Riding Shotgun Down The Avalanche

Tuesday morning, 9/7/10, Detroit – An early morning alarm and then it was out into the bright Detroit light as my fiancee Janet and I began the 12 hundred plus mile journey to North Carolina to visit Janet’s brother Chuck, who is battling brain cancer with great heroism. Just a very light breakfast as we tried to get on the road as early as possible. Though we’d been looking forward to seeing Chuck and spending time with him at his home in Charlotte, we both understood that this wasn’t going to be easy. Visiting a sick relative or friend never is. But sometimes you just have to do it. And so we did.

Hands firmly on the wheel and eyes sharply on the road, we set off for the southland. We tried not to think about what awaited us. We just drove.

Here are the plain and simple facts. 48 year old Chuck Graham is a brilliant engineer who owns a multi-million dollar engineering firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is married and has two daughters, one in high school and one in college. Diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Chuck has been battling it ever since. He’s been through it all, many times over. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Surgery on tumors on his face and neck. More chemo. More radiation. Months of disabling side effects. Blinding, pounding headaches. Awful pain. On and on.

Beginning a few months ago, Chuck began having difficulty swallowing, making it very painful and impossible to eat. Because of this, Chuck’s lost a huge amount of weight, more than 70 pounds. He’s also recovering from a serious bout with pneumonia that landed him in the hospital. He’s now getting nutrition via a feeding tube. He’s in near constant pain, but gets some relief from morphine which his wife, Julie, administers as needed. Julie has taken a sabbatical to care for Chuck. He is home, but still must visit the hospital each day for more radiation, as the doctors continue to try to shrink his remaining tumors. Those are the hard cold facts.

Then there are also many questions, some which can be answered and some which cannot. And sometimes it’s hard to get through all the information and get answers to some of those questions. As we pressed on further south, Janet and I wondered what we might find when we reached our destination. I hoped and prayed for strength, primarily for Janet but also for myself. Janet is very strong, stronger perhaps than she thinks, but has never been through a family situation like this. As Janet drove her mighty mule of a car, we tried not to think or talk too much about what we mostly already knew.

We were listening much of the way to Pandora Radio. The music was soothing to both of us and as the day progressed and we continued on, some of the earlier anxiety seemed to ease. We were bound for the hills of West Virginia, a place I’d never seen before. Still in Ohio, the sun was shining brightly. Great traveling weather. And it was quite serendipitous when John Denver’s classic song, “Country Road” came on Pandora Radio, quite some distance from the West Virginia line:

“Almost heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River….
Country roads, take me home,
To the place I belong….”

The landscape began to change from mainly flat countryside to low hills. It’s a pretty country, I said to Janet and she agreed. Being on the road gives you a chance to open your mind as you see how huge and wide this country really is. There are just long stretches where you see nothing at all other than nature. The clutter begins to clear in your head and we began to relax a little. Sometimes it’s good just to be traveling on. We concentrated on making sure we were taking all the right exits and following all the correct routes and roads.

Although Janet has traveled through much of this country in her days as a sports reporter, my travel has been more limited. But I enjoy seeing new places. We entered West Virginia and crossed a few rivers. Quickly those hills become mountains and the roads curved around the mountains like ribbons. The roads began to get very steep and treacherous and Janet had to really concentrate. We had a quick lunch in the car and kept going. I looked at my watch and noticed we’ve been on the road for nine hours. Where did all that time go? The scenery, at times, was breathtaking.

Dusk carried us further along and soon we entered North Carolina. We would not be seeing Chuck that night. We’d made arrangements to spend the night at a friend’s house. When we arrived at our destination we realized we’d been driving for 13 hours, and once we got settled it wasn’t hard, despite our anxiety regarding the next day, to fall asleep. Our heads hit the pillows and it was time to visit the Land of Nod.

