“Get out of the bathroom,” I screamed, at the top of my lungs. “You little chicken.” My left hand pounding the hollow door while with my right I frenetically giggled the knob, I threatened to take my younger brother’s life. “You can’t attack me like that and think you’ll get away with it, Tim.”
It was a typical a Saturday morning, in September, 1962. My parents were busy doing their weekend chores. My older brother, Dave, was off with his friends and my youngest brother, Michael, was playing in the sandbox in our backyard. It was one of those rare opportunities where I had the only television in the house all to myself.
Lying vulnerable on our gray tweed carpet, I was mesmerized watching the latest dance steps on American Bandstand. I was prone to attack in the innocent, unassuming position, my face simply supported by my ten-year-old fists. Expelled from traditional dance classes at the age of eight, I took every chance I got to learn the latest moves all the teenagers were doing elsewhere. Thinking I was completely safe for one hour of uninterrupted peace, I forgot to take note of my other brother’s whereabouts.
Tim was twenty months younger than me, and a total pest. The main mission in his young life was to make mine a living hell. I didn’t hear him head into the kitchen, right off my television sanctuary, for a snack. Spying me firmly planted on my belly, he saw this as the perfect opportunity for one of his exasperating attacks and, like a stealth wild cat preying on his next victim, he charged my way for the kill.
“Mom!” I screamed, as he pounced on my back.
With tremendous speed and agility, he grabbed my right arm then flipped my body over for one of his famous “war of the tickles.”
“No! Leave me alone!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
Salivating as if he hadn’t eaten in days, Tim whispered, “I’ve got you now!”
In our childhood, it was a constant battle over who got the rights to the black and white television. In those rare moments when I was in charge of the dial, I enjoyed watching old movies and shows with dancing. For my brothers and father – it was every sport imaginable. But for Tim, it was the main event – wrestling. Each new dance step I learned I practiced in the peace and harmony of my bedroom. Tim, on the other hand, needed a live dummy to practice his “passion” and that usually meant me.
He pinned me down quickly, as if his tiny body was filled with steroids, and in true “Wrestle Mania” fashion, securely locked my arms back on the floor with his knees. Next, he sat his bony rear-end on top of my stomach and forced his entire weight over my torso until I couldn’t move a muscle. Once he had me exactly where he wanted, he was ready to name his terms for this assault.
“Let me have the TV or you’re going to get it.” he demanded, his peanut butter covered face pressed to my nose.
“Never!” I hissed, and the war began.
First, his dirty, bony fingers found their way to my blubbery mid-section for the tortuous jab. Pushing his index fingers into my chest, right below my sternum, he repeatedly poked faster and faster. Knowing I might die if I didn’t do something fast, I quickly prepared for my counter attack. In a violent, knee jerk reaction, I kicked my legs wildly, tossed my torso from side to side, and arched my back until I knocked him off. Once I was free, he knew he was in trouble. He bolted down the hall.
“Yeah, you better run, twerp! If you don’t want another bloody nose!” I hollered, chasing feverishly right behind.
Tim may have started every altercation in the Madden household, but I learned to finish them. Growing up in a male dominated world, I taught myself early to never back down from a fight. Whether it was with one of my three brothers or their annoying friends, I stood my ground, fists ready, until they cried, “uncle” – or my mother walked in. This determination to survive transferred to all other aspects of my life as well – school, business and relationships. No challenge would ever be too great to make me run and hide…except for one. The fight to live.
Cancer is one of the most frightening and devastating ailments to appear in one’s life. Over the past several years, I’ve had to watch several people I love deal with this invasive scourge. A few were fortunate and medications worked to either eradicate the disease or place them in remission for more time to live. Others weren’t so lucky.
Four years ago, my dearest male friend, Bob, found a spot on his chest that look suspicious. Taking no chances, he immediately went to the doctor and was given the heartbreaking news that it was indeed melanoma – the deadliest of all skin cancers. It was removed right away and the wait-and-see period began.
