Survivor’s Remorse

Yep, that's about right.

Yep, that’s about right.

A year later, it turns out I’m going to live. At least for awhile (give or take the potential of getting smushed by a bus). Now what?

They say there are stages of grief. I probably experienced a portion of them all over the last 12 months following my cancer diagnosis. Denial and Isolation? Hell yeah. Anger? Absolutely. Bargaining? Kinda sorta. Depression? Sure, why not. Acceptance? Well, four out of five ain’t bad, right?

I named this navel gazing, insightful. narcissistic, self-absorbed site “A Blog Called Quest” because a: I didn’t have a better idea. Actually, there is no B. It’s just A. Well, A and the fact that these guys remain the greatest hip-hop group of all-time. So much for truth in advertising. It’s definitely a blog. A quest? Hmmm. Depends on your definition of the word. I could have called it “obvious midlife crisis hastened a bit by unlikely diagnosis of disease that sounds way scarier than it actually is” but the URL was just a little too long.

So what now? After 10 cycles of chemo (and two more to go by September) I’m as healthy as I’ve been since before my kids were born.I went back for a maintenance cycle last month. I’ve had oil changes that were more emotional. My disease isn’t the first thing I think about in the morning or the last thing I think about at night. Call it the upside of arrogance. I never worried that this thing would get me, even as I see others in the handful of Facebook groups I’ve joined struggle to repair their lives as the medicine that’s given me a second chance wreaks havoc with their own immune systems.

The default line here is I should be thankful, right?

A year ago I couldn’t climb the stairs in my house without thinking I was having a heart attack. Now if I do less than an hour on the treadmill or the sorority girl (note, that nickname came from a female cousin in law) errr elliptical machine I get cranky. I’m thinking about a 5K in a couple of weeks (my first race in a decade) and can’t wait until I become one of “those guys” who take their bike riding waaaaay too seriously sometime later this spring even if the truth is I typically get lapped by kids on tricycles.

I would love to sit here and tell you that I’ve figured it out, that I’ve figured me out. Yet I’m no closer now than I was the day my oncologist told me “Hey, you’ve got a rare form of incurable cancer but you’re going to be fine.” He was absolutely right of course, but reconciling two drastically different notions has been maddening.

Cancer got my father at 59. My brother-in-law at 35. Dad built houses. Bill was a teacher (and a good one). There is no explanation for what happened. How a non-smoker can be struck down in his prime by lung cancer is something I’m never going to figure out. How esophageal cancer turned a 6-foot-6, 230-pound titan into a graying, frail old man in six months is terrifying.

My experience has been far different. I’ve joked repeatedly that I have “JV” cancer. Most people think it’s me just being modest (important: as much as I try, modesty isn’t really my thing). I’ve sat in chairs next to folks nearing the end. I’ve watched the nurses come out wearing the blue scrubs with the chemo bags and tenderly administer it. I get four shots to the stomach and a four-hour drip of a drug that is basically little more than a reminder to my white blood cells to get to work and start kicking cancer’s ass.

It’s hard not to think about why I was spared. Why is my life more valuable than any those facing far more dire circumstances. It’s like watching a disaster movie where the entire planet is wiped out but hey, the protagonist is gonna live so really, everything is gonna be OK.

I wish I could tell you I’ve found my purpose. Lord knows I’ve been searching for one. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I have spent far too much of the first half of my life screwing around. And yet old habits die hard. I still play video games. I still obsess over what my professional contemporaries are doing (and just as importantly, what I’m NOT doing.) I still stare at my phone way too much, and while I’m becoming more of a grownup on Twitter, I’m still not exactly a paragon of responsible tweeting.

My smart friend Nancy (disclaimer, while this happens to be her name this is also a blatant ripoff of this guy’s work) says repeatedly “You had cancer, not a lobotomy.” Sometimes I’d almost prefer the latter (and my incredibly patient wife would agree). Far too often over the last year I’ve sounded like every politician who has ever promised “change” (no offense Mr. President) only to discover the mechanisms of democracy make progress a difficult and sometimes ugly slog (I’m looking at you Indiana).

