Tender mercies

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A few months ago I made a September pilgrimage to Cape Cod. The Cape is my back story. I was a kid there, a teenager, a college guy. My honeymoon was in Cape Cod and we introduced it young to our own kids. My parents retired to the Cape and we visited them with the grandkids.

A big part of my Cape memories are rooted in my older brother, John. We were kids there together in 1960s summers, grown-ups visiting together later on.

Though he lived and worked in Tucson — he was a university accountant — he bought a little condo on the Cape and planned to retire there. But he was hit with cancer at 60 and died five years later. His wife, Sue, kept the place, however, and often stays there summers to escape the Arizona heat.

I first met Sue when she first met John. I was in college, though roaring for heading out on my own. Sue and I got along fine. Just a few years older, the connection was my brother. She was kind and friendly. I was young with a goofy smile on my face. Never a bad word between us over the next 40 years.

But you know how it is. Everybody knows how it is. Our family has scattered hither and yon across these United States. After John died, we didn’t lose touch with Sue, but we lost touch in any kind of meaningful way. Christmas cards and floral arrangements arrived back and forth at the proper seasonal times. But our lives went separate.

Anyway, the good news is that in our September visit she was still at the Cape when we arrived, though heading back to Tucson shortly. We reconnected personally and immediately, that always surprising miracle when it all instantly picks up as if someone left the room for a minute rather than half a decade.

We got her out of the condo — she had developed serious mobility problems over the years — and took her to lunch. Better than that, we wore out the afternoon riding the old roads and telling the old stories. We talked about us, we talked about the ghosts of the past and the dreams for the future.

We remembered my brother and her husband. We laughed at his idea to open a sandwich shack on the highest point over Cape Cod Bay and advertise it with a 75-foot neon sign that could be seen anywhere on the Cape. He’d call it The Jolly Lobster! The nuttiness of it all defined his wicked humor.

The visit ended, we continued our vacation and Sue headed home to Tucson. A few weeks after my oldest brother, who lives out there, sent an e-mail that Sue was heading to resident therapy for stubborn pain and her mobility limits. A little later that they had to take her to the hospital.

A little later that she had died.

But I don’t want to do this wrong. This is not a sad story ending on a sad note. The joy and fun of that afternoon at the Cape I’ll never lose. Instead of having only faded memories, we had just weeks before her unexpected death the gift of a friendship alive and whole and experienced.

One of God’s tender mercies in our lives is the people he sends to us. Don’t let the chance to be with them slip by. Because you just don’t want to lose that joy.

It was Thomas a Kempis who wrote that Christ made love the stairway that enables us to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it. And don’t climb alone.

Lockwood is former general manager of the Pittsburgh Catholic and diocesan communications director.