Cancer. It’s a six letter word that denotes a constellation filled with bright, blazing stars in astronomy, a birth month in astrology, both good and useful things.
It also is one of the most prolific killers on earth. I should know, I’ve seen it’s handiwork front and center as it scythed a wide swath through the most important people in my world.
You see, I’ve borne witness to its desecration of the human body, but have as well been amazed at the strength of will inhabiting those same human forms. From aunts and uncles, to my sibling, parents and best friend, I’ve learned just how weak we humans can become physically; yet at the same time, just how powerful the will to survive and thrive is when the chips are down.
I first learned about what blood runs through our family’s veins when my Aunt Virginia found herself diagnosed with the big C. Right about that same time, my Aunt Shirley was also diagnosed. While I was mostly removed from the situation, living in another city, I knew from the haunted look in my mother’s eyes that their struggle was deeply affecting our family’s normally jovial way of being.
My Aunt Shirley was fortunate, and kicked cancer in the arse. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my Aunt Virginia.
A beautiful, full-figured woman with an operatic voice, and my mother’s best friend. She as well was Ma’s harmony partner (these two voices blended gorgeously in my personal estimation). When she left this earth, her sister felt her loss more deeply than any of us knew.
While Ma continued to live and grow as a strong, self-sufficient woman, she was forever changed. Her fun-loving spirit took a hit, and took some time to return. As well, it was painful to listen to her try to sing when the trauma of my aunt’s passing completely obliterated her deep, smokey tenor instrument. It took her years to rebuild it, and even then, it lost some of its rich, textured sound that had been her pride and joy. I have recordings she made for us kids from that period, and I find them painful to listen to.
Through the years, I have known death. Death from AIDS. Death from heart trouble. Death from life’s misfortunes, and death through one final act of sadness during times of despair. I’ve known far too much death for a man of 49. But, surviving my own challenges both physical and mental, I’ve come to realize just how tough I am, even when I’m at my weakest.
At times I’ve grown complacent, comforted in the fact that I’m the proverbial cat, and thinking I’ll always land on my feet, no matter how far I fall.
I couldn’t have known in my misspent youth that I’d be watching events unfold as they have in recent years.
Cancer lied in wait…knowing it would rear its ugly self, sooner or later.
My friend Brenda.
Brenda was the one someone on this earth that truly understood my darkness, and yet helped me to revel in the light that good friendship can bring. In short, she was a gift from God.
One day a few years ago, she called me and asked me to give her away at her wedding. I was deeply moved. When later meeting with her to discuss her upcoming nuptials, she then asked me to sing at her funeral. I laughed hysterically. How could I have known the woman was being self-prophetic.
The big day arrived, and I proudly walked her down the aisle, and beamed as I gave her away. Later that evening, I sang an old Bobby Darin tune at her wedding reception.
Six months later, we met to have lunch. She told me she was waiting for her test results, as she had felt weak recently. Lunch was short and very alarming as she became violently ill just with a few spoonfuls of broth. We said our goodbye’s, both of us knowing something horrible was coming.
I never saw her alive again.
How could I have known I’d be singing “The Rose” at her funeral, A Capella, fighting back the urge to bawl instead of singing her off to glory, a mere six months after taking her towards her betrothed.
I will be forever moved that she wanted me to take part in her life. I’m touched that she felt deeply enough for me to give me a role in both her happiest and saddest moments. I’ll never forget her laughter, her love of life, and the faith she had in our friendship.
My father witnessed the loss of most of his siblings to cancer, and other maladies (only one remains). Battling cancer himself, it could not have been easy to say goodbye so many times in such a short period. Yet he kept smiling, kept fighting, and not a one of us ever heard so much as a whimper during his darkest hours.
I’ve never been more proud to be his son.
This last year has been particularly hard on us all. Five members of my family in all battled this damned disease. While I’m thrilled to report that both my sister and father showed cancer the door, with middle digit extended in a baleful salute to its attempts to steal their wellness; others were less fortunate.
There is nothing more powerful than seeing the underdog duke it out with an opponent five times his size. It’s even more inspiring when that big bully is laid out on the mat while the dark horse gallops around the ring, triumphant.