I get told all the time that I’m being too hard on myself. That what I’m going through is completely natural, that I need to give myself a break. And I get it. Yet when I’m sitting there undergoing treatment and I see people who would likely switch places with me in an instant, it’s hard not to feel like every second when you waste not maximizing your life is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

There was a blissful stretch last summer where I really did unplug. I focused on my health and my family. I took time off work. I stayed out of the bubble I had lived in for far too long.

Then my numbers started ticking up. I felt my strength return. And the bubble returned, version 2.0. And I realized how incredibly fortunate I am. At my core though, it only made the issues I’ve struggled with for years seem only more urgent.

Every day I deal with intensified expectations. I want to be the best father. The best husband. The best writer. The best son. The best brother. The best (insert whatever I’m doing at a given moment). Every damn day. I can say unequivocally I am a better person than I was five years ago. At the same time that pursuit has made my awareness of my own shortcomings only more acute.

God didn’t spare me so I could win the Stanley Cup on my Playstation one more time. (At least, I’m figuring he didn’t). Trying to figure out what to do with the 40ish years I have left is perplexing. My greatest gift as a writer is my ability to get a handle on people. Whether it’s the best gymnast in the world or the kid at the end of the bench. I can ask the right questions, talk to the right people. And yet I’m no closer to getting the gears in my head straight than I was a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 20.

At least now, though, I’m trying. My family is in the process of joining a church, something my wife and kids have somehow taken faster to than I have. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone by volunteering for a non-profit. I might not save the world. Not all of it anyway. But I will do my part if it freaking kills me.

Which, thankfully, blessedly it won’t. Not anytime soon at least.

Cancer might not be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it might be among the most important. To fully embrace my life, first I had to realize I might lose it. What a world. What a ride. The quest continues.

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–30–

Blood in, Blood out

blood donor pic

 

She sits quietly at the table absent-mindedly skimming the reading for her Russian film class. She doesn’t really want to, exactly, but the class is in an hour and she might as well because if 17 years of school have taught Alana Carr anything about herself, it’s that all those As didn’t simply appear on her report card because she simply wanted them to.

Outside the William Pitt Union student union it’s one of those Pittsburgh mornings that in its own Stockholm syndrome way isn’t that depressing. Cold but not that cold. Gray but not that gray. Bleak but … well actually it is pretty damn bleak but hey, at least we’re alive, right?

Tucked inside a lower level lounge Carr welcomes the slow trickle of students who have shown up for an impromptu Red Cross Blood Drive, one arranged with less than a week’s notice after a drive at another business was cancelled. Some of the kids are bleary-eyed, some are in a rush, some nervous, all of them practically buried in their phones. Each of them greeted with smile as they make their way to the reception desk, where Carr _ the vice president of Pitt’s Red Cross Club _ cheerily awaits with questions she memorized long ago.

“Do you have an appointment? Do you have a donor card? Is this your first time? Can you please take a seat and read this over? Great, when you’re done give it back to me and hop down the steps so the nurses can take care of you.”

There are more than 1,000 students on the Pitt Red Cross Club mailing list, but if Carr is being honest there are maybe 40 or so truly active members. They do things like plan visits to local VA hospitals, volunteer at camps and help raise money for disaster relief. But that’s not why Carr joined as a freshman. It’s not why she’s spent the last four years asking the same questions over and over, why she’s only too happy to take a random volunteer, give them 30 seconds of instruction then put them to work.

The way Carr figures it, she owes each person that walks through the door one.

More than one, probably.

She can’t quite remember when it started. Maybe it was her sophomore year of high school. Maybe she was a junior. What she does know is one day she could rip through marching band practice with her flute at the ready and the next day she was gasping for breath trying to keep up. She felt like she was suffocating. Her mind wanted her to get moving. Her heart had other plans.

