It must have been the rush before the big game. That had to be the explanation for the crowd at Dave’s Marketplace when I stopped in for a pound of coffee; or perhaps the shoppers were taking advantage of the break in Saturday’s downpour.
In either case, shoppers were stocking up and they were tuned into the Patriots-Colts game that would have them glued to their television set that night. People navigated aisles, leaning heavily on their loaded carts, their attention focused on filling the lists they cradled in one hand. Their expressions were purposeful and businesslike, with the exception of those waiting for deli service. There was a clutch, lingering in front of the curved deli all with a watchful eye on the number now being served. They wore patient expressions.
That’s where I spotted Jack Groh. He looked to be on a mission, cutting between shoppers before delivering an item to the cart his wife, Susan, was pushing. They saw me simultaneously, and thus started one of the longest trips to buy a pound of coffee (not that a pound of coffee is really a pound these days).
Waiting for deli affords the time for chitchat but usually that’s no more than five minutes. And, with the exception of the deli wait, usually there’s not the time to spare and catch up on things. There are lists to be filled and schedules to be met.
But neither the Grohs nor I held a deli ticket and, as it turned out, there was nothing more pressing for the moment.
Jack and Susan just returned from a public relations assignment in New Jersey, where they worked for the National Football League doing a community project linked to the Super Bowl. It involved providing toys and other items to needy families. From their description, New Jersey lived up to its reputation for traffic congestion and the inordinate time it takes to get from one place to another. The pleasant surprise was the people who, they both agreed, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. They regret that the Super Bowl isn’t being played in Foxboro, for the economic jolt it would mean for the region.
Football was the introduction to a more thoughtful discussion. It made me realize that, all too frequently, we don’t really connect with people; whether we see them daily or, as in this case, just a couple of times in a course of a year.
Usually, I hear from Jack and Susan in early May, prior to New England Institute of Technology commencement. They play a key role in interfacing with the media, providing lists of the graduates by community, transcripts of speeches made during the ceremony and, from a newsman’s most important perspective, access to the commencement speaker they have signed up. Last year, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 2012 it was actor Martin Sheen.
I also regularly heard from Susan when their kids attended Park School. She would send me press releases about school events and other community activities.
Their community involvement became somewhat more intense two years ago, when Jack ran as an independent for the Senate seat held by incumbent William Walaska. It was also about that time that Susan was diagnosed with leukemia. Many of the community groups the Grohs were a part of or had helped rallied to assist the family. Susan remained remarkably upbeat. The topic of her health came up.
“You look wonderful,” I said.
“She gets tired,” said Jack.
She nodded and smiled. And then we talked about her battle. Following her diagnosis, the doctors told her she had a 16 percent chance of survival.
“Can you imagine being told that?” she said.
“She wasn’t going to let that stop her,” said Jack.
When Susan’s leukemia failed to respond to chemotherapy, her doctor recommended a stem cell transplant. A search for a bone marrow match was conducted. Friends registered, the Warwick Fire Fighters Club helped, her daughter’s entire soccer team at Lesley University signed up.
A match was found and Susan underwent treatment in Dana Farber. She was secluded where careful attention was given not to introduce viruses to her weakened immune system. It was isolated from the rest of the world. Visitors were restricted. She said others in the ward had pretty much submitted passively to the treatments, accepting their condition. They stayed in their beds. Not Susan.
She asked for a physical therapist to work with her during her recovery, so that she would not lose her strength. She walked the corridors, measuring what it would take to go a mile. Jack walked with her. She wouldn’t give in.
Now that the transplant is successful and she has regained her strength, Susan is taking her fighting message to others.
Coincidentally, I found myself thinking of another fighter, Bill Walaska. Just last Tuesday, at the opening session of the General Assembly, members of the Senate stood to applaud their colleague. Bill has been in and out of the hospital since last summer. He will begin chemotherapy soon.
“I’ve got to talk with him,” she said.
I can think of no better coach.
Jack held up his list and I remembered the coffee. But shopping seemed incidental. A routine stop at Dave’s had turned into so much more…it’s just a matter of pausing to listen.