I’ve now been an adult longer than I was a kid, and in the time I’ve been on my own, some of the friends I’ve made along the way have come and gone, and some have become a part of my family such that I can hardly remember not knowing them. Our friends Henry and April fall in the latter camp.
Henry and April’s annual pig roast always feels like a summer version of Thanksgiving, and this year’s was no exception. Henry is Cuban; it’s in his blood. He generally starts a fire around five the morning of the party and tends it all day long, slowly roasting the meat to succulent perfection. When we stepped out of our car, the scandalously pungent, sizzling, sensuous smell overwhelmed us. Stomachs rumbling, we watched Henry and his oldest son work together. I had a vision of attending a pig roast hosted by his son in my old age. The rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t stop watching the boy-turned-teenager whom I first met as a week-old babe fifteen years ago. He alternated between helping his parents with the food, acting as a host, playing his guitar under a shady tree while some of us sang along, and, occasionally, allowing Abbott to persuade him to play tag and hide-and-seek.
Cubans know how to throw a party. We drank wine and ate ceviche in tostone cups in the afternoon heat. As the sun began to lower on the horizon we feasted on the abundant quantities of pork, black beans and rice, roasted vegetables, and green salad. At dusk, the meal concluded with vibrantly colorful blueberries and peaches topped with dollops of whipped cream with just a whisper of sweetness.
I met Henry when I was 28, three months after Alexi and I started dating; a few days after I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive type of breast cancer. I was assigned to be his patient weeks after he finished his training as an oncologist.
During chemotherapy, I exhaled a gust of anxieties every time I had an appointment with him. I obsessed over every leg, back, and stomachache I experienced (leg/back/stomach cancer!). Whenever I coughed, I knew the disease had spread to my lungs. I became convinced my heart was beating erratically. Over time, Henry became a trusted older brother. He even began calling me by a childhood nickname without knowing it was, without asking permission; one that even Alexi doesn’t know.
We worked at the same hospital, and I developed a habit of running up the few floors between my department and his office to ask a question or express a concern, or with an excuse to say “hi.” As if, by being around him, I was warding off any cancer cells that might be thinking of developing. He listened to me.
When my hair fell out after I started chemotherapy, Alexi shaved his head, and kept it that way until my hair grew back close to a year later. A couple of years later we married. Henry came to our wedding.
As we ate and talked, talked and ate through the afternoon of the party and into the evening, I noticed laugh lines around Henry’s eyes. There is an aching beauty to becoming middle-aged, and sharing the experience with those you love.
As we said our goodbyes, Abbott measured himself against Henry, who first held him when he was days old, twelve years ago. Someday soon, perhaps – maybe when we trick-or-treat at their house; maybe at next summer’s pig roast – Abbott will be the taller one.