A battery of tests revealed anemia. Not the kind that you treat with a couple of iron pills and fistfuls of spinach. The kind where your body struggles to get the oxygen where it needs to go. The kind of which there is no real cure, the one that can make an 18-year-old feel like she’s 80.

Carr spent more than a year receiving transfusion after transfusion, relying on bag after bag to sustain her until her doctors and her body could sort things out. While it’s under control at the moment, she understands it won’t be forever. She can tell what kind of day it’s going to be on how she feels after climbing her first flight of steps.

Ask her why a kid from Chicago with a blood disorder decided to go to school at a place where you have to scale Cardiac Hill to get anywhere and she just laughs.

She can afford to now, now that her blood is behaving. Now that she’s weighing her postgraduate options as she ponders medical school after spending four years as a premed major. Maybe Loyola Chicago. Or an Ivy League school. Or maybe someplace out west.

The future is a blank slate, one made possible in part by the charity of strangers she’ll never meet. This is how the whole give blood thing works.

A wave of her hand and she’s off to class _ she never did really read that Russian film class paper _ while another wave of Red Cross Club members file in. One girl is volunteering for the first time and spends 40 minutes quietly keeping to herself before ducking out. Others scatter about as donors come in, offering water or juice to some, ushering others from one station to the next.

The donors wait dutifully, a good 20 to 30 minutes after finishing up, before heading out. Some accept the free T-shirt; others don’t. They’re not here for the swag (though to be fair, the T-shirts are pretty good as far as these things go). They could be selling their plasma for a little extra beer money, asleep in their dorms, studying for midterms, or playing in a Madden tournament against half of their floor–but they’re not. They’re carving an hour out of their day just because.

It’s not heroic exactly. Yet for people like Carr (and me) who can no longer donate but have relied on the occasional transfusion to survive, their selfless act is humbling.

And _ unfortunately _ all too rare.

While 40 percent of the population can donate, only 10 percent of eligible donors roll up their sleeve, grab the stress ball and wait for the pinch of the needle. (Note: IT DOESN’T HURT.) This means that the entire blood supply relies on the generosity of 4 percent of the population.

That’s not a typo.

There’s a shortage in Western Pennsylvania at the moment, a byproduct of a nasty flu season that’s forced some regular donors to push back their next visit and a particularly brutal winter that has forced several drives to be postponed. There’s not blood enough to go around, at least not in any sort of sustainable way. Clever marketing, peanut butter crackers, donation stickers (which run second only to “I voted” stickers) and plush T-shirts can only get you so far. Donation is a personal and sometimes time-consuming act. People are busy. They can’t be bothered. They’ll do it next time.

Here’s a suggestion. Check that. Here’s a plea: make now the next time. Not when you can get around to it. Not when the mood strikes.

Now.

The funny thing is most of us (like say, me) don’t realize how valuable the gift is until you’re on the receiving end. Until you’re the one getting prepped for transfusion. Until you’re with the red bracelet they make transfusion recipients wear wrapped around your wrist. Until you’re studying the numbers on the bag and wondering who provided the one thing you absolutely needed to survive.

At some point in your life, you’re probably going to need it. And it’s only then that you’ll wish desperately that you’d given more back when you had the time, the health and the motivation.

Do it for Alana so she can spend the next 40 years exploring her potential as a mental health professional or wherever else her life may lead.

Do it for the folks sitting in cancer treatment centers who desperately need transfusions to keep them going until the chemo starts to work.

Do it for those coming out of life-saving surgery.

Do it for the thousands who will walk into blood clinics this week anxiously awaiting the best (and most natural) drug there is.

Do it for the snacks or the stickers or the warm feeling in your soul or the T-shirt.

Do it so you can get out of class or an afternoon of work.

Do it so you can one-up your neighbor on the “do gooder” list.

Or maybe do it so that one day you’re not sitting in a chair giving yourself a guilt trip knowing one of the few things keeping you alive is the blind benevolence of a complete stranger.

