Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fighting the Beast

I want you to meet David Black.

I met David when I hired him to be my son's tutor. Ian was struggling with middle school, ADHD and generally being a teenager. He was very good at being late to class, ignoring his homework and not paying attention; he was very bad at passing the seventh grade. His teachers were giving up on him.

I didn't have the luxury of giving up on my son, and David was our lifeline. Hired with the generous help of my folks, David was more like Ian's warden than his tutor. Every day after school, he picked up my son and took him to the library. They studied American government and English and fractions every afternoon, with an extra dose of study skills and work ethic.

David had just graduated from the university with his teaching degree, but it was the recession, and he hadn't snagged a full-time job. So Ian became his classroom. He had worked extensively with special-education kids as a student teacher and came with glowing recommendations that turned out to be right on the money. He found ways to motivate my stubborn child that I would never have thought of trying. He was funny and dedicated, but he was also tough. He did not put up with any of Ian's middle-school sneakiness and stubborn sullenness. He took no crap from my kid, and it is thanks to David, in large part, that Ian passed the seventh grade, the eighth grade and is now doing well in high school.

David became more than our tutor; he was my friend, my advisor and guide through the most difficult years this mom ever had. He was also a writer, and asked my advice on publishing his books. I gave him the advice I've given so many, about the best ways to hone your craft, the best approaches in the small and medium press, the extra hoops if you try for New York. In the end, David decided to self-publish his books, because it turned out he didn't have time to wait for the slow wheels of publishing to grind along.

See, in a fair and just world, I'd be introducing you to David Black the schoolteacher. He'd be standing before a classroom of kids, snarking at them as he opened their minds to the really cool stuff in history and literature. He'd be finding new ways to reach kids that other teachers gave up on, because that's what he did. He truly had the gift.

I wish it happened that way.

Not long after he ceased being Ian's warden, David was diagnosed with a fairly aggressive form of cancer. And he fought it just as hard as he fought Ian's attitude, as hard as he'd worked his way through college. He wrestled it for a few years, and we all watched him fight the Beast as he and a few of his buddies taped a live podcast every week. They wanted it to be a chronicle of their friendship, of his life, and he must have invited me four or five times to appear on it with them.

I asked him if he wanted me there as an author (usually the reason I'm asked to speak in front of people), or as a journalist, or as a Relay for Life team captain. Any and all, he said. And I always meant to do it, you know? It taped on a difficult night for me, but I always meant to clear my schedule just once, make the time, arrange to be there. As an author, a journalist or a long-time advocate for cancer fundraising, I wanted to be there.

Time ran out.

David Black lost his battle in early May. He never got his classroom. This time, the Beast won.

And it pisses me off. I've been angry since David died, since my son and I attended his memorial and faced just how much poorer we all are for not having him with us anymore. What do you say to someone who impacted your life as much as David did? How do you thank someone who helped turn your only child around when everything else you've tried had failed?

It's not fair. It's not right, and it's not "just the way it is," and it's not "God's will" or some such claptrap that is supposed to make us sit back and accept that this disease, this Beast, is going to take some of our people much too young.

Unfortunately, David is not the only name on our wall. I never had the honor to meet author Jay Lake in person, but I'd been reading his blog for more than a decade and so many of my friends were deeply impacted by his death. It's funny how you get to know people online; we put so much of ourselves out on the internet that even if we're only words on a screen, we know each other, often much more intimately than those we see in our offices and neighborhoods.

Jay Lake put more of himself out there than most. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was brutally honest in his blog posts, detailing his treatments, emotions and side effects in a conscious effort to demystify the Beast. We hide disease and ailments behind closed doors as if it's something to be ashamed of, and too often cancer patients are expected to wane quietly in private as though they must shut themselves away.

Rachael never did that. Rachael Wise was proud not to be a "typical cancer patient." In all her life, Rachael was never typical, folks. She had a personality you could see shining across a room. She loved life, she loved her friends, and she loved her husband, author Bryan Smith.

Rachael was a dear friend and a voracious reader, even if our tastes did not always cross paths. She had a wicked sense of humor. She knew that I am completely squicked by eyeball trauma - hey, everyone's got a phobia - and there was a particularly grotesque eyeball scene in one of Bryan's latest books, for which I threatened him with retribution.

Naturally, when she knew I would be at Bryan's next book release party, she special-ordered a package full of candy eyeballs. Squishy candy eyeballs. When I arrived, she dragged me over to them, wearing her mad-scientist coat. She said, "Look, Elizabeth!" and grabbed an eyeball.

She bit it in half. It was gooey red inside. "Just for you!" she declared, grinning. Evil, I tell you!

I miss her so very much.

