip out of her hands and fade into the clouds and slowly out of sight.
The balloon was going to pop and Linda knew it. Soon she would be left to pick up the pieces and begin anew because Kenny was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. I was five and naive. And even though I didn’t know what cancer was or about the victims it claimed and the lives it ruined, I hated it. Because it made all the grownups cry.
Some days I would race my bike with my friends, but I would stop short of the finish line because I would hear hopeless sobs coming from the house next door. It was Linda. And I could tell she was crying.
No matter how hard you try to bury the tears you shed behind an artificial smile, you can’t. For the truth is in your eyes and its there for everyone to see…including a naive five year old boy.
Linda was shedding the tears of a hundred memories and a hundred stories that she would never get to live out again because her life would never be the same once she put to rest the man she loved with every hair on her body.
But Kenny wasn’t ready to fade into the clouds just yet.
He went through chemo. He lost hair. He lost weight. He regained hair and it came back gray. I couldn’t recognize him anymore and I was scared to look at him. He wasn’t the strong and fit man that I once knew. He was thin and fragile and I could see his bones through his shirt. But he always smiled.
If this world was perfect, Kenny’s smile alone would have cured and fought every last cancerous cell in his body. But this world isn’t perfect. The world is full of heartbreak and sorrow and disease and it’s the reason we all walk around with holes in our hearts and holes in our lives.
But Kenny didn’t wear a hole in his heart. He wouldn’t let cancer penetrate and take over the organ of love. It was his one vow. His heart would remain pure and full. And it did. It was the only pure and full heart that I have ever come to know.
His face wore a smile even when he vomited with disgust after all the soul crushing sessions of chemo. His courage was inspiring, but heart breaking at the same time because it reminded the rest of us of just how cowardly and fragile we really were.
But this story isn’t about bravery or cancer or death. It’s about love. The love that keeps a man alive for an extra fourteen years…when doctors had given the very same man only six months to live.
Because that’s what happened, Kenny beat the odds and he continued to live because he refused to lie down and die.
The one month mark came and went. The three month mark came and went. And the six month mark came and Kenny’s heart stopped beating just as doctors had anticipated. But Kenny didn’t die. His heart stopped beating for himself, but it started back up again and started beating for Linda, the love of his life. And he made it through.
He was released from the hospital shortly thereafter and the doctors expected him to pass away any day, but Kenny’s heart refused. And life resumed.
The couple didn’t have much, but an old car with rust and mold and a broken television set that had stopped working years ago, but that didn’t matter. They had each other and that was enough to get them through all the years of struggle and agony and turmoil. They made it through cold winters and warm summers. They made it through times of prosperity and seasons of recession. They made it through the ups and the downs and they wore smiles all year around.
The doctors were amazed. They couldn’t understand it. They couldn’t believe it. They had spent years studying human life and medicine, but not one of those doctors could tell you how a man with a death sentence of six months could put off death for a decade and some change.
Kenny was a walking miracle. And we all knew it. He was the recipient of glances full of awe and delight from everyone who lived in my cul-de-sac.
But unlike everyone else, I didn’t think Kenny was a miracle because he beat death. He was a miracle in my eyes because he beat life. He was different. He wasn’t like the rest of the middle aged boys who lied and called themselves men. Kenny was a man for real.
As strong as Kenny was, Linda was even stronger. I have never seen such a beautiful thing in all my years of living. They taught me a simple yet provocative truth about life: love cures all.
I saw it in the way they looked at one another. I saw it in the form their bodies took as they reached to kiss one another. I saw it in the words their mouths spoke as they inspired one another. I saw it all around and I haven’t seen anything as special and true since.
It was love and love alone that gave Kenny the energy to breathe.
But then years later, something happened. It was dark and raining and the disgusting scent of tragedy was in the air. The scent informed us of a tragedy that was about to unfold right before our eyes. It was a tragedy that everyone could smell and sense, but no one could stop because no one knew when and where it would take place.
It took place a few blocks from the house I grew up in. A car went skidding into the other lane and crashed head on with another vehicle. The innocent driver was dead on impact. I heard the noise. I was playing cards with my cousin. The table in my house shook. I thought someone got shot. The noise was louder than any noise my ears had heard before or since. Then I heard sirens. Lots of sirens. Enough sirens to fight all the crime in the world. And I knew. My stomach sank to the depths of an ocean full of tears.
I raced outside in panic and I saw the remains of the vehicle. It was no longer a car, but pieces of useless metal and cold steel.
The street that had once provided me with such pleasure and joy as a child was now full of glass and blood and more blood. And then they carried the person out of the innocent car and onto a stretcher. I wish they had a stretcher for my heart because it broke that day and it still hasn’t healed because the person on the stretcher was Linda, and she was dead.
As I stood motionless and watched the paramedics place a white cloth over Linda’s lifeless body, I could feel my heart shattering into a thousand pieces. But it didn’t shatter for me. It shattered for love itself and it shattered for Kenny. And his heart broke that day too. And with it went all the pieces of his life, the pieces he attached meaning to and found comfort in. They died with Linda. I saw it in his expressionless face.
A few weeks later, I saw the cancer had returned and he was wearing it in his eyes. I could tell he wouldn’t last long. And he didn’t last long.
Four months later, Kenny was dead. He put off death for fourteen years because of the power of love and now he lay deceased and unable to breathe.
The doctors said the cancer had spread to his brain and that was enough to bring his life to an end. But I knew that wasn’t true. It was a lie and it didn’t mean anything because it wasn’t the real reason for Kenny’s death.
Cancer didn’t kill Kenny. The thought of continuing to live without Linda killed Kenny. The cause of death wasn’t cancer. It was a broken heart.
I knew because after the death of his wife, Kenny was always longing. I could see it in the way he took his steps and the way he tackled the events of the day. He was longing for a distant and far away place. And he found it.
I visited Kenny’s new home for the first time a few days ago and I was overtaken by an unlimited supply of oxygen. The oxygen of love. The oxygen we all need to survive. I was happy and smiling and full of life because Kenny lay in the place he was longing to reach in all those months that followed his wife’s demise.
He lay in a cemetery beside the woman who gave him the best years of his life.