Do it so I’ll shut up about it (note: I probably won’t shut up about it).

Red Cross. Central Blood Bank. Your local hospital. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t cost money. It won’t eat up your weekend. Oh, and it won’t hurt. Promise.

To schedule a donation appointment, click here: http://www.redcrossblood.org/give/drive/driveSearch.jsp

or here: http://www.centralbloodbank.org/donate-blood

or here: http://club25pledge.org/

or follow @RedCross or @CentralBloodorg or join if you’re at Pitt, email redcrossclub@list.pitt.edu for help.

March is National Red Cross Month. It’s also National Frozen Food Month and Irish American Month and National Craft Month. If you can squeeze in an hour between National Pig Day (March 1) to National Ear Muff Day (March 13) and National Bunsen Burner Day (March 31), someone you’ve never met but whose life you’ll help save would greatly appreciate it.

The needle isn’t big. The nurses are great. The snacks are solid. The T-shirt a solid option on laundry day.

It isn’t heroic. But it is necessary. For Alana. For me. And maybe one day for you. Pay it forward so one day it can pay you back.

Play us out, Bob:

 

 

SCOREBOARD

scoreboard

Every pickup basketball game has “That Guy.” Never the best player (who can’t bothered to be bothered) nor the worst (who is too busy working his ass off to notice or at the very least admit it out loud), “that guy” is the guy who has decided long before he took the court that he’s going to keep score.

After every basket or possession, he’s calling it out. Quick to correct those who have it wrong. Repeating it ad nauseum _ particularly especially when his team is winning _ to serve as a reminder that there must be a sense of place in the universe and (with god’s grace and a couple of 3-pointers) his team’s place is on top, not yours.

I am that guy. I have always been that guy from the day my dad paved part of our backyard and turned it into a 20 x 20 court with one of those upper-end glass backboards in hopes that I would use it to become the kind of player that made him a pretty good junior college forward (before life got in the way) and my uncle an even better one at Penn State (before being 20 got in the way).

While I loved to play, genetics and a decided lack of ability relegated the idea of me making a last-second shot for the Washington Bullets to the goings-on inside my head. I topped out at 5-11, a good seven inches shorter than my dad (and if we’re being honest here, a deck of cards shorter than my little sister). I made up for my lack of height by having no talent whatsoever other than the confidence to jack up any shot from anywhere no matter the circumstances.

We’ll pause here to give anyone who has ever played with me a chance to avoid vertigo while they finish vigorously nodding their head.

But dammit, I could add and subtract. Maybe it was simply a byproduct of all those imaginary games I would hold when noone was around, the ones where Jeff Malone or John Stockton or whoever I wanted to be on a given day was always open from 15-feet as the buzzer sounded. And yep, you can bet I was “fouled” if for some ungodly reason that shot had the temerity to clang off the rim.

It was my court. I figured it was my job to keep order. I can’t tell you I did it on purpose, but hey, nobody stopped me. Looking back, it’s hard to not laugh. During those countless afternoons spent honing a shooting stroke that still stops by every now then at 40 (and hopefully sticks around until 80) I was a walking/talking/jump-shot heaving abacus.

Not much has changed. While I technically don’t get paid to keep score (though I do anyway most nights) I am paid to tell you who won, who lost _ and perhaps most importantly _ what it all means. Some days, I’m pretty good at it. Some days I stare at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike and _ when it doesn’t _ pluck my right eyebrow furiously and hope I can “fool’em again” as the great Jim Murray used to say.

If only the scoreboard fixating was limited to my work. And that’s the problem. I have too often turned every part of my life into some kind of endless track meet. I can tell you my weight without getting on a scale within a pound or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never low enough). I haven’t balanced a checkbook in years but I know what the balance in my account is within a buck or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never high enough). I can tell you who has done the last five loads of laundry, who called who last in (insert relationship here), and who sent me a note on Facebook on my last birthday and who skipped.

