Dan and I made the rainy drive to Atlanta today to be with my older brother and his family as he faces yet another brain surgery to remove a cancerous mass. Mark has battled cancer for over eight years now, facing all that he has gone through with an incredibly positive attitude, strength, and faith. I can’t begin to imagine how he and his wife and children feel as he faces another surgery- all I know is that I felt the calling to be there with them to offer any help and my prayers of love and support. I feel like I am representing Mom, too, serving as her emissary on a mission of love and a bolstering of family ties.
Mark is ten years older than I, and has been one of my heroes. When I was his irritating little sister, I idolized him, preening when my girlfriends would swoon as he walked by us- he played in a rock band (a very loud one), which gave him an extra allure. I will never forget walking down the aisle at my first wedding flanked by my brothers Mark and Bud, Mark chanting (in true military style), “Left, left, left right left!” Always the jokester. Bud on the left, Mark on the right.
He is a self-made man, rising to the top of the corporate world, his work ethic unparalleled. Over eight years ago, trouble came in the form of lung cancer. As with most of my family, Mark had smoked heavily, but he wisely stopped smoking twenty years before. The lung tumor metastasized, throwing fourteen tumors to his brain. Then came an adrenal gland tumor, then prostrate cancer, and then the return of the brain cancer. Through it all he worked as a VP of a big company in Atlanta, excercised faithfully ever day, and encouraged other cancer patients, even being featured on one of the Atlanta news stations for his encouragement of a young boy fighting cancer. He has a beautiful family with his wife of thirty-five years and is a loving husband, father, and grandfather. He was able to create the close-knit, stable family life that we never had growing up. Mark’s last visit with Mom.
Life has taken us in very different directions, changed both of us, and Mark and I are pretty much polar opposites when it comes to all the hot-button topics. It doesn’t matter, though- he is my brother and I love him. I knew I needed to be there for he and his family today, if only to sit quietly and give some hugs and encouraging words. I was able to see him twice- he walked into the waiting room after a CT Scan soon after we arrived, a blanket half around him, several white sensors all over his shaved head, a swagger in his step. A true conqueror. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and that made my day. We were allowed to go back two at a time when he was prepped and waiting for his four-hour surgery, and my sister-in-law took me back with her. It was touching to see them laugh and talk and kiss tenderly. They have been through so much together. I held Mark’s hand and told him he was my hero, kissing him as we left so that the girls could come in.
I felt sad yet again as I thought about life and the relationships that have been lost or at least greatly diminished in our fractured family. I lost my oldest brother, Bud, to a heart attack, and my oldest sister, Sharon, to lung cancer…I am not ready to lose my brother. I was so glad to see my sweet and beautiful nieces with their husbands, both very happily married and living good lives. They are hard at work tracing our family history (back to the 1700s in Ireland so far), and have asked me to share some old family photos that were Mom’s. I am so glad that I can help them and be a part of their research.
It is very true that in times like these, we remember the importance of connection, the shared blood that runs through our veins, the shared experiences. It doesn’t mean that we all have to be cookie-cutter versions of each other- that would make for a pretty boring family anyway. It is a window to who we are, though, an anchor to our history – both the good and the not-so-good. It grounds us, answers questions that are important in understanding our roots as members of a ‘tribe’. Knowing our past helps to guide our future in so many ways.
I thought long and hard about what I wanted to take to Mark, something special from the heart, and something from Mom, too. I searched all through Mom’s mahogany chest of drawers, but nothing seemed right. I knew the moment my eyes popped open this morning what I needed to give him- perhaps a little nudge from my angel, Heavy D. I opened up my cramped jewelry box, more full of childhood collectibles than anything else, and found the two treasures that Mom had given to me years ago: Grandma’s Buckeye that she carried for good luck and her worry stone. I also took him Mom’s family Bible. Treasures that were difficult for me to part with, but perhaps even more precious a gift for that very reason. I sure hope so. You’ve got this, Mark. Your doctors don’t call you ‘The Bull’ for nothing.
(Postscript: Mark did well…the surgery was more complex than thought, but the doctor is hopeful for total recovery soon.)