My first experience with cancer was at the age of 6 when 3 of my dad’s former coworkers came down with brain cancer. They had been sign painters in the 1960s in a basement paintroom with no ventilation. It was just a matter of time before breathing in those toxic fumes would catch up with them and it did, with a vengeance.
I remember going with my parents to visit one of the men. He went by the nickname of “Sparrow” a strange name for a tall, strapping, dark haired handsome man. When we arrived at the nursing home in Jordan, it was like something out of a child’s worst nightmare. A huge building of red brick built in the early 1900’s with the look of a horror story sanitorium. The halls were dark, ceilings low and confining, the paint was peeling from iron stair rails, and the smell of bleach, urine, and death filled the air.
Sparrow was in a room on the third floor. A dreary dark and silent room with only the gasp of a respirator to break the silence. The atmosphere was one of waiting. Waiting for this once strong and active man to pass or waiting for him to suddenly wake up from his morphine and cancer induced coma.
His hair was still dark, untouched by the frost of age. His skin was sallow but clear, his hands at his side’s were still massive and bore scars from years of hard work. A hose attached to his trachea took the breaths his lungs could no longer draw on their own. Before us was the ruin of a man I had once though of as a giant when we first met.
After years of lying unconscious, Sparrow died a day after our visit. It was as though he was waiting for that last conversation with my dad. To hear how his old workplace was functioning and to get the latest news about all his former friends before he was ready to give up the fight.
Jump forward 15 years and my junior year in college. I was a happy college student at the top of my class. I spent most of my time studying but had met a young man who became a best friend and someone I could see myself dating. A month after we met I went with my parents to a doctor’s appointment for dad to have his colonoscopy. Sitting in the waiting room I never expected the doctor to call my mother and I into his office to tell us that dad had colon cancer.
A tumor the size of a baseball and 13 inches of his colon were removed a week later and life was thrown drastically into perspective. My college friend was with me through it all in the form of daily phone calls and emails of support and encouragement. I fell in love.
Dad’s cancer was contained to that one tumor by the grace of God and he avoided the misery of chemo and radiation. He wasn’t the same after the surgery either. Fear and his own brush with mortality had aged him.
About the time we were getting the good news about my dad’s prognosis my friend back at college found out his grandmother had lung cancer. I had not met her yet but she had raised my friend practically from infancy to adulthood so this was a particularly hard blow.
The 8 years I spent dating her grandson, we saw Grandma Pat in and out of the hospital. She would get healthy then have to go in for more rounds of Chemo. In the end she was at home unconscious in a hospital bed. I could not leave her side. So I would sit up every night with her, holding her hand while her children squabbled over who would inherit what. I loved Pat with all my heart and even when her grandson and I were getting ready to break up the last thing she ever said to me was ” I don’t care what they say about you, you are a good woman and I love you!”
Those words coming from a woman who once owed 30 Arabian horses, drove all over the country by herself to show her horses, was married to a chronic cheater, and had to help run a resort that was not her dream, meant more to me than any compliment I could ever receive.
Pat took her last breath on new years eve 2008. The funeral was an epic event with people lined up outside to offer condolences well into the night. I gave the eulogy, and while the words I spoke are a distant memory I will never forget how my simple reminders of how great a woman Pat was, forced her family to stop their bickering if only for a moment and remember how blessed they were to have had her as a mother, wife, grandmother, and friend.
Finally, my most recent experience with cancer was the diagnosis of leukemia for the greatest man I ever knew, my “dad” Charlie. Charlie was the kind of man people pray to have as a father. He was selfless, kind, intelligent, understanding, loving, and most of all the kind of man who made me smile every time he walked into the room. From the first day I met him he took me under his wing and accepted me, flaws and all. Charlie believed in me, he believed in me when no one else in my life ever did. He encouraged my art, enjoyed spending time with me, and treated me like an equal. We conversed about everything from tools to guns to my goats of which he got such a kick out of. I loved him with all my heart and in his own gruff way I think he loved me too.
This past fall Charlie was diagnosed with Leukemia. A month later I was sitting with the family by his hospital bed as he took his last breath. Again, someone so strong, so full of life, so incredible, so loved was brought down by something that none of us have the power to stop. I remember praying over and over for God to let me take his place because he had a family, children. Grandchildren who needed him when all I was was a broke receptionist who would never be half the person Charlie was. But life and God don’t work that way as so here I am left behind with Charlie’s memories, some if his ashes in a rifle shell casing hanging from the rearview mirror of the truck that was once is and is now mine to remind me of a man I loved more than any man who has ever entered my life.
Today I went in for a cancer test of my own, I am writing this in the waiting room as a matter of fact. I will have no fear, no anger, no bitterness no matter what the results may be. I am ready for what life throws at me because I have faith on my side, the love of family and of friends, and the determination that nothing will get me down or try to prevent me from living life on my terms. I have been blessed 10 fold in my life and as they say “You only live once but if you do it right, once is enough.”