The funny thing about this is, I’m losing. I’ve been losing for as long as I can remember. The blessings bestowed upon me are so countless it would make most people puke. Every problem I have is a #firstworldproblem. And I’d include my cancer on that list. This week the FDA approved the use of a drug that could turn something I worried would eventually kill me a year ago into something that requires one silly pill a day. (Downside: this means playing the “but I have cancer” card to win any argument I’m losing may be coming to an end).

I have treated every single aspect of my life like a game. I read the wire to see which of my colleagues is writing what, who is traveling where and wondering why I’m not. I read both newspapers in my town and send texts/twitter shoutouts when I see something I like while at the same time wondering how I could (or have) done it better even if in many cases that’s probably not true.

It’s even worse in my house. For too long I viewed my marriage like a competition. I kept mental tabs on who was doing what/when. If I cleaned the litter box a half-dozen times before my wife got to it, I made damn sure to passive-aggressively let her know. (“Oh, you know where the litter box is? I thought you’d forgotten” stupid stuff like that).

I am the player who – with his team down 30 points in the last minute – drills a 3 and hoists his arms in the air. You know, kind of like this:

The irony _ even on the days I want to admit it or not _ is that I am down. Big time. And yet I create scenarios that allow me to find a category in which I somehow have an advantage. I have known my wife for nearly 14 years and she has devoted herself to me selflessly and relentlessly, sometimes against her better judgement. She does not need to keep score _ hell, it probably has never even occurred to her to try _ because this isn’t some contest. This is life. There is no scoreboard. There is only the day to day. How we live and who and what we devote our lives to is what matters.

It’s a lesson that I have spent the last four years trying to beat into my head, with mixed results. Parenting has taught me a lot (actually, it’s taught me just about everything) by forcing me (at long last) to grow the *%# up. I see my two kids every morning and wonder how some schlub like me has managed not to screw them up yet.

This is usually the point where I would throw in a “but there’s time” in order to get a laugh. But there are still moments when that obsessive competitiveness seeps out and finds its way into my son through some strange osmosis. He’s 5 1/2 and he absolutely hates to lose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game or a race around the house or brushing his teeth, he absolutely cannot come in second (and heaven help you if he comes in third). I have used that drive as a motivator when he doesn’t want to do a chore or get dressed, often pitting himself against his sister in a sprint to see who can finish what task first.

This morning it led to tears, my 3 yo crying because her brother tugged on her arm in the scramble to reach the top of the steps so they can finish a mad dash to get dressed. The moment soon passed, but they are becoming a bit more frequent than I would like.

I have no idea how to change it and I’ll admit I’m probably not quite ready. I played pickup hoops on Wednesday night. The first game I happened to be guarding a friend of mine. He got the ball. A small skirmish that may have resembled defense ensued. He called a foul and I immediately became a fourth-grader, making a joke about his height and disrespecting the call. What an idiot. While the call was debatable, my immediate reaction was not. It was dumb. And I’m getting too old to do the same dumb stuff I’ve done for the last 40 years.

I imagine I could start by trying to set a better example, to take some TNT to the ever-counting scoreboard in my head _ the one that reads “Will 2, Life 1” with “Dude, when are you gonna stop doing that and realize you’re one lucky bastard and just get on with it” scrawled beneath it like some sort of advertising sign _ blow the thing up.

Pass me the detonator. it’s time, don’t ya think? At least, after this one last game …

Hey, Rome (and the eventual deconstruction of my ego) wasn’t built in a day.

A little new school for this space, but hey, times change:

The trouble with Thanks

If you got the chance to jab me with needles on a regular basis, you'd be smiling too.

If you got the chance to jab me with needles on a regular basis, you’d be smiling too.

