I walked in to the basement hall at All Saints Parish several years ago, to go to my son’s first Cub Scout meeting in a new pack. As I sat at one of the round tables, looking around and talking to the one or two people I knew there, There was a woman wearing a kerchief at the next table, wrangling three kids and obviously not having a good time of it.
“For god’s sake, Hayden, if you do not sit down and behave I am seriously going to lose it!”
I did not get to introduce myself that night, and did not know it then, but that was my introduction to Renee Costa. It also marked the first and only time I ever saw her that upset. I would later find out she had been having a bad day, running around all over the place, and her then seven-year-old son had been doing what any seven-year-old boy would have done in that situation, acted like a kid in a way that was akin to poking her with a sharp stick. I so clearly remember that day, because it was the beginning of my involvement with Pack 27, which marked my return to Scouting to be a part of it after many years away. I also clearly remember Renee’s presence because of her kerchief which marked her as a cancer patient, and I was wondering how she could herd three kids around in her state.
Over the next few weeks, I got to know Renee at the den meetings, as her son Aaron was in the same one my son Vic was in. While the kids were doing their Cub Scout things, we parents sat off to the side and chatted, mostly small talk, and on those rare occasions that Renee could stay for the whole meeting instead of rushing around doing a trillion things, we got talking about all sorts of things, ranging from the kids to family to things going on in the world. The first thing that struck me was how incredibly strong she was. Here she was, going through chemo, running all over the place with four kids, and while occasionally showing signs of frustration and weariness, never once an ounce of bitterness, and save that one time, any real anger.
Over the years we became friends. I was Aaron’s Cub Scout leader, and it was one weekend in particular that I fell utterly in love with Renee’s indomitable spirit. We were taking the eight boys on a big overnight weekend with tons of other scouts up at Camp Wah-Tuc-Ah, about 90 minutes north in New Hampshire. This was their first big real overnight camping experience, and they were all excited, while the parents, some of them new to any sort of in-the-woods camping, were…less than excited. As the trip approached, Renee had gone into the hospital and had to have some surgery. We leaders were a little worried, because the boys could only attend if they had a parent or guardian with them, and we knew Aaron really wanted to go.
We should not have worried.
That Friday afternoon arrived, and sure enough, Renee had made sure she was discharged from the hospital in time to be able to get her things together, and she was there at the campsite setting up the tent along with Aaron. She was not going to be denied this weekend with her son, doing something they had both been looking forward to. And don’t misunderstand, this was not a state park campground with facilities and rec rooms and cabins/RVs, this was out at the far end of a Boy Scout camp in the off-season, with the only “convenience” being a sink and toilet in a shared latrine. In fact, the campsite was quite literally a mile and a quarter into the campground, over a dirt road. Yet there she was, obviously exhausted, but fueled by the love for being there and sharing this trip with her son. I had a four-wheel-drive truck that weekend, and I got the rules suspended for us to have the truck kept near the site. Just in case. It was a bit of a hassle, in fact, one of the times I pulled out what my friends and I called a “scoutmaster glare” (my Irish family might call it the Clare Stare) at this one well-intentioned rule-enforcing young man who tried to tell me I couldn’t keep the truck there. Renee was mad at me, she didn’t want a big deal made, but I was damned if I was going to not have a vehicle there in case of emergency. I told her it was because of one of the other boys’ severe food allergies, too, but she saw right through my lie, and was doubly-determined to make the best of the weekend. And she did. She hiked around and participated as much as she could, although it exhausted her at times, she never once complained and often spoke of it being one of the best weekends of her life, even years later.
Over the past several years our families have become very close. Halloweens and New year’s Eves became a co-celebrated affair, with the kids out trick-or-treating while Sean and I manned the candy distribution station at the house (as well as the beer disposal station) and on New Year’s, well, the same thing except for the candy and trick-or-treating. She had her good days, and her bad days, but always had the most unflagging determination and spirit, and her only regret or bit of bitterness was strictly that being sick took away from her time with her kids. She worked so hard for her children and her family. New babies in the family,cousins, friends, neighbors, all were such a joy to her, and even when she could barely walk to the car sometimes, she made sure she got to see them and share her love with them.
One thing stands out so clearly to me as well. On New England Cable News, in the mornings, the traffic reporter, Scott Montminy, would sometimes take emails from viewers and read them on-air. My son Victor was a huge fan of this, and wrote in one time with jokes for Scott. Not only did he read them on the air, he attributed them to Vic by name, and even plugged Victor’s website. A couple of years later, we mentioned this to Renee, and she remembered that happening, and talked about how she was a fan of his as well. Then when Facebook started taking off, they both found out that Scott Montminy had a Facebook page, and both befriended him. She would often comment on his posts, and they became virtual friends as well. To my knowledge, Scott never actually got to meet Renee personally, but still counted her as a friend, such was her ability to make friends and bring joy into people’s lives.
Then over the past few months, the long battle began to finally take its toll on her body. But even as her physical form began to fail her, her spirit only grew. She still couldn’t wait to show me her clematis. Or talk about my plumber’s crack. This past Fourth Of July, she made sure she rested up and made it a goal to be ok enough to celebrate the day with her friends and family at the annual cookout, and kept enough energy to yell and Sean and I for various acts that risked life and limb, or so she said.
Since moving to Haverhill, almost 15 years ago, we have made many friends, but scant few as wonderful as Renee, Sean, and the kids. Such obvious sources of joy, love, and life, it was one of my life’s greatest honors to call her friend. When the mayor nominated her for an award presented by the governor, I got to be one of the ones informing her at the pack’s Blue & Gold Dinner, and one of my favorite pictures is standing there with her and the mayor, with her being somewhat overwhelmed and eminently humble attitude of “Why the heck would you nominate me?” She would go on to win the award, and be presented it at the State House.
This morning, Renee was finally granted rest from her long battle. She passed at her home, surrounded by her family, at peace with the world. Although she was very sad she was not going to be able to see her children grow up, she knew that she had done her job, and raised four wonderful children who now grieve, but will always carry the lessons, the strength, and the love their mother granted and showed them throughout their lives. As will all of us. So many people have been touched by Renee and Sean, as was evidenced by how many people are now reaching out, will be attending her services next week, and how many have made a special point to make whatever trip was necessary to go to her house, sit next to her and talk to her one last time. To say goodbye, to laugh with her one last time.
I did that last weekend. I went over and sat in the living room, talked about smartphones, watched some show on cable about people trying to decide what island to buy, and laughing over ridiculous things. When it came time for me to go, she couldn’t really get up to say goodbye, but pulled me in for a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and told me that she loved me, and was so glad to be my friend. I said goodbye to her, to Sean, and went out to the car, and started to drive home. About halfway there, I pulled over and just watched the river for about five minutes, not really watching the river, but just trying to absorb and process what was going on.
Renee Pelletier Costa has left us this morning. She has run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Bell choir, of course. But those of us who knew her, and got to know her will always carry a part of her, whether it be her smile, her love, or her clematis. I feel very secure in joking at a time like this, because she would want this, she would want us to not cry, but smile and laugh and remember the good times. Of course I write this with tears in my eyes, but at the same time a feeling of gratitude that I was able to be her friend, a part of her life and have her and her family in mine. I will miss her terribly, as will so many others. I will always live in awe of her strength, her spirit, her sense of humor, and her unbridled love for her family, friends, and anyone who wanted it.
Good-bye, Renee. We will miss you, but will always have a piece of you in our hearts until we join you once again. And Sean and I will still be lighting off fireworks.