That’s my Pa!
While he struggled and triumphed, battle after battle, Mama was facing a much tougher fight.
She developed the worst possible cancer there is, and fought like a badger, never once giving up, or complaining about treatments that literally cooked her from the inside out.
Her procedures took her body and mind, and literally destroyed both, one piece at a time. The fact that she’s still swinging, even with so little of her left, as cancer once again preys upon her cells and flesh, has me utterly amazed. But then, she’s always had her fists up when confronted. None of this is a great surprise to any of us.
I take a great deal of comfort in knowing I’m made of that same stern stuff.
During her battle, her older brother, my Uncle Hazen, also developed that same aggressive cancer. He fought the good fight, never even contemplating surrender until the bitter end. While his loss was deeply felt throughout my family, the one person that felt his absence more than anyone was my dear Aunt Mona, his wife.
I was wholly fortunate in finding the friendship that developed between my Aunt Mona as well as myself. She became my confident, my champion, as well as my biggest cheerleader when my health took a turn for the worse.
I will always remember the scrawled handwritten note she mailed to me. It was in as bad a penned state visually as anything I had ever written (I’m convinced illegible handwriting is a Libra thing), yet it’s words had this old bear bawling his eyes out. I sent a photo of it to Ma, and she followed suit.
She truly was a remarkable soul, one I’m blessed to have been able to call not just my aunt, but friend.
I just hope that I live a life worthy of the vision she saw for me in her words. I am forever changed by them.
Sadly, she was not with us long enough for me to give her that one final hug. During her husband’s and her sister in law’s battle, she also developed cancer, and while she fought it off for a while, she eventually succumbed to it, as once her sister Margie had, a little over a month or so after my Uncle Hazen had left this plane of existence.
I miss her every day. I however, received a wonderful consolation prize. Her daughter, my cousin, Jeanette…after being so far out of touch for so many years, we reclaimed that common ground we had long-lost track of, and are, quite frankly, as thick as thieves now.
Her wisdom, courage, no-nonsense attitude, and frank nature have truly kept me buoyant throughout this tempest, and I pray I’ve been as solid a life-preserver for her during some of her most painful moments.
Lastly, there’s my younger (sometimes older) sister Shannon.
Some months back, she let me know she found lumps on her breast. I told her not to worry, lumpy breasts were something Ma complained about.
We waited for the results.
Unfortunately, she had cancer as well.
Fortunately, she caught it early.
With that same indomitable spirit all her elders had demonstrated, she fought the good fight. Today was her last volley with the radiation treatments. I’m relatively certain she’s kicked cancer to the curb. I honestly am most grateful her sons and husband still have their mother to drive half-crazy. Lord knows this could have ended very differently.
I’ve lived a blessed life, despite some of the setbacks; things everyone on this earth must deal with at one point or another. In saying that, I must add that I’ve been surrounded by angels, both spiritual as well as physical.
I’ve been both moved as well as knocked down, proving I’m all too human. But I also get up, time and time again, and stand tall on that same patch of ground, defying anyone or anything that attempts to plant me on my considerable asses. Yet, in saying that, I have also been inspired by the sheer will of those that have faced deeper adversity than my life experience has allowed; shedding grateful tears at their triumphs. Those same tears fall in remembrance for those that fought the good fight, right up until the end.
I’m made of tough stock, despite my sentimental heart. I’m deeply proud that in among my family, I’ve yet to see the fall of any toy soldiers in my midst when called to battle.
I wish you, the reader, a blessed New Year, and close with this thought:
Love someone when it’s easier to hate, forgive someone when it’s the hardest thing to do; and above all, say something kind to that person in your mirror each and every morning. You may not always be rewarded, but it will build strength of character from within.
As time goes on, sequence of events can sometimes be lost in the milieu of one’s life. This is from my father…and I apologize for not remembering this.
“Your Uncle bill (my brother) died a week before your Aunt Virginia. I remember being in Saint John looking after Billy until he passed and then going to Toronto to be with your Mom and Aunt until she passed.”
This is a first hand testament to the strength of character and spirit that exists within my family.