Friday, November 20, 2009

The Fight Of Our Lives

The Fight Of Our Lives, an article written for SkiTrax Magazine

I remember the call. No, not the call, not the one announcing cancer’s finality. No, I’m talking about the one that comes before, telling of cancer’s arrival. The call hits just as hard as being blindsided by a big rig. Scientific-sounding words dazing my mind much as a backyard brawler’s flurry of jabs and punches might. Undifferentiated anaplastic carcinoma… rectum cancer… highly malignant… massive, aggressive growth… At the start, as in the end, these words make little sense as we hear our friends and family given their chances to keep on eating, breathing, loving life and loving one another distilled into the cold, clinical, exacting nature of numerology.

First I think, no, this can’t be. Then, wait, what does this mean? Sure the odds aren’t so good, but miracles happen everyday, right? Then, I become numb – not knowing how to think or to feel or to react. Then comes the guilt. When did I last see them? When did I last tell them what they mean to my life? When did we last share a simple moment, a good conversation, enough time and the presence to soak it all in?

Twice my grandmother’s been given a Russian roulette’s chance at life because of cancer. Twice my Dad told me, “It doesn’t look good. But your Grandmother’s a fighter. She’s not going to give in to this.” Twice my Dad’s been right. Twice my grandmother’s beaten the odds. Twice she’s beaten cancer back.

Four years ago, Vidar Loefshus was my ski coach. Then, after the 2006 Torino Olympics, Vidar moved back to Norway. In the spring of 2008, at the urging of his girlfriend, Vidar went to the doctor where he was diagnosed with rectum cancer. Vidar is the kind of coach you hope one day you get the chance to work with. Because of Vidar, I am a better skier. Because of Vidar’s influence and example, I’m a better person. I cannot think of higher praise to give my friend.

I try to get a handle on cancer by thinking about it as a pie. I slice the pie in thirds. One of those slices, the biggest of the three slices, represents those of us today, statistically speaking, who will get cancer. My generation, the statistics are even more sobering. Flip a coin. Tails you’re lucky. Heads you’ve got a date with cancer, with chemo, with radiation, a dance with death. I can’t help but think there’s probably nobody reading this who hasn’t been directly affected by cancer.
I also can’t help but think about this as Vidar and I sit down at a hotel lobby in Beitostolen, Norway with the World Cup opener around the corner. “It came as a kind of shock – a real shock,” says Vidar as he tells me about his fight with cancer, which left him pooping into a bag and physically scarred, if not psychologically. “I think if this is the way I’m to end my life, I had a good life. I was thinking like this.”

During his six-week chemo and radiation course, Vidar road his bike, standing on the pedals the whole way because he couldn’t sit down on the plushest couch, let alone his bike seat. Five kilometers to the hospital; chemotherapy and radiation; five kilometers back home. Vidar’s personal way of showing the middle finger to the big C.

“There’s quite a bit of psychology in this. I think many people in athletics are strong-minded in meeting challenges. I don’t know. This is my feeling. I’ve always felt I’m strong in the mind. When this came around, I said, ‘I’m going to fight this.” I didn’t read much about the cancer or nothing. I put my trust in my doctors and hospitals that they were going to help me and I’m going to fight this as hard as I can the whole way. I was not going to give into the cancer. I didn’t ever surrender. I never gave up. I’d like to think this made a difference. But we are not created equal. Nor do we all face the same obstacles. Sometimes we have an unlucky lottery ticket. Sometimes we’re not in a position to fight it.”

Sean McCabe was one of these unlucky lottery ticket holders. “My, my, hey, hey, the king is gone,” goes the radio song. But Sean, you’re far from forgotten. I remember picking up the telephone, talking to you about going to the University of Utah. Thanks for the advice. I appreciated it then. I appreciate it now. I also remember staying in the studio above your workshop last Christmas, the low rumble and humm of woodworking machines putting me to sleep between training sessions. Or the little daily conversations we’d have – about art, sport or otherwise. You said, “In my life, I’ve been blessed to see color.” When I take in the colors of a pretty sunset or bask in the alpenglow at the end of a winter’s day, I’m the one blessed; that got to know you. I’m sorry that when you gave cancer a big middle finger, instead of getting the life you knew back you got six months. It just doesn’t seem right. But like my Grandmother and Vidar, you’ve molded others into a better shape. For this and more, thank you Sean. Your memory lives on.

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