A mother's letters lead to healing after loss
MIDDLEBURY — Dan Humphrey packed a lot of living in his 26 years. Educator, teacher, musician, athlete, husband.
He was an inspiration to his family, friends and many others who marveled at his ability to face a terminal illness with bravery, dignity and at times, a touch of humor.
His mom, Weybridge resident Susan Humphrey, is keeping her son’s memory alive with a book that not only eulogizes and celebrates Dan, but also provides emotional nourishment for those dealing with mind-numbing loss. The book, “The Path to Fernglade,” contains reminiscences, poems and letters that Susan sent to family friends during a 10-year period, beginning with Dan’s cancer diagnosis in July 2007.
“I began the letters as a way to keep friends updated on Dan’s progress,” Susan explained. “A book was never in my wildest imagination, at least not that I was aware of. Then somehow I just continued to write after he died. It probably helped me feel connected to others as well as myself; I feel very present when I write letters.”
Dan’s ordeal began with a persistent pain in his left calf. His diagnosis came as a shock to everyone: Extraskeletal myxoid chondrosarcoma, a very rare, incurable form of cancer. So rare, the Humphreys were told that getting it is about as likely as getting struck twice by lightning.
Susan speaks candidly about Dan’s illness, which quickly resulted in amputation of his left leg. Visits to health care experts from Middlebury to Boston unfortunately yielded more bad news during the ensuing months. New tumors appeared near his spine, then lungs. Clinical trials failed to yield results after conventional chemotherapy proved to be a dead end.
But through it all, Dan — buoyed by his mom, father Gregg and brother Andrew, and his eventual spouse Natalie — proved to be an inspiration. Dan remained determined to live his best life during whatever time he had left.
Fitted with a prosthetic limb, he continued to go on trips, play music and swim. He was an avid cyclist and snowboarder.
Dan loved jazz, and was a huge devotee of legendary musician Dave Brubeck — who he got to meet prior to his death. People are still playing the CDs that include some of Dan’s favorite tracks.
And when Dan knew a health comeback was not in the cards, he did something all of us should do more often: He reminded those closest to him how much he loved them.
“I love you so much, Natalie. I love you so much, mom. Even if we don’t make it through this, you’ve done so much for me and I really appreciate it,” he told his mom during the summer of 2008.
Dan and Natalie got married on July 16, 2008. They got their wedding bands at Middlebury’s Autumn Gold, with Dan using a gold bracelet of his grandma’s to cover the cost.
Dan’s health sadly declined through 2008, and he passed away Jan. 8, 2009. His mom wrote a final letter to him, but couldn’t bring herself to read it to him as he clung to life. She had Natalie read it to him at their Middlebury apartment.
“I sat on the edge of the tub and could hear her sweet voice reading,” Susan Humphrey recalls in her book. “It was dark outside and quiet and beautiful, the deep of winter. I sobbed while Natalie read the goodbye I could not say.”
FINDING HER VOICE
But Susan would find a voice through her letters, which she sent to about 60 people whom she’d kept abreast of Dan’s battle and her efforts to deal with the immense pain of loss.
“I decided to try to make a book of them when a friend who had also lost a son begged me to do so,” Susan said. “She thought it would be very helpful to others.”
She’d intended to start the process not long after Dan died, but found progress slow.
“I think it was because the letters had not ended,” she said. “It was while writing the letter in 2015 when I noticed a change. As I came to the end of that letter the feeling was, ‘Oh, the letters are ending.’ It was not that I would never write these friends again … But what I felt was that that particular cycle of my life was ending. It was only then that I could go back and add the narratives, which were really just parts of the story that had not been mentioned in my letters, or parts that were not as fully expressed as I wished.”
In some of her letters, Susan lays bare her soul. In others, it’s more playful — some minor occurrence that might trigger a Dan memory. She mentions several books that have offered her solace and enlightenment. It’s all skillfully crafted and immensely readable.
How has Dan’s death changed his mom’s life?
Well, Susan found a quote from the late Desmond Tutu that struck a chord: “The suffering is what makes you appreciate the joy.”
“Since Dan died I have felt joy more intensely,” she said. “I think the reason for this is gratitude. Because when I feel unexpected joy rise up in me now, (and I never know when this will occur), what happens almost simultaneously is this feeling of immense gratitude on top of the joy. It’s kind of like having a double whammy! Because there was a time when I thought I might never feel a smidgen of happiness again. It still feels like a miracle, and one that I will never take for granted.
“I think of Dan as kind of like my super power,” she added. “That I can call upon his help now and then, at least in my imagination.”
The title of her book — specifically, “Fernglade” — comes from a part of her yard at the edge of the brook where she cleared away bushes, poison ivy and other scrub.
“I called it Fernglade because the next year that’s what came up, all of these ferns,” she said. “And then it is where one day I was inspired to put up these standing stones that ended up being the Mother/Child statue that you see on the cover (of the book). My book roughly takes place from Dan’s cancer diagnosis up until the creation of Fernglade. I travel through the years in my book, much the same way I travel around our property. I guess my gardens could be called walkabout gardens, because that’s what I do. And Fernglade, in all its simplicity, feels like a sacred part of our property, a place to pause and remember those no longer with us.”
“The Path to Fernglade,” self-published by Susan Humphrey, can be found at the Vermont Book Shop and online through Amazon.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.