In Christopher Cox’s final days, 40 or 50 people would gather every evening in his driveway on lawn chairs, taking turns visiting him inside, swapping stories, taking refreshments and chatting, as though it were a tailgate.
The Gallitzin Fire Company chief died Friday at age 45 after a nine-month battle with inoperable cancer.
“The outpouring this guy received, the amount of people who loved him, he got to see while he was alive” was comparable to gatherings of loved ones and expressions of solidarity normally reserved for wakes and funerals, AMED Executive Director Gary Watters said of the former AMED paramedic.
“(Although) to see that, he had the curse of knowing he was going to die,” Watters said.
During that nine months, her husband didn’t complain or ask “Why me?” his wife, Jenn, said.
He had no patience for people saying “sorry” for what was happening, she said.
“For what?” he would ask. “It will be OK.”
In that way, he was protecting the people who cared about him from feeling bad.
“Sad isn’t really his thing,” Jenn said.
The experience was mutually beneficial, according to his friend, Jim Detrick.
“A lot of focus went towards him,” Detrick said of the gatherings in the driveway and visits in the house — which were representative of his being out and about during the whole nine months after treatment was no longer possible. “But he got to tell a lot of people how much he loved them.”
It was “a two-way street,” Detrick said.
The people who attended to him during his illness were his “tribe,” Jenn said.
At 6-foot-8 and about 400 pounds, with a wedding ring whose opening was bigger than a 50-cent piece, he was an intimidating presence, according to Watters and Jenn.
But there was no need to worry, because he was actually “a soft-spoken jokester,” Watters said.
Once, for St. Patrick’s Day, he dressed up as a leprechaun, along with another AMED employee who was just over 5 feet, Watters said.
One Halloween, he insisted on dressing up as Shrek, while Jenn, who is 5-foot-1, dressed as Fiona.
And one time, he kept a car warranty telemarketer on the phone for 30 minutes discussing the possibility of obtaining a warranty for a fictional 1970s-era Dodge Dart, Watters said.
The joking habit disguised his intelligence, which became apparent during serious talks — and when Cox earned a master’s degree in two years while working at AMED that ended up enabling him to land a safety director’s post at Penn State, Watters said.
Cox was also caring.
He was instrumental in organizing AMED’s annual toy drive, Watters said.
He was a devoted father to the two daughters he and Jenn adopted seven years ago, after they discovered they would not be “blessed” with biological children.
Jenn encountered the siblings as a foster care caseworker.
She came home and declared that she and Chris would be adopting them.
“You’re delirious,” he said.
But when he met them, he came around.
“There was no question,” Jenn said.
When the process was complete almost two years later, the girls, who were 6 and 9, called him “Chris.”
Within days, though, it was “Dad.”
They’ve taken on his characteristics, including his humor and, at least in some instances, his clumsiness, Jenn said.
He was the fun parent, got them Nerf guns for Christmas and would OK ice cream for supper.
He wasn’t one for rules, Jenn said.
Nothing stressed him out or caused him to panic.
When one of the girls fell and broke off a front — adult — tooth, he was calm.
His daughter also remained calm as they arranged for a dentist — to such an extent that despite the nerve in her tooth being exposed, she seemed to feel no pain, Jenn said.
During his illness, Cox, who started in the fire service at 16, and who became a fire instructor, fulfilled a series of last wishes.
They took “one more cruise” with their daughters, despite his being in a wheelchair, Jenn said.
He pitched a couple of innings in a softball game, on his feet, over Jenn’s initial objections, said Detrick, who reassured her that “nothing’s going to hurt him now.”
They watched “Top Gun” at a local theater, after Jenn arranged for a private showing, which about 90 people attended.
And he and Jenn made all the post-mortem arrangements.
“He had goals, and he met those goals,” which enabled him to be “content” when he died, Detrick said.
“He was just living,” Jenn said. “Living until he couldn’t live any more.”