For the next two years he lived his life with a positive attitude, caring for his family, enjoying his friends, loving every minute he had. On the second annual visit to Stanford Hospital, the report came back. There was no indication that the illness had returned. But that night, in the shower, he found a new lump under his arm. Instantaneously, he knew his cancer was back.
Reality in life and death situations often hits like a devastating tsunami. First the shock rumbles in your core, the awful news creates panic and dread to encase you. Tears overpower your emotions, like a large volume of water being hurled at the shore and obliterating not only the senses, but your body as well. When the waves recede, the battered body is left in a state of confusion and chaos.
Picking himself up from the rubble, his the dreams for the future shattered into a million tiny pieces. There would be no playing golf all over the world with his buddies in his Scottish kilt. Gone would be the day of watching his daughter to go college, get married and have children, as well as the desire of listening to his son continue to create music that, hopefully, one day the whole world would enjoy just as he did. Most significantly, the dream of growing old with the love of his life, Tania, would fade significantly. Bob knew there was only one option. Those dreams had to survive and he was going to do everything in his power to make it happen. The battle began – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and every new experimental treatment on and off the market. Not one stone was to be left unturned.
It is many times questioned when dealing with this disease which is worse: the sickness or the cure? More often than not, the treatments are more deadly than the disease, leaving the patient weaker and sicker than if the cancer just ran it’s own frightening course. We all watched in alarm as he suffered the torture of the damned. We saw him lose his hair, lose weight, constantly vomit, deal with excruciating headaches and nearly overdose on what the doctors prescribed. I couldn’t help but wonder, was life worth living if the quality was gone? I couldn’t imagine myself wanting to continue on if I had to suffer the way he did.
While I’ve been a fighter and have never been afraid of pain (giving birth to four over sized, nine pound plus babies without even an aspirin attests to that), I’m not sure I’d ever be strong enough to take on a challenge of this magnitude. To burden others with a constant need for care and be reduced to wearing diapers, while tubes and needles dot my chest and arms, I think I’d go insane. And then there’s my never-ending vanity. How could I go on if I lost all my hair? Cute hats were everywhere, so I think I could endure the loss of my curly locks, but how do you replace eyebrows and eyelashes and make them look natural. A pencil line is just that – a line. It’s not the real thing.
Bob’s war lasted two more years. Each morning he woke up, looked into the face of stage four cancer and growled, “You are not going to take me. I’m not ready.” He continued to work. He continued to love and care for his family and friends with a smile and a warm heart. Bob wanted to carry on not only for those he loved, but because he saw this place called earth as a magnificent party worth treasuring, even if the beer, tequila and golf might have to wait awhile until the medications had done their magic.
But on Father’s Day, 2009, at forty-six-years-old, the party was over and it was time to go home. Home to where there would be no pain. Home to where only peace and joy reigned. Home to be with our Heavenly Father who wanted him back. It was God’s turn to play golf with Bob.
As I kissed Bob for the last time, and we told each other how much we loved one another, I was able to feel his inner strength behind the emaciated façade that had once been a strong and vibrant human being. He wasn’t someone to be pitied, but to be admired and revered. He lived his life the way he wanted to – and died the same way.
It haunts me when I learn life lessons from the pain of others. I should just know these things and not be constantly reminded as a result of someone else’s suffering. There isn’t a funeral I attend that I don’t leave and vow to treasure what I have because I know I’m living on borrowed time. But somehow, a few months later, I fall back into my same routine and begin to take my gifts for granted.
Watching Bob’s example of a life well-lived, I have promised to myself (and my children) to never let a day go by that I’m not grateful for this gift of life. I want to think of it as a gala affair with or without make-up, fluffy hair and cute clothes. I want to enjoy it to the max and revel in all that is good and true. And if I’m ever to be inflicted with an incurable illness, I plan to grab strength from Bob’s example. Just as I chased my brother, Tim, so long ago down the hall, I plan to give it the fight of it’s life. I will not let it hide in the bathroom, but drag it out kicking and screaming. I plan to live as long as God will let me.