Tag Archives: cancer

With a Song in My Heart: D is for…

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – Simple Minds, 1985.

Day Four and we’re on to our third of four anthems in the list (though perhaps “Convoy” might be considered an anthem of sorts to truckers, I don’t know any I could ask for confirmation.)  Recorded (but not written) by Brit band Simple Minds for the seminal John Hughes 80’s teen angst film The Breakfast Club, the song sketches for everyone who hears it the broad strokes of a particular generation and their own slice of recent history.  It’s sometimes hard to believe that this song is almost 30 years old.   For me, “30 years old” is doo-wop and Buddy Holly, before I see the swath of gray hair in the mirror in the morning and I remember just how far along the track I’ve come.  In 1995, however, only ten years out from the debut of the athlete, the princess, the brain, the basket case and the criminal, The Breakfast Club soundtrack found itself lodged in the tape deck of my car, with Jim Kerr pleading not to forget about him on repeat as I drove the thirty minutes each day from our house to the hospital where my mother was dying of cancer.

It was a little less than five months between her initial diagnosis and her admission to that cold and sterile room where she would breathe her last on an ironically sunny, warm June evening.  Radiation and chemo and determination to fight did little to slow the progress of the disease; it seemed oftentimes during those months that fate had etched its decision in cement:  this far and no farther.  Mom too acted as though she knew it wasn’t going to be a lengthy battle, even from the ground-shifting instant in January she gathered my sister and I in our pink-carpeted sunroom and told us what she’d learned from her doctor on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon.  She’d never been the same after we lost my dad eight years earlier; a piece of her soul had been carved away, and a lingering sadness that could never be soothed left in its place.  There was a resignation as her voice cracked, as if she’d been waiting for this news ever since.  The first snowfall after an unusually long summer heat wave.  Expected, and inevitable.

When she spoke the three horrendous words, “I have cancer,” I was halfway through my first year of university and had to return two days later to a place where I was already feeling alien, knowing now that I had to be away from her, enduring the daily banalities of the douchebag residents of my dorm as she commenced the litany of appointments and treatments designed to arrest against odds the relentless progress of this tiny, unwelcome malignancy.  And even then I was too focused on how I felt about the situation, in that unique arrogance only teenagers possess.  How could this happen to me, I wondered.  Still, I rebuffed with uncharacteristic brashness every best-intentioned attempt by relatives, friends and counsellors to get me to open up.  I’m not the one with the illness, was my customary response to the tedious question, “How are you doing?”  F—ing peachy, was what I really wanted to say.

Kerr’s “la la la las” would fade out and the tape would rewind automatically to the single, synthesized snare drum shot that introduces the opening chords, and the vocal call to action:  “hey hey hey heyyyyy, ooh ooh ooh ooh-whooaaaa.”  I’d signal and change lanes, looking ahead to the off-ramp and the “H” sign for the hospital.  Sometimes my sister would be with me, sometimes not.  We never really talked to each other about what was happening.  This had merely become the new routine, as normal as breakfast and a shower each morning.  The most selfish part of me even resented having to do it, but in that, my mother and I were in agreement.  More than anything else, she wanted to come home.  But she needed to be there, hooked up to those machines and bags of fluid, though they could do progressively less and less to make her well again.  Would it have been so much to ask, I say now, to let her spend her last week in familiar surroundings, to lie again in the bed she’d once shared with her beloved husband, even if she might be only barely aware of it?  Little, inconsequential things we take entirely for granted until they’re ripped away and dangled out of reach.  Like the presence of a mother in our lives.

The Breakfast Club is about five kids struggling to forge identities in the eyes of parents and authority figures who see them as stereotypes, and discovering in the course of a Saturday detention that they are each far more than who they appear to be.  Its theme song is a lament for the end of a relationship, a request to keep some part of it alive, even in the most fleeting thought.  In the numbness of the hours that followed my mom’s passing, someone else, a family friend probably, drove the car.  The stereo remained silent, but the refrain kept playing in my head as the scenery slid by the windows on this march back to the house that was for the first time entirely without wise parents, the residence now of only a too-young brother and sister with precious little idea of what the hell we were supposed to do next.  Guilt pressed down upon me now, a wave of hundreds of things I should have done for my mother when I had the chance.  Called more often.  Helped out around the house.  Set my own drama aside for one solitary minute to listen to how she was feeling.  To try to comprehend the extent of her loneliness coupled with the sheer depth of her bravery and how she resolved to live and work every day for her two children until life itself was pulled from her.  She did the best she could with the hand she was dealt and any successes my sister or I might enjoy are due entirely to her efforts.  She proved the power and resourcefulness of single moms.  She saved our family.  She saved us.

