When I was a senior in high school, I was blessed with an instructor who would become a mentor and lifelong friend. Richard Enemark, my English teacher and college advisor extraordinaire, didn’t just push me to be a better reader, writer, listener, speaker; he didn’t just convince me that there were institutions out there that might consider me a worthy candidate for my writing ability, if not my test scores. He began by giving me the most remarkable gift one human being can give another. Which was, quite simply, this: Richard, bless his heart, believed in me. He was sure I had a story that deserved to be told, and a voice that deserved to tell it. When I was frightened and timid and not at all inclined to draw attention to myself, Richard helped me find the tools I needed to succeed, in academics and beyond.
And in that lucky fashion that only the passage of time permits, I eventually realized that my remarkable teacher wasn’t so far ahead of me on the road to adulthood. Our lives just happened to intersect at the exact moment when he was launching himself into what would become his life’s work, and while I was on that youthful cusp, back when the concept of being a certifiable grownup was still light-years beyond anything I could fathom. As a seventeen-year-old, I presumed that someone old enough to be an authority figure in my life must also have been a generation ahead of me. It barely occurred to me that this teacher might one day be both the mentor who pointed me in directions I didn’t dare dream of, and a friend I would treasure forever.
Four years later, when I was about to graduate from college, Richard came to visit, and introduced me to Nancy, the new love of his life. They were both aglow when I met them at my door. It was the most stunning example of two people being meant for one another that I’ve ever encountered, then or since. At Richard’s insistence, Nancy set out a portfolio of her recent drawings before us, each image more extraordinary than the last. Richard stood behind her, offering his delighted impressions where Nancy demurred, too modest to make such declarations about her own work. It was the first time I witnessed what would become their long and loving stretch as each other’s greatest supporter and champion.
Years passed. Richard and Nancy were married in their back yard, as my beloved and I watched on. We all changed jobs, became parents, and moved on in our lives. We never lived in the same area code, but we remained fast friends despite the distances. Back before the advent of cell phones, I devised a shorthand indicator of couples’ companionability, which went something like this: if you called a fellow husband and wife at home, and you are truly delighted to speak to whichever one of them picks up, that’s a gift from the gods. The Enemarks epitomized this concept in spades.
I grew to love Nancy as I had long adored Richard. We all looked forward to getting together on special occasions, braving the Cape Cod surf, taking in the New Year’s fireworks with plenty of bubbly, lingering over meals until way past our bedtimes, then picking over the celebratory leftovers the next morning at breakfast, with the coffeemaker on perma-brew.
And then, without warning, Nancy got what we all fear: the mammogram call-back. Then the follow up. The tests. The treatment. The side effects. And sadly, in Nancy’s case, bad news upon bad news, over and over.
Needless to say, what Nancy had was a zillion times worse than what I’ve been dealing with, even though it has the same first name. She was visited by the nastiest sorts of carcinomas, the mean, wild, relentless, take-no-prisoners kind. Hers never went away, just kept wheedling its way back, uninvited. And in the end, decades ahead of what should have been the length of her days, it took Nancy away from us, and with it, took her amazing talents and her amazing kindness and her amazing fortitude, and left us all bereft.
So now, when people want to put that “hero” label on me, or even the “survivor” tag, for making it through the past six months with a modicum of cheerfulness, it’s Nancy I think of—Nancy, and Richard, and their extraordinary life together. What they encountered, what their family has endured—that was a battle. My experience has been the tiniest of skirmishes, a mere bump in the road. The worst of it is behind me. I have no malignant outlier cells, no fights looming to be fought anon. I’m no hero.
I think of Nancy often, particularly around Mother’s day, and commencement days. I thought of her again when I posted that photo of myself, in my combat-duty straw hat. Nancy could wear hats like nobody’s business, pre- and post-chemo. She’d have liked my take on headwear, wigs and otherwise. She was amazing. She was a hero.
As is Richard: teacher, mentor, and the best and kindest of friends. For helping me, when I needed his help the most, and for being there for his loved ones, at every step along the way.