Just when you thought you knew someone

 

This is a story of my friend Ben. I had the honor of working with Ben at Goodwill for about four years, give or take. He was about my sons’ age. Ben is a squirrely sort of dude. Think typical IT nerd, complete with glasses (no, they weren’t taped up), a book worm. Born to study, born to learn. Quirky sense of humor. Sometimes exposing itself at the wrong time, leading some to think him a bit socially awkward.

Whenever you needed something, Ben was there. Willing to pitch in and help. Many of you have heard of my “Creek Days”, those days once a year when I enlist as many friends as I can to help me remove trees from the creek behind my house. It is wet, muddy, backbreaking work. Ben was always the first one to volunteer each year, wearing a PS2 cable as a belt (“hey, I didn’t want to ruin a good belt!”). I told you…a bit quirky. Only two people have ever come to Creek Day more than once. In the five years of conducting Creek Days, Ben only missed once.

Over the years, Ben would pop into my office to talk. We shared many stories, stories of family, of friends, of life and music. 

I loved Ben’s story about meeting his wife Taleigha. He had two tickets to the Foo Fighters and no one to go with, so he posted on Craig’s list. Taleigha answered. They had moved in together a few months later, and were married a soon after. I had the pleasure of meeting Taleigha a couple of times when she visited Ben at the office. She had the brightest most beautiful smile, especially when she talked of Ben. Theirs was a beautiful love story. But with a dark side. Taleigha had cancer…brain cancer. I have never seen two people fight so hard. Fight against the disease, fight against the healthcare system, fight against all the odds.

They lost that fight and Taleigha passed away on June 17, 2018.

A few weeks after she passed, family and friends were gathered to remember her. It was the first time I had seen Ben since her passing. There he was, looking awkward in his suit, greeting everyone that attended. I hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, and barely croaked out the words “Bennie, I’m sorry, there are no words” between my own tears. How he continued to hold it together I will never know…shock maybe.

The service was a beautiful tribute to Taleigha. Her family and friends remembering her through their words and music. The pastor, who had known Taleigha since she moved to the area, and who had married them eight short years ago, spoke of Taleigha and her love of music and animals and people. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. And then…and then…and then Ben made his way to the pulpit. There are no words to describe the strength, resolve, and tenderness as he read his words…their love story…pausing only once or twice to maintain his composure. I cannot do it justice, so instead, I leave you with Ben’s own words.

“Almost two weeks from today, July 27th, will mark 10 years to the day that I met Taleigha Lugenia Victoria Elizabeth Clayton, now Frederick. We bonded quickly, that day, over a shared love of science fiction — particularly the X-Files — and through the hope that had been reignited in our hearts by a young senator from Illinois. We hadn’t planned for more than lunch, but decided to see the brand new X-Files movie released two days prior. It was an absolutely terrible movie, made better with great company.

The moment I first walked into her apartment, a week later, and was greeted affectionately — like an old friend — by her “shy, aloof” cat Mayo, I think we both knew that we had found in each other a partner who complimented our best selves.

Taleigha told me that night about her brain tumor. She wanted to make sure I was okay dating someone (it had been a week and, yes, we were dating) who had fought through such a dramatic battle against cancer. My reaction was to hug her tight, and to give her the first of many thousand kisses I would give her over the years. It was truly the beginning of our life together.

Five months later, we celebrated with friends as that young senator was elected as the first African American President of the United States. A month later, she had moved in with me — my new roommate. We knew we were far more and that we would be together the rest of our lives. Six months later our family unit would become complete when our beloved cat Mara joined, at Taleigha’s urging. We would later mourn that completeness, as we both wanted a family together — more than even the cats could provide.

From a proposal on the beach in Florida, to moving into our new home — not “Ben’s Condo” anymore but “our home” — to a wedding at the heart of this very city surrounded by many of the same friends and family here today.

And for a time, things were good. We traveled, dined, fought, saw concerts, and enjoyed each other’s company and the company of friends. Our love grew in the light of our young hopes and dreams. We talked about starting a family.

But cancer is a thief, and a villain. When her diagnosis came back, 5 years, ago she told me “I love you” and, quoting Doctor Who, “I don’t want to go.” For five years, we fought tooth and nail against this villain. During that time, we still traveled, dined, fought, saw concerts, and enjoyed each other’s company and the company of friends. We grew our love in a darkness that I truly hope no one here ever experiences.

And during that time, I powerlessly watched as the beautiful, eloquent and talented woman I fell in love with had nearly everything stolen from her. It took her career of helping others, it took her dexterity and the the wondrous piano music she played, it took her grace with words, it took her independence when it took her ability to drive, it took her hair (that she was so proud of), it took her memories. It took her ability to walk, to feed herself, to speak all but the easiest of phrases and words. And then it took her away from me. The only things she had at the end were her sense of humor and her capacity to love. Her last day on this Earth, she laughed softly at some silly joke I made and she told me “I love you.”

Taleigha’s favorite author was CS Lewis. She left me a little gift, as she had a passage bookmarked in his journal, A Grief Observed. In it, Lewis wrote of remembering his own wife as the person she was, not the picture of the person constructed in his mind. There is a tendency in all of us to remember departed loved ones as their ideal. Taleigha was very loving, but she could hold a grudge and be extremely stubborn — the Gumm in her, as she would say. She was kind, but she could be bossy and demanding. She was courageous, strong, and brave, but she had many many fears, especially of spiders!

We all love Taleigha, but not because she was perfect. She wouldn’t want to be remembered as perfect. She was flawed — as we all are — and we love her because of those flaws that made her human and because of the wonderful qualities she exemplified everyday, qualities that we could strive to achieve.

A friend, in offering me a small amount of comfort — call it a Quantum of Solace, for she loved James Bond too — reminded me of a quote from one of Taleigha’s other favorite works: Harry Potter. He hadn’t realized it was a favorite of hers, so I think of it as providence.

“Love as powerful as her’s for you leaves its own mark. To have loved and been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

My love to all of you. Thank you.”

We love you, Bennie!

Comments

  1. Bethanne I Medley says

    I wasn’t able to attend her memorial service, thank you for sharing Jeff and for summing up Ben so well. Such an awesome dude!

  2. Kay says

    Touch my heart deeply. I was not at service but was able to talk with Ben after. Such a courageous young man. Many prayers for Ben and family.
    Wonderful article Jeff.

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