Our 6-year-old, Tess, was outside with the other children raking the mulch. I looked out the window and saw her bouncing across the yard atop a wheelbarrow full of mulch, giggling.
Troy lay in our darkened bedroom overwhelmed with pain. Fifteen months before, he had been diagnosed with appendix cancer. My knight in shining armor, who carried me on his shoulders, the man I called the mountain goat because he could walk up the steepest hills, now cowered in our bedroom afraid to be seen in such a thin and vulnerable state. When the social worker from hospice asked Troy how our friends, who wanted so badly to do something, could help, Troy suggested they could clean up the knee-high weeds in our yard. He said he didn’t want the outside of our home to reflect the battle going on inside.
“Everyone’s asking about you,” I said to Troy, sitting on the edge of his bed. “Do you have the energy to go out and say hi?”
Troy was crestfallen. “I just can’t do it, Gin.” His voice had gotten weaker, more gravely.
The weight he lost left him bony and frail. His cheeks were sunken. He was still bald from the chemo, and his eyes had a deep, hollow sadness. We were both so angry that the cancer was winning — struggling to come to terms with the idea that Troy would not be around much longer to greet his friends, hug his wife, play with his daughter.
“I don’t want our friends to think I don’t care,” he said. “I’m just so tired.”
“I’ll let them know you just aren’t up to it.” I lay down beside him. Troy needed the comfort of my arms around him. Or maybe it was Troy who was comforting me.
I brushed away a tear and hugged him tighter and told him over and over how much I loved him, how strong he was and how much he could never ever disappoint me or his friends. He had fought so much harder than I could ever imagine, endured so many indignities throughout this process.
But we had to do one extremely important thing today. It was for Tess and her future well-being. So, I started the conversation while lying there beside him.
“I know you are tired, and I hate to push you, but I really think that this is a good time to talk to Rylan.” I talked faster so I wouldn’t chicken out. “I know you don’t have the energy to go outside, but would you be okay with me asking just Rylan to come in so we can talk about what we discussed?”
Troy looked at me with a mixture of anger and sadness. I knew he didn’t want to talk to anyone, but he said, “Okay.”
I kissed him on the forehead and walked out to find Rylan.
The energy in the back yard was overwhelming. Everyone was yelling from one side of the yard to the other, sharing jokes and quips about everything from styles of gardening clothes to buried treasures found from our family dog. I stepped over a rake on the back deck and tried to sneak over to Rylan.
Rylan was talking with Glenna and Erin about where to place the geraniums. I pulled him aside and asked him if he would mind coming inside with me because Troy and I had something important to talk to him about.
Rylan’s long hair was tied back in a ponytail and he wore the ball cap Troy had designed for an ultimate Frisbee team they were on together. He walked inside to where Troy lay in our bed propped up by the wedge cushion and other pillows that the hospice worker had helped us arrange.
Rylan was one of Troy’s closest friends. He has twins only a couple of years younger than Tess, and he and Troy co-captained ultimate Frisbee teams, planned the local Cramp-Up Frisbee tournament together, and drank gin and tonic out of Frisbees and shots of tequila from a plank they designed just for their team, Pirates de Amore.
This cheerful and buoyant man, known for his burning man–like costumes on stilts at Halloween, his knack for always arriving at the perfect time to a party, and his Buddha-like spirit, walked in. Dressed in his grubby work clothes, he stopped short of the couch we always tried to keep from grime and dirt.
“Please sit down,” I told Rylan as I walked past him to sit on the side of the bed nearest Troy. Troy opened his eyes and smiled at Rylan.
Rylan stayed standing. “I don’t want to mess up your sofa, man.”
“Dude, given what we have been through, that couch is the least of our worries,” Troy said managing a little laugh.
I started the conversation because I knew it was too taxing for Troy. After 15 months of traveling on the cancer highway to hell, I had become quite adept at walking the line between allowing Troy control of a situation and being available to speak when he was too exhausted.
“Rylan,” I said, “we need another favor. This one is pretty big so please let us know if it is too much.” I couldn’t talk for a minute. I looked at Troy. He nodded, his eyes telling me to go on.
Nearly 10 years earlier, my boss, Steve, the executive director of a local nonprofit, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 44. I was shocked to find out Steve had terminal cancer, and I was moved and inspired by a story I heard from a co-worker who had known Steve for many years. He and four of Steve’s other close friends had been asked to be “funcles,” father-uncles, for Steve’s sons after Steve died. The funcles would be there for the boys, who were 11 and 13 years old, to help guide them through the rough patches of adolescence, share stories about their dad, and provide them with a sense of fun the way Steve would have done were he still there.
I paused after explaining this, looked at Troy. Troy’s eyes were tired and sad. Admitting out loud that he was never going to see his daughter play her first piano recital, graduate high school or walk her down the aisle rendered him mute. He looked down. I turned to Rylan.
“We want you to be a funcle for Tess, Rylan.” I willed myself to stop crying. “We want you to share Troy’s love of outdoors with her, and teach her to play ultimate Frisbee. And help me take her camping.”
It was quiet for a long time as we all wept. We were all admitting Troy would not be here much longer. Finally, I looked at Rylan again. “You don’t have to decide today. Take your time. We know this is a big request.”
