There’s a photo I’ll forever cherish. It shows the two of us standing together, posing like two campfire buddies for the camera. We were starting a five-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. And there we were—poised to raft through canyons carved out millennia ago—two old friends, both a little overweight. Maybe you a little more overweight than me. Anyone could look at that photo and tell we were buddies, David, clearly comfortable with sharing each other’s space…two sidekicks of the canyon poised to begin yet another adventure.
That photograph came to mind several times over the course of the last seven months. The seven months it took for Cancer to write a triumphant final chapter to the last days of your life, the life of David Sumner Cutler. And it was a triumphant ending, David. Glorious in many ways. How wonderful for you to be surrounded by the love of family and friends. What a gift to have Josh, Ben or Carolyn read you the daily postings on your Caringbridge.org web site. And what a marvelous idea—a web site where all of us could go to celebrate and share memories of your life!
And so many people did. Over 4,500 visits.
You heard from old friends, aging marine buddies, former and current employees, minor acquaintances, children of friends, business partners, ex-wives, all manner of passersby on your journey through life. And many of them had a story to share. A story about you—about how you helped shape their lives, or mentored them, or made their lives richer, or taught them to be good journalists or helped nurture their communities. What a difference you made in their lives, Mr. Cutler, and we were privileged to witness you hearing it for yourself, taking it in, learning what an impact your life had on so many others.
But there’s a third sidekick who’s missing from the ‘Sidekicks of the Canyon’ photo, David, and she was definitely there—from start to finish—at your side all the way, a loving guide and navigator (and sometimes pizza-orderer), dear Catherine. She created a space around you that was large enough to contain all our pained spirits. I cannot say enough about your wisdom, Catherine, your generosity or your strength of purpose and insight. So many of us owe you a debt for your graceful, faithful management of David’s final days. Your strength gave us strength. You were the rock so many of us held onto as the tide steadily rose.
Catherine, I speak for all who hold David in their hearts when I say with sincere love and appreciation, “Thank you!”
The rest of your family was there, too, David, surrounding you with love and support. Foot massages from your sister Gail and twin sister Meg were little things that meant so much. Meg’s husband Jim taking night duty, as did Catherine’s brother Jay. Mindy and Patti lending their nursing expertise. And, of course there were your children, helping you, loving you, searching for their place in a world where one of their pillars of strength would no longer be standing.
I can hear you barking out their names in your best patrician voice: Josh, Ben, Jonathan; Mandy, Carolyn, Becky. And their spouses, your other children: Leslie, Nancy, Heidi and Mike. How you enjoyed those July 4th family gatherings, those outings in the boat with Mike and Jonathan, taking Becky to play softball or ride her horse, dressing up as Santa for all the little ones at Christmas. Nothing filled your spirit and brightened your skies better than family. Take a look at any photo with you holding a grandchild, David, and you’ll see the biggest, sloppiest, unabashedly happy grin splashed across your face.
Now, I would not be a true friend if I passed up this opportunity to remind local residents that your son Josh is running for public office, and you would appreciate their votes.
How proud you were of Josh’s efforts to enter public service, even when he lost in an earlier bid to become state rep. I remember you outside the polls pumping arms as if they were attached to water pumps, telling anyone who would listen “I’m Josh Cutler’s dad!” as if that obviously explained your excess of pride and enthusiasm.
Oh, what a delight you were when the wind filled your sails! How many lives did you enrich with that wide open, ready-to-engage spirit? With that ever-ready laugh, that eager expectant smile, those rich, patrician articulations you used both for scolding and pontification, none of which was meant to be taken seriously? You could sound like the severest Scrooge yet never lose that Peter Pan twinkle in your eye. A scold from you was nectar to a neophyte journalist or a struggling sales rep. You were the boss people complain about but really love—because you trusted them enough—cared about them enough—to push them outside their comfort zone, to test their courage and plumb their depths.
“Give it a try,” you would encourage them. “Go for it.” Always pushing them, opening doors, standing behind them. I know because, almost 30 years ago, I was a young inexperienced writer and you phoned out of the blue to offer me a weekly newspaper column. And thus, “A Stone’s Throw” was born, a column that would see hundreds of stories, essays and insights published in print and online across a span of 25 years.
What a gift to my life! What a candy store for a writer to be given! You changed my life, dear friend, even before you became my friend. You took a chance on someone who had no experience. You opened a door for me as a writer and gave me a forum in which to develop my talent.
Ah, the curious workings of fate that put two lives such as ours on intersecting courses? We were not always sidekicks of the canyon, nor would we have seemed likely candidates. You were a child of privilege, at least on your mother’s side, the Sumner side of your family tree. I was a struggling writer, born in the Bronx but capable of speaking fluent English. From such meager ingredients a great enduring friendship would arise.
