Ten Years of Life

Sometimes it seems like life’s problems are about to swallow us whole and we wonder if we’ll survive. Then we meet someone who has real problems.
I met Mark in the summer of 1983. He was 21 then, and seemed ancient to me at the time. But he was one of the nicest guys I had ever met.

He was also one of the most unlucky. Just before we met, he had been in a house fire; about two months after we met, his brand-new Ford Ranger was stolen. Another two or three months later, people started to notice a significant weight loss and his hair started falling out.

Our worst suspiucions didn’t tell half the story. Mark had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. Worse, he had only a year to live.

Mark had been undergoing chemotherapy for about four months and had even made his own funeral arrangements without telling his family. He didn’t want his mother to have to deal with it.

Mark did his best to ignore the illness until he picked out his own coffin. The task made him realize the approach would not work, and that he was not only in for the fight of his life, but a fight for his life as well.

Mark never brought the topic up to his family or friends again. He saw no reason to subject them to his suffering as well. His girlfriend and some of his others friends seemed to disappear after learning of Mark’s illness, but he brushed it off as their only way of dealing with it. As Mark “danced with the Grim Reaper,” he met a terminally ill Cherokee Indian in his 70s who was not willing to let a man one-quarter his age give up. He gave Mark a strand of beads that had been passed down for generations as a symbol of longevity. Wear then, the man ordered, and survive.

Mark brushed them off as a mind game. But he carried them, and he still believes the mind games helped him through the illness.

About halfway through his illness, Mark moved. He could no longer walk through his old town without people looking at him like he was a ghost, as if they were wondering when he would die.

There were three reasons why Mark was still alive: the treatment, the mind games, and a strong faith in God–which gave life a purpose, an incentive to live.

After three years of this formula, the illness left him. Seven years later he’s still cancer-free.

After his recovery, Mark volunteered to help other teminally ill patients. Since the vast majority of cancer patients were older than he was, the hospital assigned Mark to work with AIDS patients.

Volunteering gave Mark a different perspective of his illness. I could never call terminal cancer “mild,” but Mark did. There was a difference betwween Mark and the AIDS patients–in 1986, cancer patients could receive several forms of treatment and hope, something AIDS patients are still waiting for.

After about four years, Mark gave up the volunteering. He had to get away from the death for a while, and go back to working with the living. But one day, he plans to go back. He’ll know when the right time comes.

Mark’s unique experiences changed him. He said he used to be materialistic and wanted to live a long life. Now he is content just to be alive. After all, every year he lives is yet another he was supposed to have.

One of the last things Mark said to me was that nobody knows they have the will to survive until they really need it.

I’ll never forget those words. When I consider Mark, mundane daily responsibilities like doing the job I’m trained and paid to do, serving on boards at my church, and handling disagreements between subordinates (or peers) seem so minor.

Like child’s play, just like 1983.

I just found out that a dear friend has cancer and this piece seemed appropriate. I originally wrote it in Dec. 1993 as part of a job application. It was published in Jan. 1994 as my debut as a newspaper columnist.

This piece is distinctive in that I actually like it (I don’t like most of the stuff I write), but the original was too much about me and not enough about Mark. Considering I was 19 when I wrote it, that’s not too surprising. So here’s the 2002 remix of one of my earliest published works.

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