That feeling when you can’t do anything to help a friend who has done so much to help you.
Steve Buttry, my former colleague at Digital First Media, who became my friend in the trenches of that work and in the time since we both have moved on, told me he had cancer almost exactly two years ago. Over dinner at a conference in St. Petersburg with his wife, Mimi, he was upbeat and optimistic. He had a more positive attitude about a coming fight with cancer than I did about – well, pick a stupid, minor life annoyance that pales in comparison.
But that’s Steve. At DFM and in jobs before and since, he was always the guy who, in the face of ridiculous legacy media bureaucracy or entrenched culture, believed there was a big picture way forward. And the guy who got right down to work on the specifics and logistics of moving forward.
Two years ago, I had just quit a job that I loved out of frustration and dismay with the direction our company and the industry were taking, and was preparing to strike out into the unknown. And Steve surprised me, repeatedly. First with an out-of-the-blue blog post complimenting me – an invaluable selling point for someone who was about to look for work in a market with a lot of competition for a shrinking number of top newsroom leadership jobs.
It was the nicest gesture of many nice gestures in the days after I left my job, but Steve didn’t go away. Next he wrote me a recommendation letter for a fellowship that was the most thoughtful, kind, and exaggerated words anyone has used to describe my professional abilities. Then he wrote another. Then he provided half a dozen (or more? because I lost count long ago) references for jobs as I frustratingly made it to the finalist stage – but not beyond – for positions.
In between, Steve would send me listings for jobs that he’d heard about or been approached for himself – the kind of opportunities that aren’t advertised. I kept thinking, how do you have the time – and mental presence – to be thinking about other people like this?
And I also thought, what did I ever do for you? Why are you going out of your way to be so nice to me? Still? And the answer was I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. I was just lucky enough to know a guy who got up every morning and thought about helping other people. And I know that there are dozens – no, probably hundreds – of other people who could tell similar anecdotes about him.
Since that dinner, Steve and Mimi have spent an inhumane percentage of the past two years in hospital rooms. And always-optimistic Steve, in the public blog posts he writes with the philosophy that others who are struggling might benefit from transparency about his experience, is now confronting resignation about a diagnosis that no longer offers much hope.
It sucks. And 2016 sucks. And the many, many people who know Steve and Mimi feel helpless. But we are holding them in the light, and sending love with every thought of them.