On an autumn day in 1998, my mom called to say that my brother, Steve, just a year younger than me, had been diagnosed with lung cancer that would take his life two years later. The news was doubly devastating because Steve and I, inseparable as children, were estranged at the time.
After hanging up with Mom, I called my wife, Catherine, to give her the news, then took a long walk along the Trinity River near my office in Fort Worth, Texas. Even the weather was solemn that day, dense clouds hanging low over the water and a spitting mist. I felt numb.
I had met Fred Rogers three years before through a newspaper assignment and we became close friends, so much so that when I returned to my office, my first call was to Fred’s home number in Pittsburgh.
“I could not finish my first sentence when I heard the voice of his wife, Joanne, on the other end of the line,” I wrote in “I’m Proud of You,” the memoir of my friendship with Fred. “My sadness and shock, multiplied by my guilt, spilled out as Joanne quietly consoled me. She sent an e-mail message later that afternoon.
“Prayers are surrounding all you Madigans and I know God hears us!” Joanne wrote. “Tim, I’m sorry I couldn’t reach out from the phone to hold you and comfort you in your grief — and share it with you — but I hope you know how much we care for you and yours. I phoned Fred and shared your news with him, so you know he’ll be there for you whenever you need him! Me too! … Love, Joanne (Rogers, that is.)”
A message from Fred himself arrived an hour later.
“Joanne called me after her talk with you a little while ago. She thought you might have been calling from home, so I tried reaching you there. Catherine answered. That must have been providential. She and I had a wonderful talk … at last. I’m so glad to have had the chance to hear her voice and her positive attitude about what your brother is going through right now. She said he had received his medical news as a blessing rather than a curse. All I can say is that you Madigan men are certainly mighty special guys.”
From that day forward, Fred, and through him, Joanne, joined our family in Steve’s cancer journey, a path that led to our reconciliation and my brother’s profound spiritual transformation. Those memories and so many more have been returning in waves since I learned Thursday of Joanne Rogers’ passing at the age of 92.
I did not know Joanne well, but she and I shared a few moments of grace like the one above. Fred spoke of her continuously, was so devoted and proud of his wife as a loving, indomitable person and concert pianist.
By all accounts, compared to her saintly husband, Joanne was more recognizably human. Fred didn’t watch television and read mostly to nurture and develop his remarkable spiritual gifts. Joanne was not above partaking of a trashy novel and bad TV. Joanne, in fact, humanized her husband.
“As she emerged as a celebrity in her own right, Mrs. Rogers delighted her husband’s admirers with stories of his incongruously naughty sense of humor. (She told the Los Angeles Times that he took pleasure in amusing her at boring public events by intentionally passing gas.)”
Joanne once told me that Fred’s favorite word was ‘shit.’ Fred had proposed to her by letter and Joanne accepted by calling him from a graffiti scarred telephone booth. “I’m standing in this telephone booth, looking at your favorite word, and thinking of you,” she told me she said.
One of the last times I talked to Joanne was in the winter of 2003. I had heard that Fred was in poor health but had been unable to reach him in our usual ways. What follows is another passage from “I’m Proud of You”:
In mid-February I could wait no longer. I dialed Fred’s number in Pittsburgh from my desk at the newspaper and heard Joanne’s weary voice at the other end of the line.
“I’ve been better,” she said.
Yes, it was stomach cancer, she said, and the disease was very aggressive. Fred was under the care of hospice at their Pittsburgh apartment and did not have long to live. By then I had guessed as much. I asked Joanne if Fred was afraid.
“Not for himself,” she said. “As you might expect, his only worry is for me and the rest of his family.”
“This isn’t fair,” I said. “He’s always taken such good care of himself. The world still needs him so much.”
“I know, Tim,” she said. “There are some things we will never understand.”
I desperately wanted to speak to Fred myself, and nearly asked Joanne if I could say just a few words to him on the telephone. But I ultimately decided not to.
“If the opportunity presents itself,” I said to Joanne, “please tell Fred that I love him.”
“The opportunity has already presented itself,” she said. “And it will again.”
On the morning of Feb. 27, my wife came across the news on the internet. She was weeping when she came into the living room of our home, where I was sipping my first cup of coffee.
“Fred died last night,” she said.”
Now his wife has joined him on the far side of what Fred said was a “thin veil between this life and whatever comes after it.” The problem is, the world still desperately needs them both on this side of it.