You were never one to dwell on emotions, were you, David? Discussing emotions went counter to your natural reticence. How hard for you to say the words “I love you.” Remember that time in Norwell when I told you, as a friend, that I loved you? You responded like a burdened nobleman, declaring in a fit of noblesse oblige, “Well I guess these things must be said”, adding, “I love you, too” in a hasty conclusion. Watching you exchange “I love you’s” with all of us these last few months…well you came a long way, baby, that’s all I can say.
And when Fate (with a capital ‘f’) touched your shoulder and tested your mettle last summer, your overriding concern was not for yourself but for the impact your illness would have on your children, especially those who were youngest and most vulnerable. There was never a hint of complaint about life’s injustices, or the cruelties of fate, just a resigned Marine-like commitment to see things through as best you could. And so you did, Old Friend. With your customary grace and silent strength.
You were always destined to be a hero, David. It was in your DNA. Not just in Viet Nam where, by braving enemy fire to retrieve a fallen comrade, you received bullet wounds to both your legs. In some ways it’s easier to be a hero in war than in peace, in Khe Sanh rather than Duxbury, easier to take up the mantle of leadership in Viet Nam than in New England. But you were a hero for all seasons. The letters to your web site repeatedly speak of you as a personal hero to those who knew and worked under you. Hero, mentor, counselor, role model, inspiration and, always, friend. Raw testimony to your leadership skills in the trenches of the real world, in everyday life. You were huge in their lives, David, but you never saw it till the end. Just four weeks ago, before the Caringbridge web site was launched, you described your life as unremarkable—as if it had never been touched by greatness.
Most of us here today know the greatness contained in your life, David. But you never knew how good you were. Your huge heart, generous spirit and tolerant nature were so intrinsic to how you lived your life you couldn’t see how special they were. Nor could you see how many lives were influenced by yours. You and I shared each other’s secrets, but you never told me about the single mother you helped with a job, or the photo journalist whose career you launched with a camera, or the reporter you told not to worry about the $25,000 his story cost the paper, or the sick couple you kept on the payroll for six months, or the dozens of others who wrote to testify what a difference you made in their lives.
I always thought Viet Nam was the anvil on which your character was beaten, shaped and polished. But if Nam was the anvil then the United States Marines Corps had to be the hammer. The corps gave you a palpable sense of yourself, and of your capacity to overcome enormous odds, a guiding star that stayed with you your entire life.
How else would you have had the nerve to turn your back on a weekly paycheck from the Patriot Ledger to make the biggest decision of your professional life—to start publishing a community newspaper. You were all of 29 when you, your wife Suzie and Michael Sterns started the Marshfield Mariner with your saved-up vacation pay. You were destined to be a publisher, David. You knew instinctively which elements made for a good local newspaper, which stories to feature. When it came to the business side, however, your business model rivaled the bumblebee for its ability to fly when the laws of physics say it should never have gotten off the ground. By all rights, the Mariner papers should have gone out of business any number of times.
My writing a weekly column for the Mariner was the bedrock of our friendship. A friendship that over the years saw both of us neck-deep in one adventure after another. Running out of gas on the North River. Living as Odd Couple roomies when my marriage failed. Retracing the Colorado River expedition your Grandmother braved 65 years earlier. Discovering Iceland. Escaping from Iceland. Almost getting stuck on a sandbar next to Nantucket. Braving open seas in a boat too small for such nonsense. And learning to tell jokes about cancer and death, especially when cancer and death were staring you in the face.
“We joke about death and dying,” you proudly informed a visitor one day, as if we no longer followed silly outmoded social conventions. What better place for laughter than a sick room? Who better to laugh than the man whose remaining laughs could now be counted in single or double digits? And we had a lot of laughs during those last crowded months. Best of all, you got to hear from many folks who loved you, whose lives would have been different without you. Like George Bailey, the James Stewart character in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, you were given a glimpse of your life’s real value. And just like George Bailey, you discovered you were the richest man in town.
It was an honor being with you these last seven months, sharing the adventure with you and Catherine. Just as its been an honor sharing my road with you for almost 30 years. I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you for going away so soon, leaving me to carry on without my dear friend and fellow adventurer at my side. I had planned for us to grow old sitting in boats, talking about grandchildren.
But, as John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making plans. It was by the side of the pond at my Plymouth cottage that you first told me you were sick. Remember what I said? I said I wasn’t going to lose you. And I’m not. I’ll always have you in my heart, dear friend, in my memories, and in my prayers.
You and I will meet up again, someday, somewhere, eager for our next adventure, just as one might expect from two old and trusty sidekicks of the canyon.
Goodbye, David. I love you.
David Sumner Cutler passed away February 28, 2010. He was a wonderful fellow to have in your life whether he was your friend, father, partner, boss or neighbor. In giving the above eulogy I was fulfilling an ironic arc in which David, by discovering me as a writer, had chosen me almost 30 years earlier to chronicle and honor his life. As you can tell, I loved David, greatly enjoyed our shared time together, and looked forward to our growing old and serene together, secure in our friendship. Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans! Goodbye, old friend. Thanks for the laughs, the hugs and for just being you. Which was pretty special.