When we first moved to Texas in 2008, it was for the worst possible reason, and naively, we thought, only for a short time. We rented a house thirty minutes north of Houston. It was a cute house, and it had a pool. To be honest, the only reason we rented it was because we needed a rental period of less than a year and finding a property owner willing to agree to that was becoming a problem. My wife had recently been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer and, after witnessing the confusion regarding her treatment here in Rhode Island, I had done my homework online and found that her best chance of survival was if she was treated at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. We broke the news to the kids, and within weeks found ourselves living in Texas. We rented furniture and swam in the pool. The kids were enrolled in a high school four times the size of their Rhode Island school, I was working remotely from the house, and we were constantly on I-45 between Spring and the Texas Medical Center in downtown Houston.
The house was on a busy neighborhood street. Cars were always speeding by, and it seemed the police were always pulling someone over right in front of the house. When we moved in, the people who lived directly across the street came over to introduce themselves. They were older than we were and had lived in the neighborhood for many years. They could not have been nicer to all of us. Pam, like thousands in Houston, worked for a company involved in the energy sector. Sonny was an artist. Not the paint or clay kind, but in leather. He was a master bootmaker. He only worked a few days a week, but he loved it and was helping his nephew get his cobbler business established by teaching him how to use several of the dedicated machines in the shop. Lisa and Pam hit it off immediately, laughing as much as talking. Pam and I also shared an interest. We both loved To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Sonny and I also hit it off, and soon he was inviting me to go fishing with him to a secret spot on an estate his friend had access to. I cannot overemphasize how kind they were to us and how much it put us at ease having moved our family to a new state for the worst reason.
In those first few weeks, it amazed me how quickly life finds ways to get us to go about our routine, even in the face of devastating news and life-changing decisions. Groceries still need to be purchased, dirty dishes still need to be cleaned, and the grass continued to grow. We had handled the first two eventualities in our new life, but the third one stumped me. I knew we were not going to be in Texas forever. The plan was chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and we’d move back home to Rhode Island, cancer-free and ready to resume life as we knew it. Why would I buy a lawn mower for such a short time? Lisa suggested I ask Sonny if I could borrow his mower for the brief period we expected to be there. I looked across the street and saw Sonny sitting in a lawn chair in his garage looking out over the street. I walked over and asked him if I could borrow his mower – weekly! He never hesitated in saying yes. He got up from his chair, walked me through the side yard into his back yard, and showed me where he hid the key to his shed where he kept the mower, gas can, and all manner of lawn equipment. And so it was that once a week, I would walk across the street, help myself to Sonny’s lawn mower and mow my lawn.
Having grown up on an island, I had done my share of fishing. Either from the causeway connecting Goat Island to downtown Newport, or at the piers where the Navy used to keep its ships, I caught mackerel, choggies, and basically whatever was running. Sometimes I would take a choggie, still on my line and cast it onto the pier where a seagull would swoop down and take it. I would then battle the gull with my fishing pole, reeling it in until it would release the fish and fly away. I used to take the squid I’d caught and bring them to my grandparent’s house where I would clean them for my great-grandmother to cook. I once went deep-sea fishing with my college roommate on his father’s charter fishing boat. I was allowed, between vomiting and violent seasickness, to fight and reel in a 636 pound Bluefin tuna. I share this background in fishing because the one time I was able to go fishing with Sonny, you would have thought I’d never seen a pole before, much less what to do when I caught a fish. Everything I did that day was a disaster. I jammed my reel trying to cast. I dropped fish I’d caught. I almost fell into the lake trying to put a fish onto the string we had set up in the water to hold the caught fish. But it didn’t matter. I was spending time with one of the gentlest, kindest men I had ever met, deep in the unknown parts of Texas. I had a beautiful day. One of those days that you know, while it’s happening, that you are creating a memory that will last forever.
When we returned to Texas because Lisa’s cancer had returned, this time not temporarily, but until the end, we moved back to the same town, but not the same subdivision. Such were the vagaries of real estate options available to us. And while we lived across town from Sonny and Pam, we still kept in touch and were always invited to their family Christmas Eve party. I no longer needed Sonny’s lawnmower. Having moved permanently, I bought a mower. As Lisa became sicker, we limited our time visiting and when Lisa died the kids and I knew it was time to go back home to Rhode Island.
I can’t say I liked much about Texas. But meeting Sonny and Pam was one of the great highlights from our eight years there. I heard from Pam the other day that Sonny isn’t doing too well these days. I can only hope that he continues to do as well as possible for as long as possible. This world needs people like Sonny and Pam, perhaps now more than ever before. I count them among the nicest people I have ever met. I can’t thank them enough for how well they treated Lisa and the kids during the most difficult time in their lives. There are very few people we encounter in life who show us the grace and compassion we wish we could display at all times and for which we would like to be remembered. Sonny and Pam are two of those people.