Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The fragility of life

About two years ago, my uncle had what he thought was a raging case of hayfever, allergies, etc. Constantly coughing. Hoarseness. "Stuff" all in his nose and throat around the clock. He put up with it for months thinking some OTC med would eventually knock it out.

When nothing really helped, he finally relented and went to the doctor. Diagnosis? Cancer.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the epiglottis. Of call the places one can get cancer, I've never known anyone to get it there. Fortunately, the doctors were able to treat the area with heavy rounds of radiation. My uncle was zapped pretty much every week between September and December 2008. In January 2009, he was deemed cancer-free. The radiation was successful.

Or so we thought. Last Friday, April 16, I got the call. The cancer has returned. Its now in both lungs and in his brain. Worse yet, the oncologist said it was terminal.

They plan to give him a round of radiation on his brain beginning today (April 21, 2010) with the hopes of shrinking whatever lesions or tumors he's got up there. If he didn't undergo it, he was told he'd have about a month to live. If the radiation is successful in shrinking the tumors a bit and if some early rounds of chemo are effective, he's been told he may have up to 6 months. Depending on how he reacts to on-going chemo, he might have about a year - max.

He is my mother's younger brother. They have two older brothers. My two older uncles and mother are a good bit older than their younger sibling. While all have had their own health issues, all are still alive and in pretty good health all things considered. So its pretty stunning for everyone to see their kid brother who was a bit of a "surprise from heaven" to my grandparents likely being the first to go.

While I'm not happy with this turn of events, I've found myself pretty composed so far. He and I are really close. When he went through his radiation two years ago, my aunt asked for all of us to limit our phone calls to him. His throat was pretty raw, and his voice was weak. I respected her request and got my updates through her e-mails or via my mother. This time I'm not sure what I'm going to do. Everyone is going to want a few minutes, hours, or days to visit with him before he is gone, and my aunt clearly is going to want to maximize her time with her dying husband.

I visited him most recently in February when I was in town as part of a work trip. But that was just a normal visit. The game was different than it is now. Or is it? Is that altogether a bad thing if it turns out that was our last visit? We spent about 3 hours eating dinner, drinking a couple of beers, swapping stories, laughing, wringing our hands over certain political events, etc.

That's probably how I should act if I'm fortunate enough to visit with him again before he is gone. Would it do either of us any good to spend hours talking about cancer and death? I imagine he's going to have plenty of those conversations with other family members, friends, his wife, his docs, his minister, and himself.

Rather than dwell on his cancer, his treatments, or his looming death, I plan to think of as many ways he positively affected me as I can. Crying doesn't come easily to me. I'm not a songwriter, poet, or painter so crafting my inner thoughts into lyrics or a piece of canvas is out for me. So just ticking off fond memories is about the best avenue I've got to deal with it.

I can't possibly think of all of them now, but here is a starter list. Now way am I hustling him out of this world before his time, but I'm going to start blogging a few of these from time to time as they pop in my head.
  • He was the first relative to treat me as an adult vs. a kid when I was a teenager. My "promotion" from the kid's card table to the adult dining room table at Thanksgiving was due to him.
  • My mother kept me on a short leash when I got my driver's license. But once when my uncle flew into Nashville, he recruited me to drive him to my grandmother's house in his rental car - some 80+ miles away. He taught me about making sure I accelerated on the entrance ramps to blend into traffic and to move to the left to allow other cars to blend into their lane. I wish he could give everyone the same guidance because rarely do today's drivers follow either tip.
  • He got me my first Richard Petty postcard of the STP Charger. He mailed it to me from Florida in the mid 1970s, and I still have it.
  • He took me to my 1st Daytona 500 - 1980 - when Buddy Baker won.
  • My first trip to Hooter's was with him. San Jose Blvd in Jacksonville, FL. More than a mouthful indeed.
  • It was at his house in 1991 after we had a large time at the Firecracker 400 NASCAR race where I had the "too much country" nickname hung on me.
  • His refrigerator always seemed to have an endless supply of cold beverages. With every visit to his current house from 1984 until February 2010, his welcoming words to me: "Hey, how ya doing? Wanna beer?"
  • He taught me a lot about professionalism in the workplace. For example, true professionals don't wear yellow shirts.
  • When I was in college, he opened my eyes a lot about politics and the direction this country was headed.
  • My first dinners of blackened redfish and etouffee were with him.
  • He explained to me the differences in various types of red and white wines. He opened my eyes to enjoy it, match it with a meal, and try wines other than what my budget allowed at the time (e.g T.J. Swan's Easy Nights).
  • I lived with my aunt and him for two summers during college breaks and worked at a warehouse in Orange Park, FL. We frequently stayed up until 2 AM on Friday and Saturday nights drinking beer in the dark on his patio. We talked careers, sports, politics, and relationships. Sometimes we just sat in silence for a few moments until both cans were empty and time came from a fresh one, a bathroom break, or both.
An even dozen. That sounds about right. A dozen doughnuts. A 12-pack of beer. A dozen oysters. The 12 disciples. Good place to end it for now.

But speaking of doughnuts and oysters, let's make it a baker's dozen.
  • I first ate freshly shucked, raw oysters with him and his father-in-law in 1984. Those first few certainly took some getting used to, but I ended up eating a ton of them that night.


  1. Are you saying Dwight Shrute is not a true professional?

  2. I say crack open a beer and share this posting with your uncle - you two will have plenty of things to talk about. xo