I promised them this post would come months ago, maybe it’s a tribute to the work of those two kind folks in that picture that it hasn’t. Sorry Mary Beth. My bad Dr. Mehta. A thousand apologies Sandy and Phil and Melissa and Michelle and Tani and Jen and Lori and everybody else who has jabbed my arm for blood, stuck a thermometer in my mouth, threaded an IV needle into my hand or laughed politely at the decidedly lame “hey, look at me, I’ve got cancer” jokes over the last nine months.

I’ve been too busy trying to reclaim the life you so carefully restored over the spring and summer that I haven’t had time to thank you properly.

Resiliency is a funny thing. I spent the first few months after my lymphoma diagnosis in March questioning everything: my health, my future, my relationship with my family, my commitment to my children and my  passion for my chosen profession. It wasn’t a midlife crisis exactly. It was more of a stop sign. Those thoughts had been building _ much like the disease in my bone marrow _ for years. My diagnosis simply crystallized them and my treatment gave me time (too much probably) to try and figure out who I am, where I’m going and who, exactly, I’m taking with me.

Then, sometime in July, things turned. I started producing healthy blood again. My energy level went up. I began regaining the 10-15 pounds I lost. All the stuff I tried to put in perspective suddenly became important again. How many twitter followers I had. My place in the cliqueish hierarchy of the press box (and my company for that matter).

The same old crap. The same old concerns. All the stuff I thought I was ready to ditch because there was a chance the rest of my life would be measured in years and not decades. The small stuff became big stuff despite my best efforts. The perspective I was searching for vanished. It was back to the grind, back to the next story, the next mortgage payment, the next chore on the to-do list that regenerates itself relentlessly day after day after day.

On the final day of my eighth and final cycle in September, I had this plan that I would do a victory lap around the doctor’s office, sprint to my car, give Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia the finger and put it in the rearview mirror for good.

It didn’t quite go like that.

Tani patched me up after a four-hour drip of Rituxan and my 32nd shot of chemo and I quietly slipped out. Nobody dropped what they’re doing. Nobody stood up and slow-clapped me out the door. When I turned to look back the half-dozen nurses who make a living keeping the living alive were going about the business of providing comfort and confidence to a never-ending stream of terrified, defiant and confused strangers.

Sorry ladies. I meant to say I owe you one for helping save my life.

If you’d seen me in my car afterward, sobbing uncontrollably in the front seat as the realization that “holy crap, I just spent 24 weeks getting treated for cancer and I think I’m going to be OK, how in the hell did that happen” washed over me, I hope you would have taken it as a compliment.

You made it bearable. On some days, you even made it enjoyable. (Well, that and the free crackers). You took one of the most intimidating processes of my life and made it seem routine.

It’s a pretty remarkable mind trick considering most us don’t want to be there. Not for a second. Not for a minute. To be honest, those of us who jot our names on the patient sign-in sheet are in some form of shock.

It’s surreal that it has come to this, trudging into a bland office building and wading through a crowded waiting room to a sea of tan leather chairs where we sit and wait for medicine that _ hopefully _ will work. We fixate on our blood counts, our symptoms and our prospects. It should feel like purgatory. It’s because of your mindfulness it does not.

You try to get us to talk about our kids, our jobs, our plans for the weekend. Anything to distract us from the battle going on inside our bodies. You study charts, consult with doctors and check our progress while trying to make sure we don’t feel like so much sickly cattle, no matter if we’re the first or the 40th patient you’ve seen that morning.

While we won’t tell you this because this just isn’t what we do, we are in awe. I am in awe. I cannot comprehend the responsibility that comes with your job.

No matter how much I try to convince myself that what I do is capital I Important, if I screw something up a fix is only a couple of mouse clicks and keystrokes away. In the end it’s just nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates, hanging clauses and occasional grammatical errors. My idea of pressure is looking at a blank screen with five minutes to go in whatever game I happen to be at. (NOTE TO BOSSES: that like almost never happens. Honest).

I cannot fathom a job where every decision has to be right, one where there are real, actual consequences for any tiny mistake.

