AFE passenger Chris was a guest speaker at the On Angels’ Wings Gala in 2012. Below is his story.
We’re all gonna die someday.
I learned this from a renowned hematologist at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Or maybe it was in a country song. Whoever the author, it ain’t folk wisdom and it ain’t wives’ tale. This is truth from the pointy end of the stick, truth with brass knuckles, truth incontrovertible as gravity. We’re all gonna die. You know it and I know it. You know this too: some of us sooner than others. The chill of these truths might give you pause, might get you down or make you flinch. One thing I want to tell you tonight is you could also approach it differently. You could plow through, keep hope, keep your shoulder to the wheel. You could decide to bear hug the facts much the way I do my kids on roughhouse night. You could decide to get big and lovey and delirious with a ticking clock. All the clocks are going to tick anyway, and you’d rather have them tick than not.
When I was 12 my best friend died of bone cancer. They discovered the disease after he fell from a tree where we had a boss fort of army tarps and carpet squares. An AM radio for baseball games, plug chewing tobacco and a stash of illegal fireworks. My friend fell and broke his back and the threads of his traction halo had a blue gleam to them that I still see in dreams. When the treatments started, my friend went downhill fast and by summer’s end he was gone.
When I was 18 a kind of mentor of mine died of a sudden coronary event. The man was an emergency room doctor and he diagnosed his own symptoms. He pulled his car over and called 911. He told the dispatcher she could send someone but they would not make it, for he had only minutes left. He called because he knew the conversation would be recorded and he wanted to tell his wife he loved her.
My buddy Ralph was an inveterate bike rider and could hike me out of my boots. He was tough and coarse as a leather strop. One spring he took a cold or a flu bug or something. He wasn’t himself but he wasn’t the type to baby a cold. Colds he punished with harder rides, more exercise. A number of weeks went by, but he did not improve. Finally he went to the doctor’s and he died in the hospital elevator. I could go on like this, but my point is so could you. Our clocks are ticking. It’s enough to make you fearful, enough to make you nihilistic. Lives are always in the balance. Poised, it sometimes seems, only for destruction.
Three years ago I went to see a doctor about some fevers I’d been having. Funny fevers that would come and go, and a strange fatigue. I was, as the saying goes, in the prime of life. I thought I was exercising too hard. Or eating too much protein. Or not sleeping enough. Or not going to church. Hell, I would have believed anything except blood cancer. But in fact it was blood cancer. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. I did ten months of chemotherapy during which I caught an e-coli strain, saw 70 over 40 on my blood pressure monitor. And I lost my hair not once but three times.
The treatment worked. Sorta. I had a two-year remission wherein I exercised like a mad man. A man possessed. A man, you might say, running from something. I got stronger and faster and my wife said better looking. I taught my boy to ride a bike and my girls to swim and I killed a monster ten-point whitetail with a bow and arrow in the hardwoods of southern Lancaster County. I dragged the carcass to the road with my friend and when he tired I dragged it the rest of the way myself. I snow boarded, I hiked the Colorado flatirons, I ran a seven-minute mile and deadlifted 365lbs. I finished a draft of a novel. I cleaned the basement and helped my friend start a gym. Okay. I did not clean the basement. But I sure felt bad when my wife did.
In late August I relapsed. Through the fall I tried to achieve a second remission and prepare for a bone marrow transplant but the disease seemed to have the edge on me. I caught a fungus and a blood infection and I saw 145 pounds on the scale for the first time since 8th grade. Worse, I could not achieve a second remission. In December my doctors sent me home with oxygen, a special potty and best wishes. About that time I learned of an experimental drug being tested at Dana Farber. There was one spot left in the study. It would entail weekly hops to Boston. Even if I could have afforded to fly to Boston every week, I didn’t know how I was going to get on a plane when the bedroom stairs were all but out of reach.
My first Angel Flight was with Michael Bush in his Cirrus. And then I flew in Tom Wallace’s Bonanza. And then with Gerry Frey and then John Maclaren. And it went on like this, every Tuesday, every Wednesday. I’ve flown with Doug Wohl so many times my seven-year-old son started asking me, “How’s Doug doing?”
There is a spot south of the Catskills where from altitude you can look left up the Hudson River to what must be Albany, or look right at the skyline of Manhattan and follow the outline of Long Island jutting to the sea. The only way you get this sight is if you are god or aboard a small private aircraft. I’ve seen it every week since January. It is just as pretty as you can imagine. Actually, it’s prettier than you can imagine. You have to see it. You can’t dream it up. On the left—vestiges of the planet’s largest arboreal canopy. On the right—a silhouette of one of mankind’s greatest creations. Seen from the cockpit of a single engine airplane, these things are breathtaking and silent as a lunar eclipse. They are as wondrous as the shiny skin my twins have in the bathtub, beautiful as my wife’s eyes when she is angry. You see I am still in the prime of my life. And so are you. Life itself is prime. All life is prime. I know this because I’ve had both the blessing and the curse to peer over the edge and even on that precipice, in great pain and unspeakable weakness, there was no denying the joy it was to breathe, to see the sun rise and my children with it, to know I had a woman who loved me, and friends who would miss me should I go. To put it a little bit differently, we’re all going to die, but right now we’re alive, which is precisely why we shouldn’t pause, we shouldn’t lose hope, and we should never ever, ever flinch.
I’m telling you this because before calamity befell, I did not know what an Angel Flight was. I did not know there were people—strangers—with airplanes who would help me for no better reason than I needed help.
I say this as a reminder to us all that we don’t get a dress rehearsal. This life and this life alone is the one we are privileged to live. And I say it because I want you to know every time a pilot picks up a mission and carries a patient—like me or any other—it confirms a generosity of spirit that moves me to remember that life is just a marvel, and it is joyous and hope filled, even when it is hard and even when it is perilous or doubtful.
Finally, I’m telling you this because it’s the truest thing I know and because the other thing, the most important thing, I wanted to tell you tonight is thank you. Thank you for fending for me when I couldn’t fend for myself. Thank you for your compassion and decency. Thank you for your time and resources. And thank you for helping me learn the truth with which I now pay you tribute: It’s a cruel and beautiful world and we will die in it as surely as we live, so we should live without fear and we should hope without ceasing and we should help others do likewise. That experimental drug, I am happy to say, worked. It was able to work largely because of the great gift you have given me. I have achieved a second remission and I await a bone marrow transplant that with luck will save my life. Or, let’s be honest, might not. But until such time I intend to go on unbowed, fearless and unflinching. I hope you will do the same.