One for the ages You never know how soon it will be too late

By Tom Kirvan

Attending a funeral visitation is certainly not the typical way to celebrate a birthday, especially of the milestone variety.

But last fall, on the celebratory day of my birth, it seemed perfectly fitting that my thoughts were consumed by an untimely death, the passing of a treasured friend whose love of life made every day a special occasion.

When word broke that Fran Anderson had died, just weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, it was difficult to digest the news, even though she was approaching her 87th birthday and had enjoyed a long and fruitful life.

Age, after all, was not an accurate way to measure the impact of the former high school teacher on all those blessed to know her. In fact, I was convinced that age would never be a barrier to her twin forces of zest and zeal. She seemingly had secured the formula for the fountain of youth and that became clearly evident minutes after I first met her in the spring of 2007.

A friend, a lawyer of note, introduced us at a fund-raising event for a county bar foundation, suggesting that I write a feature on all the good works she had done for the legal community and beyond. Perhaps a book would have been more appropriate and would have served to further inspire a legion of admirers.

My boss quickly became one of those fans of Fran, developing a lasting friendship with a fellow University of Michigan alum that would greatly enrich both of their lives. We relished every opportunity to cross paths with one of the Detroit area’s foremost proponents, especially enjoying an annual holiday lunch at her lakeside home that featured a dining room fit for a king.

As was her custom, Fran had a knack for making everyone she met feel special, offering expressions of kindness, compassion, praise, and encouragement, often at times when most needed.

On September 9, just weeks before cancer would claim her life, Fran called to say thanks for sending along the latest edition of our magazine, heaping praise on all who had a hand in publishing the quarterly product. While her words were welcomed, the sound of her voice was not. It told an altogether different story, one that would soon short-circuit her life.

The call, as it turned out, had a dual purpose, principally to inform us that she was ill and about to embark on a cancer treatment regimen that was not for the faint of heart. In respect to her wishes, we promised to keep her in our thoughts and prayers, agreeing that she would decide when it was time to talk again.

For us, it was a fateful decision and reminded me of a column my father wrote decades ago about a 72-year-old retiree in Florida who spent the bulk of his day calling elderly residents, many of whom were shut-ins with little in the way of family or financial support. The calls, which totaled nearly 120 each day, were a godsend to the recipients, offering them some daily cheer in their otherwise lonesome and destitute lives.

The caller was motivated each day by a maxim he kept in front of him as he dialed away: “You can never do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

My father discovered its profound meaning the hard way.

“Thirty years ago,” he wrote, “I drove 400 miles round trip to see my father who was hospitalized following his second heart attack. I returned to my important, urgent duties at corporate headquarters with the intention of calling to say, ‘You looked great, you’ll soon be visiting us.’ Monday saw meetings from the start of day until bedtime. Tuesday it was too late.”

It would be a lesson we would learn the hard way, too.

On Monday, Sept. 23, my boss had an inkling that it was time to call our beloved Fran, to express our well-wishes for her return to good health. That morning we left a message of support, hoping that she would be well enough to return our call with words giving evidence of renewed strength. By nightfall, we heard otherwise, that she had died the day before with her loving family at her side.

Several days later, at the funeral visitation, we offered our last respects to a woman who will live a long life in our hearts, someone who personified caring and kindness. She knew the importance of a visit, a letter, a telephone call, a contribution to a cause, undoubtedly understanding the true meaning of “ . . . you never know how soon it will be too late.”