(Aug. 11, 2012) I’m running to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” I’m in San Francisco. Blue sky. Setting sun. Only the peaks of the Golden Gate Bridge are visible as the fog rolls in. Surreal.
Earlier I spoke to about 2,000 Mormon college students at a conference in Oakland. They attend Stanford, Berkley and a slew of Bay Area schools. Smart, hip and driven, they are aspiring musicians, journalists, lawyers, filmmakers, doctors, fashion designers, and entrepreneurs. They applauded me. But I bow to them. If Mitt ever figured out how to marshal their talents, this sonic youth movement could rock the vote.
Jeff Benedict with Mormon students in Oakland, California. Photo by Josh Sa.
But now I’m alone on the edge of San Francisco Bay, taking in this place before I catch a flight to New York. A pretty woman walked past, her head nestled in a guy’s shoulder, like in the movies, a breeze whipping her hair into his face. Lucky guy.
San Francisco just puts you in the mood for love. But my love isn’t here. Lydia spent last week in Utah, visiting her 44-year-old brother Doug. He’s a leukemia patient at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City. It’s a state-of-the-art treatment facility, thanks to the generosity and vision of billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr. He used some of the fortune he made in chemicals to create Four Seasons care for very sick people.
Jon Huntsman, Sr., outside the Huntsman Cancer Center.
My brother-in-law lives near the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. When he was diagnosed with advanced stage leukemia back in June, I wanted him transferred to Huntsman. But my brother-in-law can’t afford premium health care. He’s blue-collar. No investment portfolio. He lives check to check with wife and five children to support. What to do?
I have a friend (he wouldn’t want his name revealed) who is one of Jon Huntsman’s business partners. I emailed him. It was a Saturday and he’s the kind of guy who could be anywhere in the world on any given day. Sometimes when I email him I don’t hear from him for days or longer.
Within an hour I got a reply. He had already called a senior administrator at Huntsman. By afternoon that administrator contacted me. Then my wife and I got a call at home from Dr. Michael Deininger, Chief of the Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies Division at Huntsman. He said he would personally oversee Doug’s care.
I’m not making this up. Deininger earned his PhD in leukemia biology at the Imperial College in London and trained in Internal Medicine and Bone Marrow Transplantation at Nuremberg General Hospital. He has extensive experience treating patients with acute and chronic leukemias, patients like my brother-in-law.
Team Huntsman arranged an airlift for Doug from Albuquerque to the cancer institute. Shortly after his arrival, my wife got an email from Doug’s nurse at Huntsman, Mary Lowe. She wanted to know Doug’s favorite dessert.
The next day Doug received a homemade cheesecake with fresh strawberries. Mary made it herself in her off time.
“It’s not just drugs and chemo,” Dr. Deininger told me. “It’s people taking care of people. The psyche-social support is big.”
Nurse Mary Lowe and Dr. Deininger. Photo by Jeff Benedict
Doug is bald now. He gets winded so easy. His immune system is on par with a newborn. He cries easily. But he wants to live. Dr. Deininger also told me that family plays a critical role in the success of cancer patients. That’s why Lydia spent last week in Utah. She cooked him salmon and fresh vegetables, talked late into the night, took him for walks in the sunlight, and drove him to daily hospital appointments.
With Lydia away I averaged four hours sleep a night. I spent my days doing what she usually does – maintaining our gardens, taking kids swimming, cooking meals with vegetables I picked, brushing tangles out of my daughter’s hair, and keeping house. At night I did what I usually do – writing, reporting, and transcribing interviews.
Hence not much time for sleep. Truth be told, I never sleep much when we’re apart. I don’t like sleeping alone. That’s why I’m so productive when I travel. I stay up really late and get up super early. A vacancy in the bedroom just leaves me restless in the dark.
Yet I’m a BIG believer in spouses spending time apart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I learned this when we were dating. We thought we were in love. But we didn’t know we were until we spent a summer on opposite coasts. That’s when we realized we couldn’t live without each other.
In marriage it’s good to be reminded of that. It makes the moments together more like the love of novels. Lydia flew home from Utah Thursday night. We had one night in the same zip code before I left for San Francisco, then onto New York, DC and Boston.
Lydia Benedict. Photo by Jeff Benedict
I practically ran people off the road en route to the airport to get her. It’s exhilarating to want a woman that much. After a perfect embrace we went shopping at one of her favorite clothing stores and ate dinner at our favorite restaurant. It was storybook – the sautéed beets, the lazy jazz music, the conversation, the curve of her lips. Then we drove home and stayed up ridiculously late talking.
We did the same things when we fell in love in Seattle in the 80s. We’d eat really late dinners on the waterfront and then I’d take her home and we’d sit in her driveway for hours, just talking. Her parents thought we were doing something else in the dark car. But we were really just talking. Every time! We were so fascinated with each other’s thoughts and opinions and dreams. Now that we’re in our mid-forties, I’m infatuated.
I want my daughters to be loved this way. I want them to meet boys smitten by their outward beauty, yet fascinated by what’s beneath the skin. I’m talking about boys that care about what books my daughters read; what musical instruments they play; what poems they cherish. I want a boy that cares about her dreams as much as his.
Maggie and Clara Belle Benedict. Photo by Jeff Benedict
I’m talking about boys that don’t casually view pornography. There’s nothing casual about porn. I want a boy whose image of girls isn’t warped by what is so easy to see on their touchscreen. If one of those boys gets close to my girls – they aren’t hard to spot – I intend to send him howling. I’ve got ways.
My girls know this. I read to them every night that I’m home. Our favorite book is Julie Andrews’ collection of poems, songs and lullabies. It includes Steven Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around.” I read the lyrics to my girls often. While Lydia was away, I gathered my girls on my bed for story time and to hear Barbara Streisand sing Sondheim’s song:
Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around.
Nothing's gonna harm you, no sir, not while I'm around.
Demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays,
I'll send 'em howling,
I don't care, I got ways.
No one's gonna hurt you,
No one's gonna dare.
Others can desert you,
Not to worry, whistle, I'll be there.
Being close and being clever
Ain't like being true
I don't need to,
I would never hide a thing from you,
When it ended, my girls said: “Daddy, can we listen to that again?”
That’s music to my ears.