Goodbye, my friend

The man in this photograph died 48 hours after it was taken.

My friend Steve O’Malley knew the cancer ravaging his pancreas would do the same to him, little by little, pound by pound, until there was nothing left.

Not without a fight, though. Dear God, how he fought. All for a few days of good news before the next somber test result.

There came a point, though, when he stopped fighting. Stopped fighting against the cancer staging chart. Stopped fighting to reclaim a few millimeters of himself from the malignant killer that didn’t hide its face anymore. Stopped fighting to heal the withered body he would soon leave behind.

What he started fighting for was worth infinitely more.

To warm his wife Linda one last time with the touch of his calloused hands.

To kiss her one last time.

To tell his children one last time that he loved them.

To share one last cigarette and cup of coffee and laugh with the formerly drunk old men who had carried him along sobriety’s steep, narrow path for years.

To give one last gift.

It stands in the corner of Steve’s basement, at the foot of a flight of stairs he willed himself to descend, step by trembling step. It’s wrapped in a long yellow ribbon in anticipation of this moment, the final time we would see each other in this life.

It’s Steve’s golf bag and clubs. And he wants to give all of it to me.

I’d watched Steve swing those clubs hundreds of times since I became his friend over 20 years ago, at a golf outing on a sweltering July afternoon, when my dad first introduced me to the long-haired buddy he’d nicknamed “the hippie.”

On the golf course, he wore a smile his bushy mustache couldn’t hide because he was playing a game he loved with the friends he loved so much more.

I savored those days and those games not only for the competition, but for the small moments in between the shots. That’s when Steve would stand close to me and we would catch up on life, on the world, on each other, and how bad we still were at this game after all these years.

Dad and Steve and me would linger in the parking lot long after the bogeys and pars and birdies had been tallied, laughing with – and sometimes at – each other, ribbing each other as men are quick to do. We’d finish with a hug and a commitment to do it all over again soon, a safe routine I never fully appreciated until now, when I realized it will never happen again.

I rub the yellow ribbon around the bag between my fingers, grief and gratitude welling up in my eyes, and Steve is standing beside me one last time. He wraps a broomstick-thin arm around my waist and he murmurs, in a voice that cancer has ground down to a dusty rasp, how much he loves me, how much he wants me to have these, how much he’ll miss me.

It’s my turn to embrace him, carefully. He is little more than loose joints and frail bones now, a man with nothing left but peace for the journey awaiting him. I press my cheek against his and whisper my love for him, tell him to save me a tee time because I don’t want to miss the next course we’ll play together.

I help him back into his rocking chair and ask if I can take a few pictures. I strain to give the request a casual note but I know he hears the finality pressing into it.

His smile grants silent permission, and he playfully smooths his thinning hair before beckoning Linda to his side, then my parents, then my wife, then me.

We smile, we laugh, we joke, we cherish these final few minutes together, and the love that appears in its purest form at the end of all things.

Of the tens of thousands of photos I’ve taken over the years, these were the hardest.

They will also be among my most cherished because, in the last photographs of his life, Steve is free.

Finally.

Forever.

Goodbye, my friend.

Welcome home.

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