Today, the City of South Bend routinely and dispassionately discharged its duty by sending a truck to our house to cart off an old recliner chair. I watched with interest from our front porch. The city employee had no way of knowing the significance of what he was doing. Yes, it was merely a chair, an inanimate object that was neither beautiful nor terribly expensive. But it was also more than a chair. It was a physical connection to many significant memories in our family history. It was “The Cancer Chair.”
The Cancer Chair was given to me by my siblings in June of 2003 immediately following my original diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Stage 2B. If I recall correctly, my eldest sister, Theresa, spearheaded the effort. I will never forget the feeling of being overwhelmed by surprise and gratitude when they showed up at our house in Bristol, Indiana with it. When you see it, it doesn’t take long to understand that it was a functional piece of furniture built for comfort and not for style. I spent many days and also sleepless nights in it pondering my fate and trying to cope with some brutal side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
It was in this chair that I prayed many rosaries and read several books during three bouts of cancer. I took long naps and often spent the night in it. Even in my weakness, I was able to hold my newborn daughters, Monica and Meg, for long periods of time in this chair. Margy used it for nursing and watching movies. The kids would pile onto it – two or even three at a time. I enjoyed some good beers and some good conversations with kind visitors in this chair. With Meg in my arms, it was from this chair on April 19, 2005, that I was awakened by my dad’s phone call informing me that my brother, Johnny, had been killed in a car accident. It was from this chair that I watched my beloved Detroit Tigers win two American League Pennants, from this chair that I watched nearly one hundred Notre Dame football games. In this chair, I cuddled and made out with my wife . From this chair I witnessed the alarming moral decay of our country on the evening news. From this chair I thought and prayed and resolved never to give up hope.
It was a good chair, but badly worn. The amount of liquids spilt on it over the years could be measured in gallons. Dogs slept on it. Children nestled beneath a cover convalesced on it as their siblings were off at school. The fabric was worn and dirty – dirty in a way that offered no hope of ever really coming clean. Towards the end, the frame had become irreparably broken. Not only was it no longer comfortable, it eventually became virtually unusable. Nobody wanted to sit in it anymore. Yet, for some reason, after it disappeared today our family was blindsided with unexpected emotion. Seriously. I’m not kidding. Kids were choking back emotions. The thing was disgusting, but it was part of us.
A chair? Seriously? “Mourn” a chair? Yes, we laughed about it and cracked lots of jokes, but deep down we all felt a slight prickle of a loss. Intertwined with the fabric of our lives, we had all grown attached to it. I can’t speak for them, but for me it began as a tangible sign of my siblings’ love and care for me. It grew into a reminder of each one of the other six beloved inhabitants of St. Peter Street. That chair was a constant, comfortable, reassuring place to retreat. Our experience with cancer was such a powerful and beautiful blessing, the background against which the story of our lives together unfolded . The chair was a physical reminder of all the amazing things that transpired.
For the kids, I suspect it was childhood memories of piling on my lap to read a book. Or snuggling with Mom and a bowl of popcorn to watch a movie. Oh yeah. One more thing. When you pulled a blanket over your head while reclined in this chair, you could sleep peacefully for hours. It was an amazing piece of furniture.
Tonight it is gone. For the first time ever, we will all wake up tomorrow morning and come downstairs and it will not be there. There’s a gaping hole of empty space in our living room now. Gone, but not forgotten. (Cue the violins – haha!)
Thank you, my dear brothers and sisters, for 15 years of comfort and consolation! That was a wonderful, wonderful gift you all gave me. Back in 2003, many people secretly believed that the chair might possibly outlast me. I guess I get the last laugh, even if that laughter feels a bit hollow now that the chair is gone.
I’m grateful for the love this chair represented and for the grace of God that came upon me while I sat in it during the past 15 years. All of my kids were saddened today when the Cancer Chair disappeared, but none more than Nicholas. He put together this brief tribute as a way to confront his grief. We knew he was being funny by exaggerating the emotion of the occasion. But we also knew that he was being kinda serious too. Truth mixed with humor. I’ll let the artistry speak for itself. 😉
Good night, friends. Be sure to hug your favorite chair before you go to bed. You never know when it’s going to be headed to that big dumpster in the sky.