Travis Somerfeld’s gift
Travis was a young man. By all accounts, he was headed for greatness. He had graduated in art, pottery his favorite medium. He had been accepted to every graduate program he applied to. He was kind and charming, the sort of man young women dream about for a husband, partner, friend, and father of their children. There was some residual lankiness to his figure, a reminder that teenagerdom wasn’t all that far behind. Travis, though, was looking forward. Life lay out before him, an open road with unlimited things to see, places to go. Somewhere somebody in the DOT threw up construction ahead; road closed ahead; detour ahead; all traffic must exit signs. He took the exit. A right turn, then a left, still following the signs. Then, maybe to save money, or maybe because travelers are supposed to know what direction they’re going, the signs ceased. He was left in some 2-lane Podunk place where nothing made sense and the roads ran in circles. It was a foreign piece of country, a place unknown to him, unlike any he had ever been to. The language was different. The scenery was different. The people were kind, but they were strangers. It seemed he might spend the rest of his life here. Minutes dragged into days while time sped by. Who would ever have imagined. Cancer. Sarcoma. Oi, and at such a young age.
Friends tsk’d. How unfair it was. He was so gifted. To be cut off so short called into question any faith in a higher being. John had been one of Travis’ professors and mentors. John wore wire rimmed glasses. He was still lean, not having completely succumbed to the sedentary lifestyle of academia. Mostly bald on top, with an unruly fringe of professorial-grade hair lower on his head. He had a connection to something beyond himself or his students. He could, in some way, see who his students could be. This was an understanding beyond his own years. So it was no surprise that he was a rock above water for those drowning in the confusion and absurdity of this apparent sentence. He sat with Travis. He sat with the other students. He asked “why?” with them. He shared their tears. The whole thing was like a swirly on the computer when it’s thinking, thinking, thinking, processing. Processing. A swirly that won’t go away.
Travis, though, put on his brave face. We’ll beat this, he said. There was no insurance. We’ll beat it! Cancer care is expensive. Dammit, I said we’ll beat it! Its treatment is a vampire to even the healthiest savings account. Really, I mean it. Then there’s the whammy of treatment, seemingly almost as pernicious as the disease itself. We’re going to try. That’s the least and most we can do. Que sera sera. Chin up. That’s the way. God, I’m tired of being tough. Tears came and passed, leaving peace and clarity to what remained. The light was brighter. Evening sun after an afternoon thundershower. The world was more beautiful. The colors were alive. The birds sang with more of whatever it is they sing with. Travis found that for the first time he knew their words. The whole world sang and was clean and bright.
The only treatment option presented itself as a trip to Boston to participate in a clinical trial at Harvard. Even that, though, seemed out of reach. Hotels are businesses. Gasoline isn’t free. John emailed Sara, a former student, with the urgent query: is there any one or any place Travis and his mom can stay while he takes part in this treatment? She had a baby and a husband in a flat in Boston. It wasn’t far from the treatment center. It was already cozy with just the three of them there. But of course, she said, he and his mother can stay here with us. They must!
Pretty soon word got out on the block where Sara lived. Travis and his mom were in a rough place. They were here from Florida. He was sick. They could help. The block pulled together. They coordinated rides and food and company. They came and read. They talked about art and pottery and butterflies and the weather. Sometimes they just sat quietly, the therapy of presence where one soul talks to another and words are unnecessary. They wouldn’t have called it hospice. After all, this treatment was going to succeed. They knew it. They wouldn’t have called it ministry. They were just doing what caring people are supposed to do. They prayed. God, this is going to take a miracle. Please, Lord, send us a miracle.
Jamie was eleven. He had a golden retriever named Spike, and he’d stop by when he was taking the dog for a walk after school. Sara’s wasn’t on his normal dog-walking route. In a few years, he’d be taking similar detours by a girl’s house, with a similar understanding of why it wasn’t out of the way. It was summertime, and Travis would be sitting on the front stoop watching the afternoon go by. They’d talk about the things a young man and a young boy might. Cars and baseball. Computer games. Vacation. Whatcha doin’ this summer? That kind of thing. Spike didn’t talk. He’d just lay his soft russet head on Travis’ lap. He was getting a little grey around the muzzle. A sage without words. He knew of mortality but not the future. The joy of the present. No worries. Chasing balls in the park. Going out with his people. A tasty morsel thrown to him from the table. An expert, leaping catch. Perhaps the covert consumption of a whole angelfood cake from the counter. Ah yes, and an ear-scratch. Please, Travis, scratch my ears. They looked into each other’s eyes and they knew.
The trial ended. Sara and the rest of the block sent Travis and his mom back home with wishes and prayers and balloons. Everything will work out for the best. You look better. Keep us in the loop. We’ve become part of your story, and you part of ours. There were tears of emotion, the kind of emotion you felt looking out the back window of the station wagon as you left your grandmother’s house after a summer stay. Tears rooted in change, separation, sadness at a leaving but not the grief of never seeing again. As they drove away, Jamie asked his mother “why is it people only act kindly towards others in times of crisis?” It wasn’t daylight yet. Many from the block had gathered to see Travis and his mom off. It was best to get an early start. Long drive. Beat the traffic. She started the engine and pulled away. The car’s taillights faded into the approaching dawn. That chapter of grace and caring was closed.
John got word that Travis was near death. During the “joys & sorrows” part of worship at Meeting, he asked that we all hold Travis in the light, that we implore God or whatever name you give the Divine to work a miracle. If it be possible, that this gifted young man be allowed to stay on this earth as a gift to the rest of us. Please ask God to bathe and surround Travis with Your light and love directly and through those around him who knew him, even those who didn’t know him. The request was delivered through sniffles with a cracking voice by a man who knew his request would be lovingly heard by his faith community, not sure of the divinity of Christ but convinced that God is all around us and in us. All we have to do is watch and listen. The weight, the intensity of the request caused Meeting to “sit with it” in prayer and contemplation for a period of silent worship.
It was two weeks later. John spoke out of the silence of worship. Travis had died. He mourned the loss. He related how he and his students had gathered, sharing reminiscences, asking why. How could a caring God take such a jewel from the otherwise thorny crown of humanity? Too soon, too soon, they grieved. Like Sara’s block in Boston, they pulled together to comfort and support each other. They celebrated Travis’ truncated life. A kindness and a tenderness of consolation grew among them. They shared questioning and anger at loss. They themselves grew to be more than just themselves.
Jamie’s question haunted John. Why is it that we only act kindly towards others in times of crisis? Foxhole Christians. We find God when we need him. We don’t have to be like that. We don’t have to accept the model the world has handed us. If God is all around us and in us, ubiquitous, we can choose to tune into that Presence. It will guide us to act kindly toward others today! The miraculous springs from the mundane. Opening a door. Reading to someone. Offering grace. Sharing your dreams while your dog speaks of deeper things. If each of us was intentionally kind for an hour a week, imagine the impact on the world. We can experience the cleared air after the storm. We can live with intensity and joy every day. The miracle was given! We were unaware of its quiet work around us. The caring and sharing. The laying aside of our own agendas to serve another. The beauty, the clarity, the socialness of these creatures we call people, so often maligned. It was the ability to allow our shadows to be bigger than ourselves. It was the ripple across the sea, caused by an act of kindness in response to need. Travis touched so many people. Yes, the miracle had been given.