I turned on my radio to this song this morning, and it made me take notice because it was kind of fitting…and it was fitting because my dear brother-in-law passed early this morning. Mike had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April of 2010, and was given six months to one year to live. (If you’re good at math, you’ve already determined he lived two and one half years past his diagnosis.) He was T’s best friend in life, and so we’ve been spending a lot of time with Mike.
At first, the illness was like a hidden specter, with few signs, just a ghost of pain here and there, and the illness caused by the chemotherapy that began almost immediately. Chemotherapy was a dance with the white blood cells—how much poison can a body take before the white blood cells give up? The chemo went on and on at first, twice a week for a month, then a week’s rest to build up white blood cells again, then back to the chemo. Mike had to go to a clinic to get his infusions, and Sandy said the people there were unfailingly kind. I suppose one would have to have a sympathetic and kindly mindset to be a chemo technician. And how difficult would it be to go, week after week, to take the poisons that you hope is shrinking your cancer, but that is also killing the rest of your body?
About a year into the cancer therapy, Mike had a surgery to remove the cancer. This was a time of great hope, because we thought that if the chemo had shrunk the cancer sufficiently, and they could remove it, then his prognosis would be much better. But the doctors who opened Mike up, closed him right back up again. The cancer had spread to his liver and stomach and had become inoperable.
And so the dance continued, more grim and relentless now. Mike would go to chemo for two weeks, then rest for two weeks. Then it became go for one week, rest for one week. The pain increased gradually throughout this process as well, Pancreatic cancer is one of the most painful. But Mike was stubborn, and stronger than anyone could believe. He’d been a military man, and a firefighter in his life, and had retired at age 52. He told T that was the best decision he’d ever made and he never regretted a moment of it. He kept his sense of humor, he kept his sense of fun to the end. It was amazing that he could joke and release the tension. T was visiting and was, seriously, trying to take a picture. You can see the result below.
And so, we visited together, and T visited by himself, month after month, and we knew there was no cure, but still Mike kept on. He was one of the strongest men I’ve ever known, not just physically, but mentally as well. His determination and strength kept him going and I never once heard a complaint from him. Sandy knew when he was hurting, and she was in charge of his medicines; she never let him miss a dose. She cared for him through all of it, rarely flagging, always conciliatory. I don’t know how she found the strength, but southern women are wonderful that way. Delicate as a flower, and tough as a diamond. Hospice stepped in only relatively recently, giving her the support and help she needed as things got more difficult. God bless Hospice.
Mike passed early this morning, about 1:00 a.m. At this point, it is a relief that he is no longer in the pain that ate him alive. We saw him last weekend, and he was unable to speak to us, though we think he knew we were there.
And now he is off to his next adventure.
And what do I think about death? It’s is the next inevitable stage of our existence, the next place we go after this life. I think souls are immortal. I don’t fear the reaper, but I find I do fear long months and years of pain. If it were to come to that, I hope I could be as strong and brave and uncomplaining and hilariously silly as Mike.