Rachael Wise died of breast cancer in 2011. She was only 37 and it's not fair, it's not right and I do not accept it. I'm angry, because Rachael should be here laughing and chewing candy eyeballs with me. Just as David Black should be in his classroom, ready for another year of thickheaded kids to teach.

You know who else should be here? Patrick Swayze. Paul Newman. Farrah Fawcett. Jerry Orbach. Anne Bancroft. Eartha Kitt. Nat King Cole. Peter Jennings. Gilda Radner. Carl Sagan. Elisabeth Sladen. Edward R. Murrow. They aren't more important than the ones I know, the ones we've lost, but they're the ones you also might know.

And Dick Adams. You don't know who he is, and unfortunately, neither do I. He was my fiance's stepfather, and by all reports a good and decent man who loved Jimmy as if he were his own blood. He helped raise Jimmy and his siblings, and taught Jimmy what kind of man he wanted to be. Jimmy loved him deeply, enough that his loss still stings. Jimmy is a wonderful, caring and compassionate stepfather to my son, a blessing to our house, and sometimes I feel as though Dick's influence is here in our house, through the man that Jimmy became.

But I never got to meet Dick, and he never knew me or my son. Dick died of cancer before Jimmy and I ever met. Another opportunity lost, robbed before its time. Dick is Jimmy's reason for walking this Friday, the name he will write on a luminary and set along the track as we walk all night for the American Cancer Society.

I'll tell you something else: the Beast has brushed up against us, too. At first I wasn't going to talk about this, but what the hell. In recent months some annoying symptoms showed up. I'll spare you the grotesque details. They could have been an advancement of other medical issues I have, or they could be indications of cancer.

My doctors ordered some particularly invasive tests to rule out cancer before proceeding. I know this doctor pretty well; he's taken care of me for nearly 15 years. If it's nothing, you get a postcard with the all-clear. If there's a concern, you get a phone call.

The phone call came just as we were pulling into a hotel in Nashville last weekend for a convention. It was late in the day and it surprised me to see the doctor's office on my cell. I switched over to take the call, and accidentally sent it to voicemail. She left a message asking me to call the doctor's office about my results. Naturally I immediately called back - but it was too late. They'd closed down the switchboard for the night, and therefore for the weekend. No news until Monday. I left a message anyway.

We spent the weekend with that hanging over us. No news is good news, but they never call unless the news is bad. We were determined not to borrow trouble, and save the panic attack for when we had actual answers. Nevertheless, it felt like a cloud hanging over us throughout our trip to Nashville, even though we kept it to ourselves. I tried to keep a good attitude; I think I succeeded better than Jimmy.

On Monday, the doctor's office called back with an apology. The scan was clear, and they don't know why the assistant had called me. The postcard was already in the mail.

I won't even pretend that Jimmy and I now know how the others felt when they were touched by the Beast. Ours was a tiny hiccup, a brief weekend of nervousness. But it reminded me that all of us will be touched by the Beast at some point in our lives. Even if we are lucky enough to go our entire lives cancer-free, we will all know someone who fights the Beast, and far too many who lose their fight with it.

It is the one truly universal disease, the one that touches everyone.

That's why I'll be walking around the track on Friday night. My team and I will raise money through raffle tickets, selling glowy toys and collecting donations that will help fund research and support services for cancer patients.

And I'll be adding David Black's name to a luminary on the walk. Sure, I can hear that cankerous fellow groaning now. David, you see... he didn't have a lot of use for people who just said, "I'll pray for you," and did nothing else. He was a man in a pitched battle, and words just didn't fix anything. Not for him, and not for his kids.

As for me, I do believe that prayer has meaning. But I also think David has a point. Prayer without action doesn't do much. God helps those who help themselves - and other people.

And that's where I get to my point, my friends. I want you to join me. Not in walking the track - although, if you're in the area, you're certainly welcome at Edwardsville High School and the Relay is always a blast.

Or you can join me in spirit.

I want to raise at least $300 by Friday. My team's goal is to raise $3,000 by the end of the season, and we're way behind - my fault. I hope you'll support us. If you don't have the means, there are other ways you can help. The point of the Relay is to walk through the night in solidarity - not to torture ourselves, not as an endurance test. But to stand watch, taking turns throughout the night, so that when the sun comes up, we all see the light together.

It's my hope that someday these walks won't be necessary. Someday they'll make the breakthrough, and we won't lose any more talented artists or brilliant minds, teachers or friends.

Rachael Wise should be laughing with me.
Jay Lake should be writing for all of us.
David Black should be teaching our kids.
Dick Adams should be here to meet his new grandchild.

It isn't fair.
It isn't right.
And it can be stopped.

I believe that.
I hope you do, too.

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