Rylan snapped to and said. “No, I mean, YES! I would be honored to be there for Tess.”
It was awkward for us all. How do you say goodbye when you know it is your last goodbye? “I love ya, man,” Rylan said. “We all love ya. All those people are out there because they love you. You know that, right?”
“I know the truth, dude,” Troy smiled at his friend. “They’re just here for the free pizza and PBRs.”
Rylan was the only funcle that Troy and I got to talk to together. We chose Michael and Richard, both set designers, like Troy, to support Tess in her understanding of the world of art, theater and design. Paul, Tess’s godfather, would continue to support Tess in her love of cooking and gardening, as well as in science and art projects. Joe, with his infinite patience for children, would share Troy’s love of the outdoors, athletics and sheer joy at playing ultimate Frisbee. And Troy’s brother, Michael, would pass along family history and teach Tess how to barbecue.
Within two weeks Troy was dead. My mind was foggy, and I was numb, but in one month Tess would turn 7. I had to pull myself together for her.
Rylan knew what to do. He asked all Troy’s Frisbee friends to contribute to a gift for Tess in honor of Troy. While Tess was in school, Rylan came in grinning with Jay right behind him carrying a toolbox. While I changed out of my pajamas, they began unloading a long, heavy box out of Jay’s truck. This 15-foot trampoline was the ultimate in fun and safety, Rylan explained doing a little happy dance.
“It has the net all the way around, and each of the poles has extra padding,” Rylan pointed out, ripping the cardboard box to put it in the recycling. “AND,” he continued, “Look at this!” His joy was so contagious that I found myself smiling just listening to him. “This light attaches underneath the trampoline! When she jumps, it lights up!”
By the time I took the heel-toe express to get Tess from school (that’s what Troy called walking), a bunch more Frisbee friends had come over to witness the surprise. Tess shrugged off her backpack.
The dining room was dark because I had closed the curtains so Tess wouldn’t see outside. Tess looked down at 3-year-old Cohen tugging on her clothes, and up at the grown-ups smiling at her. She was completely bewildered.
Rylan had a note he offered to read out loud, which included a graphic created during Troy’s illness. It was a fist with a “T” in the center.
“Dear Tess, We want to do something special for you — for your birthday, and just for fun. We were the ones that Daddy Troy played with, and this gift is in the spirit of the love for outdoor fun, fitness, and friendship that we shared with him. The T-Fist stands for you now too, Tess. We love you. PLAY ON!”
Rylan guided Tess to the back door. She smiled but held herself stiffly, still unsure of what was happening. “Close your eyes,” Rylan said. We all shuffled around to see her and try to stay out of the way at the same time. He covered Tess’s eyes and guided her to the trampoline. Then all was revealed. She looked at it. She waited for an explanation. She looked over at me.
“What do you think?” I said.
“Do you like it?” Rylan asked.
Tess was too short to get on by herself so Rylan lifted her up. She dutifully got on the trampoline and began to jump. After about five minutes, she finally looked at me and said, “When do we have to give this back? After my birthday party?”
“You get to keep this,” I said. “It’s yours!” Tess’s face lit up with joy. She ran around the edge of the trampoline in a circle with big strides. Then she bounced in the center higher and higher. The excitement in her voice growing.
“Really? I get to keep it?!”
Tess and Cohen then jumped on opposite sides of the trampoline and chased one another around the edge. Rylan crawled through the opening of the net and jumped with them. To see this gentle giant, with his long legs and a contagious laugh bouncing up and down and celebrating life with Tess crushed my heart. It was the beginning of my realization that Troy would never again be physically with us yet through these funcles he would never be gone.
In the three years since Troy’s death, each funcle has found their moment to shine in Tess’s life. Uncle Mike did teach her to barbecue ribs, showing 8-year-old Tess how to make Troy’s secret sauce. The first Christmas after Troy died, Paul and Michael designed a new angel with Tess to fit on top of the tree. Rylan and Joe hosted an Olympic Games for the kids to celebrate Troy on the anniversary of his death. Richard provides fabulous photos of costume and set designs from the theater where Troy worked.
Having six funcles requires effort. I struggle to stay in touch with them all and keep them up-to-date about Tess’s life. They forget the anniversaries that are so ingrained in me, and I have to remind them about Tess’s school performances, science fair and even her birthday. It’s frustrating sometimes, but it also makes me laugh: Troy was never good about remembering dates. Having the funcles for Tess is a bit like having a prosthetic. They allow Tess (and me) to function more successfully, but they will never be as good at the real thing.
I called Rylan the other day. I looked out the window at Tess jumping on the trampoline and asked him about his memories of the garden party and Troy, and how he felt when we asked him to be a funcle.
“At first I was in shock.” He said with a bit of a crack in his voice. “I felt so helpless. As a man, I guess I like to fix things. When he asked me to be a funcle and to help Tess, I was relieved. He gave me something I could do.”
Ginny Auer is Founder of Live Huge Productions, though which she hopes to empower others to live their lives to the fullest with the help stories that heal and inspire. Auer has written for Brain Child Magazine and narrated books for Audible and Harper Collins. You can follow her at livehuge.org.
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