It began as me taking a story from reporter/friend Kamie Stephen, who was sick.
Really. My one thought was, “this isn’t that bad for an extra assignment.”
Maybe it was because I’d never known my uncle’s family to walk, or because mine hadn’t for years, with summer travel and activities. But then I was sitting across from the cancer survivor, herself, and I remembered my family’s background story of the last year.
You have to ask about the hard stuff, I decided.
Last May, I was living in Blair and had just learned a Texas roadtrip was canned because of my travel companion’s internship, when my mother in North Platte called me from 300 miles away.
“I don’t want to worry you,” she said.
As I walked in the rain from my office to a tea house, I learned that my uncle’s recent mini-strokes were the result of brain cancer. A recent day of fishing with my dad resulted in my uncle begging Dad to stop screaming. Dad was making normal conversation.
Thankfully not in Texas, I instead visited my uncle 30 miles away in Omaha, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. His warm-but-gruff “what’s upppp,” was now loopy. He tried to give me the usual grief — on this day about my nose hoop — but stammered.
He told me all sorts of dirt on my other uncle, until I realized he was speaking about my brother, having confused their names. But before I left, he told me how much he appreciated my parents. I knew he was still there.
Before I turned 10, my grandmother and another uncle died of cancer, two years apart. I played with my cousins while others met to cry, laugh and grieve. I missed my loved ones, but they were in heaven. Kids know what they know.
We’d go to Relay For Life and look at the lit-up paper bags, including luminaries for my uncle and grandma. A survivor would speak. Two teenage girls would sing “Go Light Your World.” And over the years, cancer was similarly detached. Others’ family: kids, parents, grandparents. Others’ uncles-but-not-parents, which somehow detached the pain even more.
At 22, I read John Green’s novel, “A Fault in Our Stars.” It calls out the cliches, like always smiling until the end, and made such a point to be straight-forward about the ugliness, that I naively thought I, too, had some sort of grip.
But now the man who spent weekends camping with us and evenings with us in his home, had a far-away look and a short temper. The guy facetious enough to call dud fireworks “AWESOME!” each Fourth of July, was now baffled at how old my parents’ little neighbor girl was. Mom held up two fingers and said a one-syllable word as slowly as possible.
I mean, he was still himself — joking, camping, fishing and driving. Sunday coffee with my other uncle and dad. A barbecue with my family weeks later, his grandkids in tow. Congratulating me on my new job and asking what it entailed.
Then he congratulated — and asked — again. And both his voice and eyes were far away, and this wasn’t just another person losing hair, losing weight, seeing the world and then going to sleep and being “kept comfortable.”
He was open about how terrified he felt and how dark this felt.
On more than one drive to my own house all of one mile from my parents’, their updates hit me out of nowhere, so I’d sob in my car. I got off work earlier than usual and enjoyed a bath, but finally had time to remember that he wasn’t coming out of the hospital this time, not to barbecue or visit. So I jumped out and sobbed some more. My cousin — my uncle’s other niece — joined the sobbing at Applebees where we thought we were just story-swapping. My parents assured us it was OK to cry — but asked if we wanted to do it elsewhere.
I know it was nothing near what my aunt and other cousins — my uncle’s kids — endured. I know that he fought with all he had. And from the evening of that last update to the day we laughed, cried and spent time with our cousins, we stayed honest and open.
On the first Relay for Life without my uncle, I had a family wedding — knowing my uncle, if I had to miss the event, family felt like the best reason. But Donna and Rose crossed my mind throughout the day. I felt so much joy in their survival, and for the American Cancer Society they represented. From them, I learned that the organization helps with rides to appointments, living expenses and research. In the last year, I learned that those are just as hard — albeit quieter — aspects of the battle.
I don’t know the plight of the survivors or the sufferers. I’m just a witness, still baffled that a person who was just giving me grief about my nose ring isn’t here anymore. But we can all agree: This just shouldn’t happen.