Weatherwise, the morning of April 2 was a miserable one in Dallas. Or, to three Stanislaus County women, more like something out of a certain blockbuster sci-fi movie franchise.
Jessica MacDavid, Kari Infantino and Amy Harmon were in town to do the Big D Marathon in memory of their husbands, who within five months of one another last year lost their fights against cancer.
But with reports of lightning strikes at the starting line of the course, the women were holed up in their rented lakehouse to see if the race would go on. It did, but only the half marathon course. The full race was canceled because of lost time.
We would not have created these friendships and made the connections that we have, and we would definitely have been walking through this journey a lot lonelier than we already are, if we had not come to Jessica’s House and connected with the Harmons and the MacDavids.
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And what a race. Frequent flashes of lightning, followed by crashes of thunder. Heavy rain left water often inches deep on the course, and too wide to run around. Sopping-wet clothes and shoes made the women feel 20 pounds heavier.
“We talked afterward when we met up with Kari,” said MacDavid, who walked the course with Harmon as Infantino ran it, “and it was like mile 8 or 9 that became very difficult. Like you’re wet and cold, and we’re saying, ‘OK, the guys endured so much with chemo and cancer, and fought so long,’ we couldn’t stop, because if we stopped moving, then we couldn’t go back. It became very much a fight to finish.”
Afterward, when feeling warmer in body and spirit, the women joked about their husbands being above, orchestrating the weather like beer-drinking, good-natured versions of the gamemakers in “The Hunger Games.” Adding to that puppet-master feeling: Just after the race, the clouds parted and it was a sunny and pleasant 80-degree day.
‘Me, too’ friendship
A year ago, MacDavid, Infantino and Harmon were strangers who had never met but had much in common. More accurately, their husbands had much in common. Hank Harmon was passionate about music. So was Jason MacDavid, who played throughout Ceres and Modesto in the band Southern Bend. And Dean Infantino enjoyed many a concert with Kari. The men also worked in the construction and property fields: Hank as a commercial real estate broker; Jason for a wholesale plumbing company, Ferguson Enterprises; and Dean for the construction company Devcon. Each was six years older than his wife. And the one unfortunate thing to share: Each had cancer.
Through Jessica’s House, a grief-support center in Turlock, Jessica MacDavid, Kari Infantino and Amy Harmon learned all these things and much more about one another’s families. That, combined with the shared experiences of being, first, the wives of men fighting cancer and, later, widows, led them to form a deep friendship.
It’s what they call their “Me, too” friendship.
My mom has shown so much strength through this process and led me and my sister in how to act and behave and deal with grief. … And having these friends, they’ve been so supportive of her.
Meeting while their children bonded separately in other groups, “it wasn’t long before we were all gathering for dinner outside of Jessica’s House, where we would all be talking and feeling the same way and then we would all say, ‘Me, too. Me, too,’ ” Infantino said. “And so then we just came up with the ‘me, too friends’ because it was so rare and unique to have friends like that, going through the same exact things.”
One of those shared experiences? “We’ve talked a lot about the judgment that is placed on being a widow and what everybody else’s time line for you is,” she said. “Are you smiling too big on Facebook? Do you look like you’re out doing too much? … That’s the biggest thing for me, to have these two girls without judgment.”
The women have found themselves asked less often – or at all – to join “couple friends” who don’t want them to feel like third wheels. Other friends and even family feel awkward: Should they bring up the husbands, or never mention them? There’s none of that within the “me, too” friendship – each knows she can share anything she feels and have the others’ support.
“I think they really help each other,” said Harmon’s daughter, Audrey, 13. “Every time she goes out, it’s with them … and I always notice she feels super-good when she comes back home. Or whenever we come home from having dinner with them, she’s always super-happy.”
One thing that was woven through our three husbands was their love of life and that none of them would want us to just sit back and stay in our beds in our pajamas and not do anything. Not only for us, but to show that role model for our kids.
Even the decision to go to Dallas together for the Big D sprang from “me, too” revelations – Texas ties, if you will. The Harmons lived in Texas six years, and Hank had begun running half marathons the year before being diagnosed. In 2010, Amy and family and friends who called themselves Hank’s Hood did the half marathon in his honor while he – just eight weeks out of surgery – did the 5k. Amy Harmon thought it was time to do the race again, in his memory.
Infantino was on board – Dean loved architecture and always wanted to visit the Cowboys’ stadium. She had planned to take him there for his birthday last year, but he wasn’t feeling up to it.
As for the MacDavids, they were set to move to Texas when Jason’s job fell through and they came to Ceres instead. But his best friend, who he grew up with, lives not far from where the Harmons did, and Jessica hadn’t seen him since Jason’s death. She was in, too.
The trip was therapeutic as they visited the stadium and other sights, Harmon said, and found themselves saying over and over, “Oh, they would have loved this..”
Knocking at Jessica’s door
The friendship the women treasure really is a byproduct of what they sought in the first place: a way to help their children navigate the loss of their fathers.
Infantino heard about the child-focused center Jessica’s House through another support group, Griefshare, and first brought her kids in August. “They loved it right away, felt connected, and we couldn’t wait to come back.”
Harmon recalls her children dragging their feet about going the first time, only to ask “When do we come back?” as they left.
And MacDavid said son Tyler initially went to the center with a groan of, “If I have to.” Only to have the every-other-week visits become a favorite activity. “I think the first time we came, we just complained (to each other) about school – I just had this horrible test, it sucked, it was boring,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to talk to someone” who really understands what you’re going through.
As we shared our trials and things, I think we realized we probably were in chemo on some of the same days, or at UCSF, and not having met but been in these same places at the same time.
Jessica MacDavid, on the kinds of things that led the three women to call theirs a “me, too” friendship
“That’s what I really searched for when I was looking for something – support groups that were more kid-centered,” his mother said. “Because I think as adults – even though it’s turned out to be so beneficial to me, way more than I expected – it was like, OK, I can get through this but I needed something for the kids that allowed them to have an outlet.”
How long do the families think they’ll continue attending Jessica’s House? They’ve no idea.
“I don’t how long it will take, I don’t even have an expectation of a time line,” Harmon said. “The nicest thing is it’s up to us, and that’s understood when you come to Jessica’s House.
“I don’t anticipate leaving here and never talking to these two again,” she said, indicating MacDavid and Infantino. “I was telling somebody the other day, these are the sisters I never had. And they’re on a different level, because they’ve walked this (she pauses, long enough for one of the other women to interject, ‘crappy’) path that we’ve all been given.”
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At a glance
▪ Amy Harmon: Modesto resident, mother of four – Audrey, 13; Cash, 12; Tommy, 10; Henry 5. Husband, Hank, died in June 2016.
▪ Kari Infantino: Riverbank resident, mother of three – Kali 22; Kamryn, 17; Ava, 13. Husband, Dean, died in July 2016.
▪ Jessica MacDavid: Ceres resident, mother of two – Tyler, 16; Lucas, 9. Husband, Jason, died in March 2015.