Make Today Count
Orville E. Kelly
Despite the treatment, I felt well enough to drive home that afternoon. But the car was silent as grave. Wanda and I still could not talk to one another about our common problem -- my cancer. She was sitting in the front with me and looking fixedly out the window. Britty (Kelly's baby) was taking a nap, stretched out along the back seat.
"You're alive," I suddenly thought to myself. "You are alive. For three months, you've known you have cancer, but you're still alive."
As I steered the car along the rough highway, I began to think of what I had been doing to myself and my family. Without really knowing it, all of us had been celebrating a funeral -- mine -- and the funeral had not even taken place yet. I was still alive. I was not dead. I had some time. I was forty-three years old, I had a wife who loved me, I had two sons and two daughters.
"What have you got to lose by trying to live with this damned cancer?" A voice in my head asked me. Things couldn't get worse than they were now. The strain under which the family was living was already taking its toll. School had started, and Tammy had brought home failing slips in several of her classes. Mark was sullen much of the time, and Lori was quiet and subdued. No one in my family seemed happy any longer. We had had cancer as a part of our family way of life for more than three months, and no one in our household had mentioned the word once during all that time. What had life been for me since my cancer had first been diagnosed? Tumors... curses... tears... loneliness... nightmares... thoughts of suicide... whispers... silence. I had been blaming God for all my problems. But now I knew it was up to deal with them.
I began to notice how beautiful the autumn day was. The sun was out. The leaves had just begun to turn; they shone orange, and yellow, and red. Redwinged blackbirds were perched on fence posts. Farmers were out in their fields, preparing for another season. This was life. I was part of it. And I had been depriving myself of it. I stopped the car.
"Wanda," I blurted out. "We've got to talk about it. I have cancer. Cancer! I'll probably die of it. But I'm not dead yet. We have to talk about it."
Wanda turned, stared at me intently,and moved closer to me on the seat. "Are you sure you want to?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm sure. We have to face it together. I know you haven't told me the way you really feel. I don't know how we can help each other if we don't talk about it. I've just been moping around the house and making everyone miserable."
She nodded. "None of us wanted to worry you."
"Let's go home and have a barbecue tonight," I said to her. "We haven't had one in a long time. And we'll have to tell the children. We're just wasting time, and I don't want to go on living like this any longer."
There, I had said it. It was out in the open. Wanda's face seemed to light up, I hadn't seen her like that for more than three months. We kissed as if we really meant it for the first time since I had been told I had cancer. I started the car again, and we drove home.
That evening, I lighted the charcoal in the barbecue grill that had been standing idle for months on our back porch. Wanda bought spareribs at the supermarket, and the whole family had a meal that really tasted like a meal. I even had three beers. (I paid for that indulgence the next morning. My neck felt as if someone had put a clamp on it. I was nauseated, my legs hurt, and I felt very weak. Which was enough to persuade me never again to drink beer immediately after a treatment.)
Around nine o'clock, Wanda took Britty upstairs to bed, and I took Tammy, Mark, and Lori out to the back porch. Our porch is small, with room only for a few chairs and a couch. But the view is open all the way down to the Mississippi River. The stars were out that night, and the full moon threw its sparkles on the surface of the water. I sat down on the couch, the three children around me.
"I think it's time you knew what's wrong with me," I started. "This may take a while for me to explain, but you all should know." I hesitated for a moment -- it was not going to be easy to tell them this. Then I looked at the moon, took a deep breath, and continued. "The doctors have told me that I have cancer. Cancer is a disease that destroys tissues inside your body. That's why I've been sick so much. The doctors say that in all probability unless something else happens first, I will die of cancer."
Tammy and lori began to cry. Mark sat motionless.
"But I'm not dead yet. Your mother and I went to lowa City today so I could start treatments. We'll have to make the best of it. I'll tell you when things are good and when they're bad, but I want you three to help me live with this cancer. There will be bad days for us, but we can have good days, too. We don't have to like death, but we don't have to be terrified by it, either."
Finally, it was out in the open. Now, everyone knew except Britty; Wanda and I both felt he was too young to understand. I hugged each child. Tammy and Lori still had tears in their eyes. Mark was still silent. But now he accepted the fact that I had cancer. I had told him. He believed me. He no longer felt his mother had lied to him that day in June at the hspital.