Wednesday morning, 9/8/10, Charlotte, N.C. – Chuck asked us to wait until late morning to visit, so that allowed us to sleep in an extra hour or two. We got ready and headed over to Chuck’s house about five miles away. And as we pulled into his driveway we saw several people standing in the front yard discussing something or other. (Turns out they were workers looking to do some tree-trimming.) Standing right in the middle of the group was Chuck, looking much as I expected. As we got out of our car and walked toward him, it was easy to see the toll this battle has taken. He appeared haggard and very thin, and greeted us with a look of supreme sadness. Just a shadow of the man we saw at Christmas, I thought of how remarkable it was that he was standing outside his house taking care of business. What incredible courage! What a true fighter he is!

After we all embraced, we went inside to Chuck’s sunny day room, a large room he added on to his house several years ago. It’s a beautiful and well-appointed room and it’s many windows allow the sun to brighten up the house. Chuck has two dogs, a young, muscular and slightly aggressive hound named Hayden and an older, more mellow golden retriever named Rigby and they seem to bring a nice energy into the house. I believe animals are essential for people who are sick and trying to get better. I believe they have an intuitive knowledge of what’s happening and provide necessary love and companionship to the sick. I’m glad Chuck has Hayden and Rigby by his side, whenever he needs them.

Janet and I had plenty of questions to ask about how Chuck was feeling. We also tried to keep things light, offering up stories and anecdotes about our own lives and some of the funny people we’ve encountered. Chuck was happy not to have to answer too many question, and equally curious to hear our stories. Soon it was time for Janet’s brother to make his own trip to the hospital for more radiation. We left and came back in the late afternoon and sat and chatted with him some more. That night we watched an emotionally uplifting, good natured film, “The Blind Side.”

It was a good film with a happy ending and it seemed to put Chuck in a positive frame of mind. Needless to say he gets sleepy fairly early every night, so we left after the movie, telling Chuck and his wife we’d be back again the next day.

Thursday, 9/9/10, Charlotte, N.C. – Thursday ended up being pretty much a carbon copy of the day before with our arrival at Chuck’s in the late morning and the break for radiation. However, instead of leaving, we stayed at Chuck’s house and read while he was at the hospital. I also observed that there seemed to be a considerable improvement in Chuck’s mood. His face just looked less sad and he laughed and talked more often. Thinking that laughter is often the best remedy, I borrowed a copy of the classic knee slapper, “My Cousin Vinny” from Chuck’s friend Jim. Around 5:00 p.m. we sat down and watched that movie and all laughed quite a bit at good old Joe Pesci and friends.

As I said Chuck’s spirit’s seemed to have lifted since the day before. In fact, he was feeling so good on Thursday that all day he kept talking about taking a trip in the evening to a candy store called Kilwin’s. In fact, Chuck pretty much insisted that we all pile into a car and go for a ride across town to a trendy area with a group of shops where Kilwin’s was located.

Inside the smell of fudge, chocolate and ice cream filled our senses and soon filled our stomachs as well. And despite the fact that Chuck couldn’t eat or drink anything, it didn’t matter. He truly seemed to delight in the sight of seeing us having fun, selecting our favorite flavor of ice cream or enjoying a slice of freshly made chocolate fudge. He just looked on and smiled now and then.

We walked back to our car, stopping to look in shop windows on this gorgeous southern September night. It was great to see Chuck and Julie walking hand in hand. And as I noticed Chuck watching us enjoy ourselves, I realized that this was why everyone loves Chuck so much. It’s because Chuck simply cares so much about making sure his friends and family are having a great time.

I remembered how on past visits he would always be pointing out places of interest along the road in North Carolina, making sure I was comfortable and part of the conversation. Last Christmas, as a gift to his family, Chuck rented out a very luxurious and expensive beach house in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again, another example of Chuck’s generosity. Chuck is one of a kind, an incredibly loving and generous man who loves to give of himself. And how can you not love that.

And I guess that’s the true tragedy of his illness. The world needs more guys like Chuck and it’s just plain wrong to see such wonderful people suffer. Chuck embodies so much the opposite of what I see in most of the other people I encounter in the world. During an age of endless greed, narcissism, and selfishness, Chuck is exceedingly generous, loving and kind. It’s just a crying shame that he’s had to endure this ordeal. It’s just wrong.

We got home and since we were going to leave early Friday, we said our goodbyes then and there, with a promise to visit again sometime soon. Chuck was careful to make sure we knew the best way to Dayton, where we were going to stop overnight on the way home to cut the trip in half. It was an emotional experience and I could tell you that there were no tears shed, but I’d be lying.