A good friend of mine worked in newspapers into his early 30s, when he had a heart attack. He was so touched by the care he received he left the business, moved back home with his folks and spent a handful of years getting a nursing degree. I thought he was insane. (Colby, technically you might be). While there is zero chance of me trading my laptop for a pair of Crocs, I can see why he made such an abrupt sea change.

Look, the medical system in this country is screwed up. The fact it cost $21 grand for a doctor to look at my blood and figure out what type of lymphoma I have is insane, for starters. And the idea that health care is a privilege and not a basic human right is beyond me. But that is paper and policy. It’s not people. And it’s the people as much as the medicine that keeps us going.

I head back to those tan leather chairs on Monday, for the first of four “maintenance” treatment cycles over the next 12 months. I am (mostly) healthy. I am (usually) happy.

And before I forget and get too caught up in the frustrating business of being me, know that I am thankful.

See you in a bit ladies. I’m almost looking forward to it. Almost.

Just careful with the needles, OK?

Here’s Shawn, Nate, Wanya and Mike to play us out.

 

The Invisible Man

Me and Dad

I didn’t call him enough. I can see that now. That’s on me.

Instead, I ran, just like I always did. I took the path of least resistance with my father because, well, that’s just the way Tom Graves wanted it. In the 59 years he walked the earth, in particular the 35 he spent with me in his life, you could count the number of times things didn’t go his way on two hands. Maybe one.

So when he diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer in the fall of 2009 I did what he wanted. I let it go. Treated it as just another thing on his plate, like the property flipping business he started in retirement. A chore he would take care of on his own terms, thanks for not asking.

So I didn’t. He began chemotherapy in September, 2009 and I made exactly zero change to our routine. I think during his first four months of treatment we might have talked twice.  And when we did, it wasn’t about cancer. What questions I did manage to squeak out (note: my father remains the toughest interview of my life) were met with a simple “Oh, dad’s fine” and the unmistakable subtext that trying to work on a followup was completely unnecessary.

Being 600 miles away in Kentucky and preoccupied with a job and an infant son, I was only too happy to go along. I could hear the frustration in my sister’s voice when she talked about her inability to communicate with him and I wanted no part of it. Better to pretend that everything is fine rather than deal with the messy emotions that come with true honesty.

It’ll be fine, I convinced myself. This will be just another one of those things that he handles alone, like the three heart attacks he suffered between his mid-40s and early 50s. The ones he basically walked off like a bad cold.

He was so fiercely private about his health I literally had to invent an excuse to come home when he underwent surgery in January, 2010 for what he kept referring to as a “blockage” in his intestine. When I surprised him in the hospital, I lied and told him I was in town because a high school friend was having a bachelor party. Seeing him laid up in bed, his body dulled yellow by chemo and nausea forcing him to spit up into a wastebasket every few minutes was jarring. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound in his prime monolith I remembered couldn’t have weighed 170 pounds.

And still, the charade continued. I hung out with him before he went into surgery. We talked about my upcoming Olympic assignment. We talked about Colin, his grandson. We talked about the Redskins (because we always talked about the Redskins). We kept it light.

The day I flew back to Kentucky, I stopped by the hospital to chat. He appeared exhausted but OK. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the last time I saw him alive, but it kind of felt like it was. It was pleasant but my most vivid memory was how I basically tried to get him to tell me he was proud of me. I needed to hear it. He obliged (kind of) but it wasn’t quite the heartwarming “movie” moment that I’d fantasized about. It felt forced (by me, not by him). I hugged him and left, already preoccupied with thoughts of the Vancouver Olympics.

Barely a month later, he was gone. It wasn’t the cancer technically. His heart, weary of the fight, gave out. I spoke to him a couple of days before that last heart attack. He was back in the hospital and high on pain medication. He thought I was his girlfriend when I initially called. I think the entire conversation lasted 97 seconds. Enough time for one last “I love you” from both of us. While I was able to get home and be in the room when they turned the life support machines off, there was little doubt he was already gone.