When I went upstairs to our bedroom, I had one more thing to do before going to bed. I took a piece of paper from the desk in my studio, and wrote the word 'death' on it. This was my death that I was spelling out. I had to face it, just as my family did. I looked at that piece of paper for about five minutes looked and looked and looked. Then I slowly put it back in the desk drawer and got ready for bed. Wanda had been sleeping in the den ever since she had begun to have nightmares. But that night, for the first time in a long time, we slept in the same bed together.
Soon after the first chemotherapy treatment, I asked Wanda to help me clean up the studio. The desk,the bookcases, and the typewriter were deep in dust, but we finally managed to make the room spotless. I hadn't written anything for a long while.
Now I began to write again. One of my first pieces was about a Christmas I remembered. I was seven years old, it was during the Great Depression, and we were living on a rundown farm. In times as hard as those, I didn't think I would get any presents. A blizzard had developed on Christmas Eve, and I had snuggled into a featherbed to keep warm, praying that I would get just a little something for Christmas. When I woke the next morning and went downstairs, I found a decorated Christmas tree in the front room, and underneath it, a pair of lace up boots, a red fire engine, and a sack of candy.
"I have seen many other snowfalls," I wrote, "but for some reason I always remember that night when the blizzard came on Christmas Eve. Whenever I see the snow coming down and hear the wind begin to howl, I remember a dream that came true."
I submitted the story to the local Burlington newspaper -- the Hawk - Eye -- for a winter writing contest and received a first prize for it. That was my first Christmas present of the year. And others came, too. Wanda and I had only a little money, although we had been able to make ends meet with the Social Security disability payments and Veterans Administration checks we had been receiving. But Christmas 1973 turned out to be one of the warmest our family ever had, thanks to the generosity of a few friends, particularly those at the factory where Wanda had worked. We received cash, hams, turkeys, and countless boxes of candy. Wanda bought a few presents for the children. Most important, the entire family was together.
The day after Christmas, I decided it was time for me to write about the struggles of a cancer patient. Before I knew that I had cancer, I had thought of it as similar to leprosy -- a disease that rotted people slowly -- and visibly -- away. Life with cancer didn't have to be that way, and I wanted people to know this. Of course, I didn't have all the answers, but I wanted to show that cancer be approached with openness, and that dying people did have sothing to live for. Although I had read about all the money being spent o cancer research, I had heard very little about the emotional rehabilitation of cancer patients and their families. The void was obvious. No matter how the problem of cancer is handled in a family, all the members of the family are bound to be affected in some way.
I spent two days writing and editing the piece. "Once," I wrote in it, "I asked how there could be a God who would let so many terrible things happen. Now I ask myself how I can doubt the existence of God... When I hear a child's laughter on a summer evening,or see around me the miracle of life itself. When I hold my hand to my chest and feel the beat of my heart and realize this is life and I am part of it, I know there has to be a God. When I think to myself how luckly I was to have such an understanding person as my wife, Wanda, I know good things happen. When someone does a kind thing for me, I know this is all part of this mircalce of living."
"On Christmas a Burlington woman called to tell me her husband had been told recently he had lung cancer. She wanted to know if I would come to their house and talk to him. He felt he would like to just sit down and talk to someone with the same problems he had."
"The thought came to me that there should be some kind of organization of people with incurable diseases. These people could help each other, and I am going to work on this..."
I sent the story to the Hawk Eye, and the editors decided to use it in the Sunday, January 6, edition. The story was carried on page 2, along with a picture of me looking out from our back porch and another of me taking my pills. The day the story appeared, I received several telephone calls from other cancer patients, telling me how strongly they supported my idea of forming an organization. So I arranged for a gathering at the local Elks Club on January 25. With the help of a little publicity from the local newspaper, eighteen cancer patients and members of their families, including Wanda and me, met that night in the upstairs meeting room.
One of the first things I told the group was that I didn't think we were there to cry on one another's shoulders. We weren't there to find out who was the most seriously ill. We were there to share our mutual problems and to try to work them out so that we could live as close to normal lives as possible. We went around the table introducing ourselves and telling our stories as a way to break the ice. After some discussion, we decided we should try to get together once a month to talk with one another and to listen to speakers who could help us face our illnesses.
Several days before the meeting, it occurred to me that if we were going to start a group, we ought to have a name. I had three suggestions: Live Each Day Fully; Live for Today; or Make Today Count.
When I put the suggestions to a vote, the other seventeen hands were raised in support of my choice.
The vote was for Make Today Count.