It said, "We home."
That's not text speak. Ronnie, him, is as Cajun as they come, non? That's the way he talks.
He had told me that they were going to get to go home for a bit and that I needed to come by before they left. Sure. Big dumb me, I didn't understand the significance of this.
Ronnie patted me on the back as we headed to the apartment they were staying in at UAMS.
"She may cry on you," he said. "I hope you OK with that."
Alicia stood up as I walked into the apartment. Alicia came to me with her arms spread wide. How tiny she felt in my arms. She looked up at me. She was beaming.
"I'm in remission Paul," she said. "That's why we get to go home."
Remission. Thank God.
Things looked pretty grim when I first met them back in October. I remember that Sunday afternoon vividly. I had gotten a text from my buddy Chris Riviere from somewhere in the deer woods in South Louisiana. It said he was hunting with a friend who had a relative in the med school here with myeloma. He asked me if I could check on her and report back. Sure. No problem. Little did I suspect that I was embarking on one of the most amazing journeys of my life.
As I said at the time, it must be sufficiently awful to have cancer. But to be sick away from home, in a place where nobody knows you, has to be the loneliest feeling on the planet. Especially when you don't talk like nobody in dat hospital and nobody talk like you. Me? I was but a tenuous connection to all they held dear. I was available and I speak the language. But when your world has been been completely turned upside down, perhaps those tenuous connections to your former reality are good enough for the short term. In any event, it had to do.
Truth be told, I needed Ronnie and Alicia too. Certainly more than they needed me. I had been retired maybe 2 weeks when I got the call from LaFourche Parish. I, too, to a lesser extent felt loosened from my moorings. I felt completely useless and adrift. Looking back on it now through the crystalline lens of retrospection I understand why those early days were so completely traumatic. Work was pretty much all I had. At least that is how I defined myself, even despite my other interests and activities. Which is no way to run a life. I know that now. So while I hated the circumstances that brought us together on that day last October, I was grateful for the opportunity to help someone. To be useful again.
Of course, in those days they were staying in an RV park in Maumelle. They would drive to Little Rock for treatments and then drive back to Maumelle. Although Alicia enjoyed seeing a real autumn and Ronnie enjoyed the room, it must have enhanced their loneliness and feelings of isolation to be stuck out there.
My main use was to sit and visit with them at UAMS. I came to learn that cancer patients spend a lot of time waiting around. And so I spent many an hour at the Winthrop Rockefeller Cancer Center shooting the bull while Alicia was hooked up to a pole. I provided the occasional taxi service. And I sicced the Methodists on them.
When they returned in January, they rented an apartment there on the campus at UAMS. I took them on a little tour of Hillcrest. They liked it here. They could go to Mass down the road at Holy Souls. The Kroger store was equally convenient. I made them dinner one night. They enjoyed being in a house. And they were 200 yards away from the clinic instead of across the Arkansas River. Ronnie didn't much like the close quarters but Alicia felt more secure there in case of inclement weather. Alicia came down with a sinus infection that damn near killed her which I worried she caught from me. But she eventually got over that. Again, thank God.
We didn't see each other much when they came back in March. I was working again by then, both part time for a consumer protection agency, and I was also doing some free lance writing. That was OK. They didn't need me so much anymore seeing as how they knew their way around and Alicia's treatments didn't seem so debilitating this go-around. In fact, I ran into them one day last week in the parking lot at Kroger. Just folks from the neighborhood.
I marvelled then at how much had changed since those dreadful days back in October. And now she has been given the best news of all. She will have to take chemo pills once a month and they will have to return to UAMS for checkups with the same frequency. But that's nothing. They view these trips back to Little Rock as a chance to visit me and to maybe do some things in their second hometown now that the crisis has based. Mais, Ronnie him, he say he wants to go to Copeland's (a New Orleans chain restaurant) when they come back in 2 weeks. Says he's buying. You're on, mah bah.
I've changed too. I've learned-really learned- that everyday is a gift. While I'm grateful beyond measure for these opportunities that have fallen from the sky I will never define myself solely by my work again. And I will never be anything but grateful for my great good fortune and my robust good health. I'm in a good spot. I get to feel my way through things. That's a luxury and I know it. I really know it.
Friday night, Ronnie asked me if I would join him in a glass. Being the consummate gentleman that I am I gratefully accepted.
I gallantly held out my glass of Amaretto on the rocks.
"To good news, and to going home," I said.
"To good news and to going home," came the responsorial.
"You know Paul," Alicia said. "I don't know the last time I ever felt this good."
Neither me, Cher. Neither me.