Out of the blue, debilitated after a weekend of chemo, Kevin caught my hand as I passed by his recliner and pulled me down to his lap, murmuring:
“You could teach Tom Hagen a thing or two.”
Kevin loved The Godfather. The book. The movie. The sequels to the book and movie. He delighted in peppering his conversations with Godfather quotes. He dressed as the Godfather for our daughter’s first Halloween. He grinned his broad smile, blue eyes crinkling with pleasure when he caught a Godfather reference in a television show, pausing and rewinding the scene to watch it again, like a kid, tickled to hear his favorite movie mentioned. The remote control waving in his hand, he’d ask excitedly, “Did you hear that? Did you get that?”
Honestly, at first, I didn’t. I started to watch The Godfather once, got to the horse’s head scene, turned it off, and never looked back. Until Kevin. He made no secret of his fascination with the movie and I became complicit in his pastime of identifying obscure references to the film and adding them to our vocabulary. A favorite of ours when faced with an unpleasant mission: “That’s like saying ‘Sounds fun’ to a ride with Clemenza.” I was particularly proud of this quote because I’d heard it on Gilmore Girls and took ridiculous satisfaction in bringing it to Kev’s attention.
So when I heard his words, I was undone. I knew, for him, that was a Big Deal. I knew he understood the grim situation he faced with his cancer diagnosis and I knew I was the only one he wanted by his side – he’d just confirmed it. To Kevin, I was something the brilliant and competent Tom Hagen never was: a wartime consigliere.
In the book and movie, Tom Hagen was Don Corleone’s adopted son, an Irish street orphan who befriended Sonny and became part of the Corleone family. He went to law school, came back to work for the family, and ended up being their trusted advisor and counselor, their consigliere. But in tough times, the family needed a wartime consigliere, someone to handle the hard decisions, to stand strong under pressure, to face down threats to the family and take extreme measures to eliminate risks. For whatever reason, the family didn’t choose Tom to fill the role.
But Kev thought I had what it took to be his wartime consigliere. He knew that cancer scared me to my core, chewed me up with its nightmarish “what-ifs?” and spit me back out, shaken and numb. But he also knew the incredible reserve of toughness and God-given peace and assurance I drew from. He knew the reality of our future, given his diagnosis. And for him, the only person he trusted to get him through what came next – the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the endless march of drugs and appointments and test after test after test – well, that was me.
For five years, I carried that title proudly. Fighting cancer is not easy; things get bad, then worse. Better, then bad again. Then worse. Until a ride with Clemenza actually does sound like fun.
I sat hours with him in the chemo room, watching the poison drip and his spirit wane. I monitored nausea drugs and flushed ports and unhooked the infusion pump. I urged a healthy diet and exercise, then tempted him with his favorite junk food just to see him eat anything. I prayed and cried and loved and desperately tried to figure out how to change the ending of our story.
In those five years, I learned to think more clearly, to be strong in the face of cancer’s insidious fury, and to counter its attack from the one undeniably strong position I held: Love.
And when Kevin was so tired from the fight, so weak from standing strong and facing down the threat, that was when as his wartime consigliere, I knew what I had to do.
I whispered in his ear the only advice I had left:
“Baby, I love you so much, but if you need to go, you can. It’s okay.”
And, as always, he listened to me.
He wanted so badly to stay with me and our daughter, but his cancer-ransacked body just wouldn’t let him. He let go of the struggle and God took him home. But I had to stay behind, missing him with every breath and wondering what happens to wartime consiglieres when the war is over.