Four years later, I still don’t know what to make of his death and how it impacted my life. It’s funny. I miss him more now than I did two years ago. Maybe it took cancer (in some small way) to find the common ground that we failed to reach as adults.

My cancer is different (thank God). I’m not going to die. Not even close. While the first cycle of treatment was a little bumpy (I’ll blog about that later) I’m amazed at my body’s ability to handle constant bombardment of medicine, whether it’s Velcade or the Rituxin that is treating the cancer or the fistful of pills I take daily to ward off the side effects. The early numbers are encouraging. And while I may be in treatment longer than anticipated, my resolve _ thanks in large part to the support of my wife Ellie _ has only strengthened.

Yet sitting in a chair for hours on end (my Rituxin days are a good 7-8 hours long, as are the days when I receive blood transfusions) gives you time to think. I can’t shake the idea of what treatment must have been like for my father.

The thing that has frustrated me the most since this thing has started is the knowledge that I can’t predict on a given day how I’m going to feel. I’ve called out of assignments on my way to them because I’ve been hit with a sudden fever or weakness. I can’t imagine how difficult and painful ceding that power from his mind to his body must have been for dad, who never met a situation he couldn’t find a way to immediately take control of. I imagine it was infuriating and agonizing. I’ll never know, though. I never called to ask. I happily took ‘no’ for an answer.

I shouldn’t have.  I wasn’t a kid when he went through this. I was 35. I was a husband and a father. I was a professional with a career. Yet the balance of power in our relationship never evolved. In many ways I was still the 10-year-old who famously told him once that I didn’t have to do my homework anymore because I was  a big kid. He responded by grounding me.

I fully understand that some of this is on him. That he kept nearly everyone, from his parents to his brothers and sisters to his children, at arm’s length. And because he had a force of will unmatched by anyone perhaps on the planet, we didn’t fight it. We should have. I should have.

The guilt of failing to do that ebbs and flows. I don’t feel it quite as acutely as I did in the immediate aftermath of his passing. Instead, I just miss him. I would have liked to see him as grandfather. He saw his grandson Colin once. He never met my 2-year-old daughter Catherine. I bet she would have owned him. The thought of it makes me laugh.

One of the blessings (if you can call it that) of this illness is that it has forced me to empathize with him. The differences and distance that had us reach out from neutral corners most of the time has disappeared. I feel closer to him in a way. I was wide awake at 4 a.m. last week (thanks steroids!) when I envisioned him walking into the bedroom. He filled the frame (he always did). I didn’t hallucinate but the image was so clear that I started to cry. For years during young adulthood he was on the periphery of my life. Now that I finally have the courage to want him to be a part of the nucleus, he’s gone.

Colin asked Ellie this morning who my dad was. She politely responded “Grandpa Tom” and the name didn’t register in Colin’s ears. Part of that’s on me. I haven’t talked about my dad enough, perhaps because I never talked TO him enough.

Yet Colin needs to know about his grandfather, even if I’m still learning. He needs to know that the reason I do what I do for a living isn’t because it’s cool or because I think I’m good at it. I do this because sports was the one thing my father and I could talk about.

He took me to my first football game when I was 8, the 1982 NFC championship between the Redskins and the Cowboys. Three decades later I can still hear the crowd at RFK chant “We Want Dallas.” The Redskins won. My father was joyful. I was hooked.

I have no idea how my relationship with Colin will evolve over the next 30 years. I want us to be friends when he’s my age. (Hell, I want to be alive when he’s my age). I hope we’re close. I know one thing’s for certain. I won’t raise him to take no for an answer from me. I won’t let him be satisfied if I try to keep him at arm’s length. If that’s the lesson I take from my father’s death, so be it.

Thanks Pop. Sorry I didn’t call enough. For both of us. It won’t happen again.

Dad was a big Motown/R&B guy. I’ll let Marvin show you out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph0aELhsQoc

Will