This past weekend, I flew to Atlanta to visit a friend for a couple of days. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip, and there was no specific reason for doing it, other than I just wanted to see my old friend, and that’s enough.
Tuesday night, I went to a substate baseball game in Waverly with another friend. Wednesday, it’s Cedar Rapids — to help out another friend, who’s fighting cancer, like me.
He needs to see me, and I need to see him. And that’s enough.
This weekend, my youngest daughter is flying in from Colorado to see me. The rest of my immediate family is driving up to my home from different corners of the state. I’m going to grill some meat, and there might be a rousing game of cornhole played.
Feel free to stop by. I’ll grill you a burger. If you want to play some cornhole, be prepared for my young nephews to kick your butt. They will humiliate you, in a kind and friendly way.
I’m 10 days from surgery that’s going to put me out of commission for a little while. It’s a side skirmish in a larger battle that I’ve been fighting since 2015.
My cancer diagnosis didn’t look good back then. My surgery nearly three years ago was physically devastating. I was under the blade for more than 11 hours. I was in the hospital for a month, recovered at home for another month. I could not eat any food for three weeks. I could not drink water for two weeks. I could not walk for quite a while — I could barely sit up for several days.
If I can go through all that and come out alive on the other side, anyone can do anything, my friends.
Six months of chemotherapy later, and thankfully the cancer was nowhere to be found — for about a year and a half.
It popped back up and showed itself in March, so I’ve been going through more chemo since then — and now, the impending surgery. I’m told it’s not nearly as extreme as my previous surgery, and prospects look good. We’ve caught the cancer early, it hasn’t spread, I’m physically healthy enough to handle it. My doctors are optimistic.
But, of course, I’m still scared out of my mind.
“Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul.”
That’s a quote from Coach Jim Valvano, something he said in a famous speech he once gave. It’s known as the “never give up” speech.
He was dying of cancer at the time. I remember watching it as it happened live on ESPN, and thinking then that it was more meaningful than any ball game I’ve ever seen on the network — and I’ve seen a lot of them.
I’ve thought of that speech often the last few years. By example, Valvano showed us that as horrible as cancer is, it can force you to put life into perspective. This is one of the reasons why I’ve recently been so intent on connecting with friends, new and old.
“If you laugh, you think and you cry — that’s a full day,” Valvano said. “That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
I recently laughed out loud at some guy on Facebook who commented that he wanted to fight me. He disagreed with my opinion in a column I’d written, and said he hoped he’d “run into me around town.” He claimed that wasn’t a threat, but I’m a 51-year-old who’s not stupid. I’ve been threatened before, and know a threat when I see it. I also know that this is a guy who’s doing life wrong.
First of all, you don’t want to fight a cancer fighter. You’ve got nothing to gain, and a cancer fighter is not afraid of you. Cancer is much more scary than you’ll ever be. If you win, you’ve beaten up someone fighting cancer, so you’re the jerk. If you lose, you’ve been beaten up by someone with cancer, so you’re a failure.
Second of all, you’re really going to threaten to beat me up because I dare to have an opinion that’s different than yours? Maybe instead you should come on over. I’ll cook you a burger and we’ll play some cornhole, where I’ll humiliate you, in a kind and friendly way. I’ll also connect you with some professional people who might be able to help you, if you want. Maybe we can even be friends.
Because friendship is what it’s all about, folks. There have been times when some of my oldest, most devoted friends and I haven’t been able to agree on anything. We’ve darn near come to blows. But we’ll always be friends.
We seek out friends and allies all our lives, from the moment we’re toddlers and aware of the world, all the way to our final moments of cognitive thought. I believe it’s a survival instinct — the world is a dangerous, threatening place, and we seek out others who make us feel safe and secure.
Back in the day of the caveman, that usually meant safety from natural disasters and saber-toothed creatures who wanted to eat you. Nowadays, it might mean safety from attacks by schoolyard and internet bullies, or safety from the wrath of your local clique of vindictive mean girls.
Or maybe safety from the pain of cancer, surgery and recovery.
I’ve been seeking out friends, old and new, for the past few weeks. These are the the people who I feel safe with. These are the people who make me laugh, make me cry, and make me think.
And they won’t let me fight alone. They won’t let me give up. And that’s enough.