Friday, 9/10/10, Charlotte, N.C. – We were up and on the road by 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., thanking Chuck’s friend Jim for his hospitality before we drove off. We had another long journey ahead of us, but this time instead of going straight back to Detroit, we decided to take a different route and visit with Janet’s parents in Dayton to spend time with them and tell them what we had seen and learned about Chuck. We were saddened to leave, but feeling positive about the time we spent with Chuck and Julie and cautiously optimistic about Chuck’s future. It seemed to take longer to go a shorter distance (the road home always feels longer, doesn’t it?), but Chuck’s parents were delighted to see us Friday night and we all went out to dinner at our favorite restaurant in little olde Centerville, Ohio.

Chuck’s daughter Kelli, who attends the University of Dayton, joined us for dinner and was happy to hear that her Dad was doing okay. Chuck’s mother and father had lots of questions and we did our best to answer them. They, like Chuck, are deeply religious, and Janet and I are always happy and heartened to see how their faith in God is helping them through this most trying time. Finally, exhausted from the road, we retired for the night, everyone feeling a little more relieved and hopeful that Chuck can still beat this despicable scourge of a disease.

Saturday, 9/11/2010, Dayton, OH – We had already traveled more than one thousand miles, but we still had another couple hundred ahead of us as we made our way back to the Motor City on Saturday. It’s a good thing that Janet is a better traveler than me, because I was starting to feel the strain of the road, and she was still going strong. As we drove into our condo complex we felt such a mixture and combination of emotions.

It had been one heck of an journey with plenty of highs and lows and ups and downs. For Janet, I knew it was a trip she had to make, to see the brother that she loves with all her heart and to just be with him for awhile during this struggle. For me, it was also something I needed to do, because although I like to think that I’m providing strength for Janet, I’m also trying to come to grips and deal with Chuck and the battle he’s fighting.

One of the lessons that my own father taught me was that we can never give up in this life. No matter how difficult the fight is, or how bad the odds might be, you have to stay in the ring and keep on swinging. And you can never, ever give up. I told Chuck this and I know he’s probably heard it before. And the good news is that I don’t think he ever will give up. He will keep on fighting the good fight. I also have come to experience things in my own life that allow me to believe in miracles and I am praying as hard and fervently as I can that Chuck can fully recover and get to live to a fine old age.

Nobody deserves it more than Chuck.

Postscript: I’d like to, on behalf of Janet and her entire family, appeal to you for your prayers and good thoughts for Chuck Graham of Charlotte, North Carolina. I thank you very much and I’ll keep you up to date.

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12 Comments

Filed under My Stories

12 responses to “Riding Shotgun Down The Avalanche

  1. Ruth

    John, thank you for this article. It was an inspirational and real and you are a beautiful, thoughtful writer.

  2. Thank you Ruth. And the same to you.

  3. pat kellly

    John – could not have been written in a more eloquent and thoughtful way…I’m so glad you and Janet made the trip. Love you guys…xoxox P

  4. Thanks, as always sister P.

    Love you so much too.

  5. Ron

    John,

    It is indeed wrong, sad and unfair what Chuck and so many others like him have to endure minute by minute of every single day.

    John, you have a gift of capturing what all of us would be thinking about or jogging our minds to do so and then amplifying on it.

  6. My dear friends,

    For a little while I stopped reading this blog since I was offline in a remote Spanish area. But I caught up and am in tears by not only the sadness of the story but also by the beauty of the way John captured this.

    As always: I send all the positive vibes from across the big pond. All strength for Chuck.

    Love,
    Maria

  7. Thank you Maria. Your prayers for Chuck are greatly appreciated.

  8. Michael Hernbrott

    You have our prayers John, Janet and Chuck.

  9. jennifer brandeis

    John, Janet and I were roommates at IU for three years and I had the wonderful fortune of getting to know and love her whole family. They really are special and it sounds like they are lucky to have you be a part of it. Keep taking care of janet and the graham clan. Hope to meet you and see Janet soon. Been way too long .

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