Friday, July 29, 2011

#354: Fighters, Survivors, and the Battle That Goes On

 Five of us, a cousin, a brother, an aunt, a friend, and a Pennsyltuckian all diagnosed with cancer within days of one another. Now there is only one left to tell our story.

Mrs P and Elvin
Cousin Elvin died last night. The cancer in his brain had been stealing him from the family bit by bit. He couldn't speak. Couldn't walk. Couldn't remember. His may have been the cruelest death of all. Elvin's life was joy itself. He was always joking, usually at his own expense. He laughed easily and when he wrapped his big arms around you, you knew you were being loved on. The day I met Elvin, he told the story of stopping by a farm to buy a calf. He had already given the man the money when he realized that he wasn't driving his truck, but his little "Datsun Car."  He flipped the passenger seat down and wrestled that calf in beside him while he drove down the red dirt roads with the windows down so the little gal could stick her nose out and give him room to work the stick shift. It sounds like too good a story to be true, but knowing Elvin, it was too good not to be true. Whenever we would stand next to one another, he would joke that Mrs P had to go all the way to New York City to find a husband bigger than he was. Bigger, maybe, but no tougher. Tough enough that he could never button the top button of a suit coat around his enormous chest. He looked like one of those old-time circus strong men who ripped phone books and bend crow bars with their hands. Tough enough that I don't ever remember him hugging me goodbye without whispering, "I love you." in my ear. I never knew anybody named "Elvin" before Mrs P took me to Kentucky for the first time. And I've never met a man like him before or since. May God bless and guide him home.

"Pa" with his pride and joy
Doug was Mrs P's oldest brother, but he loved me like his own blood. The cancer was so far along when they found it in his colon that they gave him just a few months to live. With courage, stubbornness, and faith in God, he outlasted that grim estimate by almost a year. He knew dying was going to be hard, but he knew he would not face death alone. The last time I saw him, lying on his death bed, surrounded by the people he loved, he raised his tear filled eyes to heaven and said, "It's all gonna be worth it." He knew that God would make good come out of this, even this awful loss. "It's nothing compared to what he suffered on the cross."

"Aint Cathr'n"
Aunt Catherine was a smoker, like so many in our family, and like so many of them, cancer took her lungs. It stole her breath, eventually even her laughter, but it could not take her joy, her love for her family, or her faith in God. Yes, she was happy, but Catherine was not a woman you wanted to cross. Once she accidentally cut a fellow off in traffic, and the boy was so mad that he tailgated her all the way to the Wal-Mart parking lot. Now she was sorry for cutting him off, but he finally got on her last nerve. She screeched to a halt, jumped out of her little sedan, marched back to the big pick up and rapped on the window. "Son, you just ain't had no raisin' at all, have you?" By the time she was done chewing on him, that good old boy was probably glad she didn't send him out back to cut him a switch. Catherine was always the one who showed up when anyone was sick or hurt. She could fill a room with her smile. She used to make fried pies for Mrs P and me when we visited her trailer house for breakfast. Catherine didn't own much, but she was one of the richest women I ever knew. Her treasury was so filled with love that she couldn't help but give it away. She always called you "Honey," and she always said goodbye with, "I love you, Hon." When I was sick, she prayed harder for me than she did for herself.

Bloody Alan
Alan was our friend and our vet. We used  to joke that our cats hated him so much that they called him "Bloody Alan." It was funny because it was so far from the truth. Alan loved animals with an almost missionary fervor. Healing them was his vocation, his sacred calling. He held our first cat in his arms, breathing into her mouth and nose, giving her CPR long after she had drawn her own last breath. He held our Kitten, Mo in his hands as he nursed the little guy back from the brink of death and sent him home with us for the next 15 years. Alan wasn't so lucky. He knew the cancer they found in his pancreas was terminal, right from the start. I was afraid I might die. Alan knew he would. But he never let cancer break his heart. He once wrote to thank me for my blog. He stayed a strong and faithful friend, right to the end.

Fat Man dying... 2008
Pennsy. So that leaves me. By 2008, the fat man in this picture had done everything he could to invite cancer into his life. Two hundred pounds overweight. Twenty years of cigarettes. Never slept right. Never ate right. Ignored his high blood pressure and the pains in his legs until his blood clotted from inactivity. Embracing his own shame and depression until his wife took him to a mental hospital to keep him from killing himself. Any rational captain would look at this crew and say, "throw that one out of the lifeboat. He's the one who will die of cancer." But I didn't. I'm the one who lived. You ever read about "survivor guilt?" I don't have to read about it any more. At one point in the play I'm rehearsing, my character describes the way he was saved from the 9/11 attacks. "If I hadn't run into that guy in the stairwell. Some guy with a flashlight. I don't know who that guy was. I'll never know... I'd be gone too. I should be gone, too."

Sure, I'm grateful to be alive. But it's hard to see much justice in it.

My nephew the Preacher says that God saved me for a reason. I hope he's right. I ask myself every day what that reason might be. Maybe I can give people hope. I can make my life an example, a witness to the fact that even the least deserving Fat Man can keep fighting. You don't have to give up. You don't have to be a slave to food or tobacco or work or your own guilt and sadness. Not even to cancer. You can find help. You can find love. You are not beyond hope.You can get up and run. I hope that's what people see when they see me running or acting or holding hands with my wife, or cutting up in the back row. I hope they find it here on FMR. I hope they see it, when I give them hell for smoking or invite them to join me for a walk or sit silently with them as they wrestle with their own fear of dying. I hope they see that they can fight for their own life, like the five of us did. We fought the bastard to the end. Today, our cancers are dead, but we are still alive. I'm still running, and Alan and Doug and Catherine and Elvin are "dancing around the throne of Jesus," like the Preacher says. None of us were perfect. I was the least perfect of all. I still am. But God saved me to tell our story. Maybe to be a small part of your story.

Cancer killed four of us. But it didn't beat any of us. It couldn't. We refused to give up. We were hundreds of miles apart, but we five still gave one another the strength to keep fighting. And God gave us the strength to help each other. I am here because of them. I can keep running because of them.

And now, so can you.

God, please bless Elvin and Catherine and Alan and Doug. You chose each for a special ministry in this world, and they did their best to serve you. They are with you now, and we are left behind to try to make some sense of the way they lived and the way they died. We are left to remember them with laughter and tears, and to honor them with lives that are better because we knew them. Lord, help us to keep their love alive as we share it with one another. Help us to fight against cancer and all the things that would rob us of the life you created in us. And Lord, if you have the time, please let them know that we love them. We miss them. That we can't wait to see them again. And especially, that we are so very, very grateful for all that they gave us during our too short time together. And please ask that calf to forgive old Elvin for stuffing her into his little Datsun car. He didn't mean no harm by it.



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