Thursday, April 23, 2015
Icebergs and Penguins
A few days ago, the cancer death that has messed with me the most ever happened. When this all started for me in 2010, I had had zero, ZERO friends and family who had ever had cancer. Then I woke up in an ambulance and found out that it was something that had no known genetic, dietary, lifestyle or environmental components and much too low of a survival rate, a very sad way to think of a losing lottery ticket. I have chosen to become involved in the cancer community since then in general and very specifically in the brain cancer world. My own aunt passed away since then from breast cancer and I've seen far too many friends I've made since then go far too soon. The ones that outlive the typical prognosis even by a year or two have called themselves the lucky ones, an interesting self concept.
If I am to be blatantly honest, something I am known for, I've not been entirely exempt from letting thoughts slip into inappropriate places when someone passes from cancer in trying to relieve my own fears... I think well they'd been a smoker their whole life or they drank all the time or it took a simple glance at them to tell their weight was less than ideal. They don't really work out or eat anything other than junk food. Even those who have the same type of cancer (of which I've personally met zero people so far who have beaten the average prognosis) you want to try to believe you're doing things better in the fact that I work out more, make better smoothies, love my kids more. While I bet on the odds and have lived accordingly, somewhere I've let glimmers of hope believe that something would be special.
I've been on the other end of this when people try to make sense of a guy who looks like me and runs like me wakes up in an ambulance in the middle of a restaurant or a run because of brain cancer. A friend who also runs marathons once asked which ear I held my cell phone to since my tumor was on the left side of my brain... another friend asked about my stay in the Marshall Islands where the US tested the atom bomb; something had to be a clear explanation of a guy who'd never called in sick and was athletic having cancer. The human brain wants to believe that if all facts were known, everything is a linear clean cause and effect A+B always equals C. My experience is that's the pattern but there are times when life is incredibly random sometimes in very bad ways like only having missed school in 12 years for the chicken pox and still 4.5 years later all bills from brain cancer not settled yet. Sometimes in very good things where you realize that at least you're still standing, that you won a marathon and there's a moment where someone says "I'm a hugger" before a medical appointment and in their arms despite a great resting heart rate you find it relaxing even more and remembering what it was like to breathe.
But then there are days where the reality of randomness, the chaos of cancer, the absurdness of life being affected by it... they hit hard enough to knock the wind out of you. The night before the Boston marathon I got news about Brian Conley. I've mentioned him many times in here but we met at Duke running a a race that raised money for the Brain Cancer Center and it was the only time that the Angels Among Us 5k had 1st and 2nd place be patients (may it be clear that at 40 years old he owned me despite that being my fastest 5k at the time; he owned me by so much that his father yelled at ESPN that they were filming the wrong guy). If the annoyingness of ESPN's scheduling and rescheduling had frustrated me, and even if they never air a piece about me, they completely won me over when they edited and sent a video of where they caught us interacting in that race and during ultimate the next day.
We would become friends over that weekend, playing ultimate, running together and having a barbecue. We kept in touch even if neither of us was particularly touchy feely guys. We met up in DC and New York when I went out there, our kids met and played together. Him and his wife both got the Make Him Work for It Shirt and my fastest 5k, by coincidence or divine guidance I'll let you decide happened to be on a day I was wearing a jersey his friends had made the Team Conley shirt which was branded with Ironman, something he liked.
And yet two years after he owned me in a race, with the exact same doctors at Duke that I had and the same cancer I have, he's gone. He got less time from prognosis to passing despite having been in better health his entire life and working till a few months ago. He'd had a seizure while driving and come out okay. He died with his family around him, a way so many of us dream of going but certainly not with kids so young. I found out how bad he was doing and that he likely wasn't going to make it more than I was going to be in Boston the night before the race. Some people can fuel that heartbreak into anger to run faster... for me it's always just a reflection of sadness to not give up till the end. A death like that is a break in the ice that takes up too much room on my iceberg to let any penguins play happy. I don't know to direct sadness to be what wins that day and use it to run fast. It's sadness that makes me say there's never coming a day where the legs work that I don't keep racing to try fight for both cancer research and cancer in the here and now. I tried to connect them with the counselors that Kiana used and I hope it's helpful.
He continued being a coach, a husband, a father, a friend... holding on with all he had to all he had as best as he could and the guy was in better shape than me so he could hold more with more conviction. In the end he spent much of it awake and I dare believe doing exactly what his family perceived, despite no ability to take much nutrition in, he was taking them in as best as he could and sending out affection. If from this much distance I feel those much loss from the ripple effect, those closer feel it much worse but I hope that's also true of the thankfulness for the connection which even his parents who knew him from birth recognize that it's much too short.
A picture of he and I has sat on my fridge for a long time both as a memory and as reminder of the delicateness of the situation, the beauty and delicateness of cancer connections and a reminder of the life and death cycle. The family from early on raised money for Brain Cancer research and perhaps in one of those ways that shows the universe is sometimes kind enough to repay kindness there has been a nice obituary and a fund set up for his kids. In the end, he and I had some similar stories of being decent runners with sometimes and a rare cancer that there's no way to not have some anger and sadness about. He kept trying to do what mattered with him and to his family even as he fought cancer personally and at a bigger level. We were hanging out at a museum in New York once and as we watched our kids do something together at the Museum of Natural History, he said I'm glad we're doing something that's all about the kids together. We all have different icebergs and different penguins but even in the unexpected cold that came by too fast, I am heartbroken by the loss but thankful for the opportunity that there was somedays where we lined up our penguins to slide and have some fun adventures together.