This was how I wanted to remember her, not as the frail shell my sister and I held onto until the final beat of her heart.  Strength comes in many forms, and while my shy, retiring mother may have been the opposite of my boisterous, larger-than-life father, it was her behind the scenes keeping the operation running smoothly, ensuring that we grew up with values and morals and the kindness that can be so lacking in an increasingly cynical time.  We probably each know someone who is spotlight-averse, who will go forever without the recognition showered freely on those who make spectacles of themselves.  Those are the ones it’s important that we don’t forget about, as we walk on by.  They are the backbone of our world and we are nothing without them.

And I won’t ever forget about you, Mom.

The Stormy Present

Towards the end of his second State of the Union address, Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”  That quote has been at the forefront of my mind for the last few days.  Lincoln was trying to rally a Union divided against itself and suggesting that they needed a new way of thinking.  Basically telling them that everything you think you know is wrong – that the old solutions aren’t going to cut it.

The stock market is collapsing.  The U.S. Congress is beholden to corporations and morons wrapped in the flag.  Extreme right-wing governments are readying the knife to slash the social safety net to ribbons.  The planet is cooking and scientists desperate to reverse it are mocked, slandered and defunded.  Intellectuals are feared and ignorance is lauded.  The Mayor of Toronto wants to close libraries.  And the great city of London is on fire.  The present is not just stormy – it’s an all-out hurricane.

Right now, a guy I used to play in a marching band with named Steve Gaul is attempting to break the world record for marathon drumming.  He survived testicular cancer and lost his sister to paranasal cancer just last year.  He’s doing this to raise money and awareness and you can check him out (and donate) at www.beatstobeatcancer.com.  The record is 120 hours and as I’m writing this he just passed 105.  I have to confess to a bit of cynicism about cancer research.  There seems to be an awful lot of money raised for it every year and precious little progress made in treatment methodology – and the real pessimist side of me notes that we’ve never heard about a pharmaceutical company executive who’s died of cancer (happy to be corrected on this point if anyone out there knows something I don’t.)

But watching Steve is amazing.  Even though we were in the same band for three years, I never knew him very well.  He was the leader of our percussion section when I first signed up and was known for his endless reserve of “guy walks into a bar” jokes shared with the group before we stepped off on parade.  I didn’t know until I stumbled upon the site mentioned above that he had survived cancer at so young an age.  As I remember him he wouldn’t have struck me as the guy who would have this kind of fight in him.  But there he is.  105 hours in, still smiling and laughing, jamming away to an endless soundtrack of rock classics.  My wife was telling me today that even though she’s never met Steve, she’s proud of him and what he’s doing.  So am I.  Here’s a guy staring into the gale and saying “bring it on.”

The world kinda sucks right now.  We can admit that.  It feels like the bad guys are winning.  The field of Republican candidates running to run against President Obama next year is a terrifying group cut from the Greg Stilson cloth whom one could easily imagine pushing the nuke button at God’s command.  Canada gave a majority government to a guy who thought George W. Bush was the bee’s knees, and we put a redneck doofus in charge of our most progressive and cosmopolitan city.  We could really use a victory right now.

Steve Gaul is proving that the victory lies with us as individuals.  Sometime around 8am tomorrow morning he’s going to break the record.  He’s going to smash it to bits.  Kick its ass.  Make us stand up and cheer.  Make us ask what we can do and dare us to do better.  Because the old way of sitting back and waiting for the storm to pass isn’t working.

Beyond the stormy present lies the clear skies of the future.  We can get there.  We know the way.  We just need to start walking.