ATLANTA — It is said a phone call can change your life. Mine changed with a phone call from my wife, Julie, while I was at work.
It was late afternoon, April 3, 2017. Her voice was shaking. An X-ray found a tumor just above the knee of our youngest son, Michael, who was getting ready to graduate from high school. Later that week, they confirmed it was osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. He died at home three weeks ago. He was 20.
The 27 months since diagnosis have been a brutal, bewildering slog for our family. There were prolonged hospital stays, intense chemotherapy and painful operations. And there were many tests and diagnoses along the way. Some were positive and gave us fleeting hope. But many were dire and caused us to put on a brave face as we marched back out through a waiting room full of parents and kids at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
During the past two years, we tried to carry on as normally as possible despite an anvil dangling over our lives.
How do you do this? Well, you just do — moment to moment. Most everyone who encounters disease, trauma or misfortune must figure out how to prevail — or at least persist.
Part of what buttressed us was Michael’s insistence that we not dwell on his cancer, that it not define him. Sure, it’s whistling past the graveyard. But it worked — he was an honor student at the University of Georgia for almost a year despite daily chemotherapy.
Here’s what else kept our noses above water: the repeated goodwill of others. It was a case of serial communal do-gooding.
I toil in a business in which anguish, stupidity and corruption are stock in trade. But in a time when society has seemingly gotten meaner, coarsened and callous about the woes of others, it’s heartening to see (and receive) an outpouring of comfort and support. People are yearning to be honorable and generous.
The avalanche of good deeds, kind gestures and acts of decency done on our behalf have been consistent and even embarrassing. I routinely waved off
Good Samaritans because of a steadfast need to project an image of “we got this,” even when it felt like the world was swirling and running down a drain.
Still, the offers and kindnesses kept coming.
A fantastic friend (I’ll name no names because this would get unwieldy and unfair to those I forget) loaned us what we call the Magic Fridge for our garage. It was “magic” because we’d return home from the hospital to find fully cooked meals inside.
People would fly long distances at great expense to visit, and volunteers would collect them at the airport. A neighbor routinely cut our lawn — and then blew the clippings.
Folks would stop by or call just to pass on a kind word, or would drop off flowers or cards or coffee for us. Michael got movie gift cards, lunch dates, constant visits from friends and a bust of himself from China.
Strangers would call to say their congregations were praying for us — from all flavors of the religious spectrum.
And people brought food. Lots of it. So much, it was difficult to keep up with the abundance.
On Saturday, June 22, perhaps 1,000 people came to a gym at Marist School to wrap a communal arm around our family, a showing that blew our family away as we glanced back at the growing throng.
I must say that Marist, the Catholic school where my four kids attended high school, knows logistics. Like its undersized football team that routinely ventures far into the playoffs each year, Marist is a well-oiled machine that helped nail down the 1,001 details that will overwhelm a grieving family — from liturgy suggestions to folding chairs to mini-sandwiches.
When asked how could we repay them, we were told that’s just what family does.
Our travail also brought forth contingents from many time periods from our past. The kids attended grade school at St. Thomas More in Decatur, and there was a constant stream of old friends and acquaintances from that parish and school who returned to our lives to provide relief and support. A mother’s group formed a generation ago grabbed a tight hold and never let us go.
My son was a Boy Scout who had passed his Eagle Scout requirements just as he was diagnosed, so we decided to make his memorial also an impromptu Eagle ceremony for the badge he never received. The scouting contingent was there in droves, just like they’ve been with us all along.
There was also the extended AJC family who kept our family well-fed and provided frequent help. I received a card with 138 names of co-workers and AJC alumni who pitched in to give my family Delta Air Lines vouchers so we can escape somewhere.
Our neighbors? Here’s one for you. After eight months of surgeries and heavy-duty chemo, Michael was free of treatment (for a time) but would be living with us while he regained strength. However, the prospect of being tethered — without getaway transportation — to a home with two hovering, concerned parents was a frightful prospect. A neighbor who’s a mechanic found a 1998 Camry with 250,000 miles that was as mint as a 20-year-old car with a quarter-million miles can be.
I went to his home with 12 $100 bills to complete the transaction and he — sheepishly — told me, “It’s paid for. The neighbors on the block bought it.”
Again, it’s embarrassing. I had the money, but it was such an overwhelming gesture of folks just wanting to do something — anything — to help. We turned around and used our cash to help CURE Childhood Cancer, an org that lifted us and a lot of folks like us during our hospital stay. If you’re inclined to help an organization, CURE is as good as any.
I can’t say enough about the doctors and nurses at Children’s Healthcare, people who laughed and cried with us during this unwanted roller-coaster ride.
Readers, too, have been genuinely kind, even those who start their letters with, “I rarely agree with you but …”
After going through this ordeal, part of me asks: How can I keep writing about subjects that are, by comparison, inconsequential? In the scope of the universe swooping in to steal our beloved youngest child, how can I muster up the outrage for some pol pocketing a few bucks on the side?
But among the many emails and letters wishing us solace, a healthy proportion of folks urged me, “Please come back.”
Finally (and I’m running out of space here), that leaves me with dear friends and with family. They have been here close by all along, providing all sorts of errands, tasks, support and love. You know who you are and we will be forever grateful. But we need to be more upfront about how we feel.
I’ll leave it with what my boyhood hero, Chicago columnist Mike Royko, wrote after his wife died suddenly: “If there’s someone you love but haven’t said so in a while, say it now. Always, always say it now.”
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