My friend Steve Malone passed away this morning.
A few months ago, right after I moved to Nashville, I got a call from Steve. I wasn't able to take it for whatever reason and I got a voice message asking me to call him back. The next day I got another call from Steve that I was unable to take. The message this time was somber, explaining that he really needed me to call him back because he had something heavy to tell me.
For better and worse, I have a pretty vivid imagination. During the fifteen seconds it took me to end the voice message and dial his number I had already fully conjured up about ten scenarios of impending doom. I won't share them here, but I will say that I'd rather all ten of them be true than what he actually did tell me...which was that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For those of you unfamiliar with this cancer, it is one of the worst because it usually metastasizes before it is discovered . Ninety-five percent of the people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within five years.
I didn't know much of this information as Steve was telling me the news. But as he spoke I quickly took advantage of my internet browser and sat dumbfounded and trembling as I began to compute that my friend Steve was going to die sooner than later. He sounded brave but rattled and I didn't want to add to any of his anxiety by weeping on the phone. We exchanged some loving and friendly words, agreed that we'd all fight this together and that we'd be in touch as often as possible. I hung up and went about my day in mild shock resigning myself to the wonders of science and medicine and hoping that Steve would be in that top five percent who lived more than five years.
Three days later I was standing in the shower sobbing uncontrollably, feeling very confused and lost, but mostly sad. A very heavy, cold sadness.
That weekend me and all "the boys" (Steve's endearing phrase for a tight-knit group of his closest friends) had our last hang on his porch. We all sat close and had some good wine and whiskey. The night was filled with beautiful laughter and thoughtful conversation. At the end of the night Steve began to tell us what the next few weeks of treatment would look like. "The fight is on...", he said. We all sat there very still and very quiet. Steve had grown quite tired so after a round of hugs he went up to bed. We stayed a while and did our best to clean the mess we had made. Melanie kindly assured us we could all spend the night but we respectfully declined and went to a bar to quietly talk about Steve and his cancer into the early morning.
That was the last time we were all together and the last time I saw Steve as I've always remembered him. Quiet, calm and steady. Courage isn't the absence of fear. Courage is strength and kindness in spite of fear. That's how I remember Steve that night and I'm thankful to have been with him and the boys.
Several weeks of treatment went by. There were many ups and downs with Steve's physical health. Most of it is documented here, a blog that both Steve and Melanie created to keep everyone updated. It's also filled with many beautiful poems and essays. Melanie asked me to turn one of their favorite poems into a hymn. You can find it here.
I spent most of April and May out on the road making music. There was a day in April that I happened to be in Birmingham playing for a wedding. I had flown in from Kansas City and only had a few days before I had to get back to a tour. I called to see about a visit but I was unable to get a hold of anyone. Isbelle and I went by the house anyway and were met at the door by an unusually distraught Melanie telling us that it was not a good day for a visit. Their priest had just shown up to offer them communion in their home. After some tears we hugged her goodbye and slowly made our way to back to the car, disappointed and heavy. I guess at that point I knew it was getting pretty bad.
Melanie, Steve and I exchanged poems and songs via e-mail, continuing a tradition we've had for several years now. From some of these e-mails and the blog updates I realized that Steve was in his last days. Isbelle and I planned a trip for Birmingham, again in between tours, and I wrote Melanie to see if it would be possible to visit Steve. She warmly responded that they would love to have us and that in a time when they were turning away most visitors, I was one of the few that had an open visiting policy. At this point all treatment for the cancer had been abandoned and hospice was visiting several times a week. To use Melanie's words they had made their transition from "fighting to surrendering." Since Steve was on morphine Melanie warned me that he might be a little out of it and encouraged me to bring some poetry to read or play some songs on my guitar.
We packed up in Nashville and hit the road two days ago (5/21/11) to visit Steve and Melanie. When we came in we were asked to wait downstairs while they moved Steve from the chair to the bed. Something as simple as this was now very exhausting for Steve. He was having a lot of trouble breathing at the end and, for reasons I totally empathize with, this caused him a lot of anxiety. Before I went up I asked Melanie what the best posture should be. Should I ask questions? Should I just talk? Is it okay to cry? She was very comforting and encouraging and assured me that if I cried it wouldn't upset him.
We all went up together. Although I had been thoroughly prepared, I was still shocked to see Steve. He was, of course, bald due to his brave attempts with chemo. He was extremely thin (although I'm told that he had actually gained weight since they were able to switch to a liquid diet). He was having trouble catching his breath and he seemed a bit dazed. I sat on the end of his bed and he took my hand. He asked me how Nashville was...he said it seemed like I had been busy. I told him I missed my Birmingham friends and he said that they missed me too. I did my best to nonchalantly talk about all the traveling I'd done over the last few months. We all did a lot of laughing and I could tell that Steve was really happy that we were all around him talking and sharing life. After about thirty minutes he asked for morphine. Melanie was going to give it to him and then give me a few minutes alone with Steve to say goodbye. I stood up to give Melanie room and Steve grabbed my hand tight, looked me in the eye and said he loved me. I held his hand back and assured him that I wasn't leaving, that I had a few more things I wanted to say.
Melanie gave him the morphine and as soon as everyone was out the door I lost it. I held Steve's hands and sobbed. I told him that he was one of the best friends I had ever had. I told him I loved him and that I was so sad that he wasn't well. He fought for breath and told me that he believed we live on, somehow. I smiled and told him I sure hoped so. I stood up, hugged him, told him I was so thankful I got to see him and that I hoped I'd see him again soon. I kissed his head and left the room. He passed away less than 48 hours later.
In the nearly ten years I have known Steve he has been as true and steady a friend as any I've ever had. He never flinched, not once, at who I was. He was a constant source of encouragement. He was a great keeper of space, patience and process.
There are not enough words for me to fully pay tribute to Steve Malone. For now it just feels good to say that he was my great friend. And that I will always think kind thoughts about him.