Last November, Jan Glidewell opened his monthly column in the Times with this:
"When things look the darkest it is natural for us to look the hardest for slivers of light. We find them, or they us, at strange and unexpected times, and they don't arrive with flashing lights and bugle fanfares. Sometimes we have to watch and listen.''
His son, Sean Holland, had only recently lost his fight with cancer, and Jan used the occasion to honor him and thank his many friends for their support. He mentioned two in particular who had been to a wedding and were so impressed that the best man's friends, including the groom, had learned American Sign Language so the best man's hearing-impaired girlfriend would not be excluded in the ceremony.
"I am touched and moved that I have friends who have friends like the guests at that wedding,'' Jan wrote, "and who are smart enough to know when they are in the presence of grace.''
Last Sunday, as I sat next to Jan in a room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and considered what lay a few inches below the bandage that covered half his head, I didn't expect to find any slivers of light. And then a nurse pushed open the door and announced he could go home — if, that is, he could pee.
Jan didn't question the reason. He just wanted to get back to his own bed in his own house in Dade City. Only one problem: he had just used the bathroom moments before the nurse gave him the good news, and nature wouldn't be calling anytime soon.
Enter Amy Carol Webb, a popular Florida folk singer with an angelic voice so pure and strong, an ordained minister who had raced to her old friend's bedside when she heard the news. Jan's wife, Betty, handed him a bottled water and Amy worked her magic with a song guaranteed to make him think of tinkling water. She enlisted his visitors in the chorus, delighting doctors and nurses and brightening an otherwise depressing ward.
We are made of rain
We are made of rain
Drop by drop of joy and of pain
We are made of rain.
It worked and Jan went home. The next morning he sat at his computer and signed on to Facebook.
"I'll be walking the streets of Dade City in a few days.'' he wrote. "They make a really good smoothie with peanut butter at the coffee shop. I have stage 4 brain and lung cancer.''
So typical, I thought. Jan has always been the master of the understatement.
"You buried your lede,'' I responded, knowing that would give him a reason to smile.
He has done as much and more for me and legions of fans for 40 years, the last 10 as a retiree. He has poked fun at politicians and editors and himself. He has raised countless dollars and awareness for charities. He has given voice to the powerless and sometimes in the process made himself a few enemies.
But trust me, there are so many more who genuinely love him, who value his intellect and generous heart.
On Thursday, after he had met with his oncologist in Hudson to prepare for a complicated mix of radiation and chemotherapy that begins this week, I met him and Betty for lunch at the Inn on the Gulf. He enjoyed oysters on the half shell and a seafood soup and people who recognized him and said hello.
After seeing him all these years on the front page, they feel like they know him.
We took a walk on the beach. A brisk wind blew off the water but the bright sun warmed our skin. I asked him, "Why go through all the pain and sickness you're about to endure?''
"When I'm going to die anyway?'' he said, finishing what he thought was the rest of the question. "My doctor says I might get another year, maybe two.''
This 68-year-old man who had spent months sitting beside his dying son, who has comforted many others in their final days in hospice care, stopped and gestured toward the sea.
"This is a beautiful world,'' he said. "I like living.''
Meanwhile, his friends circle around him, "slivers of light,'' as Jan would say.