Editor and Publisher
John H. Walker
I would be willing to bet there won’t be a person at the Tarboro High School football field and track today and tonight who can’t tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned they had cancer.
It’s Relay for Life Friday — the equivalent of cancer’s memorial day and veterans day rolled into one in that it is a time when we remember those who fought the hard fight and we celebrate those who are still throwing punches.
For those impacted by cancer, there are so many emotions that come to the surface as you look around and see all of those people wearing the same color shirt as you. It may be something as simple as strength in numbers or it could know you are not in this alone.
The vast majority of us have never been alone in our fight. There are the caregivers who walk with us step-by-step … yet there are those times when you feel like you’re out there, alone in the abyss.
For me, that occurred most often during my daily 3:45 trips to the Cancer Center at High Point Regional Hospital. There were days when all went well and then, well, there were those other days I’d just as soon forget.
For a while, I kept my Jason-type mask that was snapped down to the table every time I lay down. When I started my treatments, at 278 pounds, it was a tight fight and there were days that waves of anxiety would sweep my body. As the end of my treatments neared and my weight had dropped below 220 pounds on its way to 208, there were still those days when those waves of anxiety just kept washing up on my shore.
As my salivary glands died and the moisture in my mouth turned to what I called “gunk,” it would collect at the back of my tongue and into my throat and create a choking sensation.
When that happened, some of the biggest waves of anxiety came crashing down on me.
But my nurses and radiation techs were great. They got to where they could read my expressions and know how things were going. The knew that if my feet started wiggling as I tried to squirm, it was time to talk to me and calm me down.
And we had one hand signal that was an “OK, this is it!” kind of a message for them. It was when I knew I couldn’t make it through my ride up and down and all of the things in-between and I would start clenching and unclenching my left hand.
There never seemed to be a delay in their response or their effort to calm me to the point we could check off once more completed treatment. On the days when I couldn’t finish the ride, they were in the room as soon as the equipment was turned off … talking to me and calming me down. As soon as the table was low enough, the mask was unsnapped and, even though there was a hole for my mouth and nose, it was as if I could breathe again.
There are several stories I will always remember from that period of my life …
The first was when I was at Thomasville Medical Center for an MRI. There was a young girl and, for some reason I remember her being 16 and in a wheelchair. She was crying because her mother was upset with her that a tumor had been discovered in her little body. As I squatted by her chair, her mother said something and drew the wrath of my wife, Stephanie, as I told her it was ok to cry, because God knew when we needed to clean things out and it was his tear duct therapy.
The second was when I was sitting in my recliner and the doorbell rang. That had to have happened when God and I were walking through the valley, because I remember never seeming to want to do anything because I was always so tired — and sitting and “resting” made me more tired.
Stephanie went to the door and it was a delivery person with a beautiful fall plant. As she took it to the dining table, she passed and handed me the card to read. When she asked the identity of the sender, I told her I didn’t know.
“But I just gave you the card,” she said. I read it to her … “Hear you’re fighting the big C. You’re in my prayers. WK.”
It took a while, but I learned that WK was Wallace Kelly, whom I met as publisher in Big Spring, Texas when he was pitching his web page service. I contracted with him there and again in Thomasville.
Not too long ago, I learn Wallace — known as “Cappy” because of a previous life as a fishing boat skipper — had died of cancer.
Early on, there was a Saturday when my sister and brother-in-law had driven up from her contract job in Birmingham and I was going to cut the grass. The only problem was that after 96 hours of chemo and six treatments of radiation, I didn’t have the oomph to pull the starter cord.
I rolled the mower back into the garage and went into the house to throw myself a pity party. I didn’t know it, but my neighbor Gene and seen what had happened and came over to ask my sister if there was something wrong with the mower. She told him what had happened and only a few minutes later I heard the sound of stereo riding lawnmowers — Gene Tysinger on one side and Chuck Gholson on the other as they cut my grass.
Gene and his dad are part of another recollection, as well, as it was Mr. Tysinger’s birthday and the party was at his son’s house. It was a Saturday night and Stephanie was on-duty as a critical care transport nurse for Forsyth Medical Center and I was at home in my recliner.
The doorbell rang and Gene and his dad were there … a plate with a piece of birthday cake and the biggest, coldest bowl of homemade ice cream you can ever imagine.
Mr. Tysinger, you see, was a cancer survivor and had to deal with many of the same issues and he thought good, cold, ice cream would be good for my throat — and soul. He was right.
Finally, I had supported Relay for a number of years and had stood alongside the track, applauding as the survivors walked by. Never could I have ever imagined I would be walking that walk … but now having done so for six years — seven tonight — as a survivor, I never knew how energizing something as simple as two hands coming together could be.
So, tonight as the folks in the purple shirts make the Survivor’s Lap journey, I would ask you to think about the thousands of stories they have to share … the millions of miles they’re traveled, mentally, if not physically … and those caregivers who were there with them every step of the way. Say a prayer for all of them, please, and clap until your hands hurt.
• • •
Where was I? In my office. My wife and I had just had lunch and she had dropped me off. My pastor showed up to visit and five minutes later, my Stephanie walked up.
I knew, even though she never said those three words.
• • •
Tonight, I walk in memory of too many of my first cousins … Joyce, Dudley, Don, Kenneth, Howard and Jimmy … Bogalusa friends Sam Pepe and Rev. James Cyrus and my train buddy, fellow Mississippi State fan, best friend and minister, Rev. Jack Stratas.
They have gone on but are not forgotten.
(John H. Walker is editor and publisher of The Daily Southerner and is a cancer survivor of seven-plus years.)