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The Long Journey Home

Chris Hine | Saturday, May 3, 2008

On a bitter cold January day in South Bend, Dr. Dean Park walked into George Porter-Young’s hospital room and shut the door.

Over the past few weeks, George, 72, had been passing out during his breaks at work in Sbarro’s in the LaFortune Student Center, a pattern that alarmed his doctor. Dr. Park, an oncologist, had put him through a rigorous regimen of tests – from X-rays to multiple bone marrow drills – but this time George sensed something was different in Dr. Park’s demeanor; he rarely shut the door to talk to George.

“I said, ‘Hello, something must be up,” George said in his British accent. It’s been 42 years since George left his family in England and came to America, but he never lost that accent so many customers in LaFortune have come to love over the past eight years. “You closed my door, you must want some privacy.”

Dr. Park confirmed George’s intuition.

“I’ve got some bad news for you,” he said.

But before Dr. Park could speak another word, George interrupted him. George was fed up with all the tests he was taking and the time he was spending in the hospital. He didn’t want more tests. He didn’t want Dr. Park skirting the issue. He just wanted to know the truth, no matter how chilling it was.

“Do me a favor,” he told the doctor. “You better tell me the truth, because if you don’t tell me the truth, I’ll be your worst enemy. But if you tell me the truth, then I’ll be your best friend.”

Dr. Park told George the truth.

“You have myelodysplastic syndrome,” Dr. Park said.

But George had no idea what that was.

“It’s bone cancer,” Dr. Park said. “And it could lead to leukemia.”

Leukimia? George knew from experience – his uncle had suffered from it – that leukemia was not curable. And so, George asked one of the most painful questions of his life.

“How long do I have left to live?” he asked.

“Six months to two years. But maybe more,” Dr. Park said, trying to put as positive of a spin on it as he could.

At first, George’s mind went blank.

“I said ‘Well, there’s only one person who knows when I’m going to die,'” George said. “And that’s God. I’m sure he will let me know when it’s my time.”

After a few seconds he thought of one thing – his sister, Joan.

After listening to Dr. Park describe the various treatments he would have over the next few months – including hydration, blood transfusions and chemotherapy – George called his sister in England.

George dreaded this call to England. Joan’s husband, Thomas, had just died of cancer a few months earlier, and George couldn’t make it home for the funeral. How would Joan react now when George told her that he, too, had cancer?

“I thought ‘Oh God, not another one,'” Joan said. “I said to him, ‘Please come back home.’ All my life I’ve always said he’s been gone to America. Wait until he’s a little older and he’s not well. He’ll be back. And I’ve always said that.”

George Porter-Young has stared death in the face before, and hasn’t backed down. As a young boy living near London during WWII, death was an everyday occurrence. George said its coming was signaled by the sound of Nazi war planes flying overhead and manifested itself in the form of 500-pound bombs or tracer bullets that claimed the lives of thousands of London citizens, including one of George’s best boyhood friends, David.

George, who wrote about his life during WWII in his self-published book, “A Boy Amidst the Rubble,” said his family would spend the fearful nights in a shelter, only to emerge and find rubble and dead bodies lying on the ground or hanging out of windows. The whole experience made George grow up faster than he should have, and made him numb toward the reality of death.

“It hardens you,” George said. “You have to get over death. You have no other choice but to.”

Only recently did George allow himself to feel the pain of those memories. All those repressed images, all those distant memories, especially of David, the first person George ever saw dead, came flooding back to him as he was writing his book and putting his thoughts about the war on paper for the first time.

“It was a catharsis, writing that book,” George said.

But now, George is facing death again. Having gone through so much in his life – diabetes, a triple by-pass surgery – he is not afraid of it.

“I’ve had my problems over the years. I’ve had my ups and I’ve had my downs,” George said. “But I’ve also been very lucky, because guess what, I’m still here. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been a great adventure. And I’m not scared to meet my Lord. Nobody really wants to die, but then I think of Sarah Brightman, and she sings this song ‘Who wants to live forever?’ Well, I don’t.”

Finding a way home

At first, George didn’t know if it was worth the trouble of going through chemotherapy and multiple blood transfusions. Was it worth the fatigue, the dry heaves, and the stomach pain? Eventually, with a little help from his longtime friend and caretaker D.J., he decided it was worth the trouble.

“He said persevere, you need to persevere,” George said. “Thankfully, we got some anti-nausea medication and that works well.”

George is going through chemo for another reason – his sister, who wants him to come home again and stay there as long as he lives.

“Whatever time he’s got, I told him, ‘Don’t look at it as six months or two years. Don’t look at it like that. You just last day by day and you could go on for two years. Who knows what can happen?'” Joan said. “I love him dearly because he’s my only true brother. My others are step-brothers. But he’s my brother and we’ve always been so close.”

Even though he’s lived in the United States since 1966, George has always left a piece of himself at home. During WWII when his mother and grandmother took him to a train station to evacuate him to a safer part of England, George got on the train – only to get off on the other side and wait for the train to leave. He watched as his mother and grandmother waved the train goodbye before they glanced over and saw him on the other side of the platform.

“My grandmother looked over and said, ‘You little sod,'” George said. “And I said, ‘Well, dad told me I had to take care of you while he was away and that granddad would be all right as long as he’s got his beer. How can I take care of you when you’re sending me away?’ And my mom just kissed me on the head and said, ‘Come on, love, let’s go home.'”

In his home in South Bend, George has postcards hanging on a wall of every British monarch dating back to William the Conqueror.

But George’s trip home isn’t as easy as hopping on a plane.

Because of the low platelet count in his blood, George – who currently lives in South Bend with D.J. – can’t fly, or else he’ll likely develop blood clots in-flight and possibly die. To find an alternate way home, George got in touch with his friend Mary Kowalski, vice president of travel services at Anthony’s Travel.

Mary, along with the help of travel consultant Sarah Dickey, found a way for George to get home, but George still needs to raise enough money to fund the expensive trip.

“He’s one of our neighbors and we’ve gotten to know him really well and we want to do all we can to help him out,” Kowalski said.

In September, George and D.J. hope to take an Amtrak train in New York City and stay overnight. The next day, they would board a cruise ship leaving from New York City. Six days later, the ship would dock in Southampton, England, and George and D.J. will drive approximately two and a half hours to Ashford, Kent, where his sister and niece Amanda are looking for a place in the countryside for George and D.J. to stay.

Only problem is, the total cost for the cruise is a little more than $3,600, and once in England, George would also have to buy a car to get around in order to drive to the local hospital and clinic to receive further treatment once in Ashford Kent.

Insurance problems are hampering George’s ability to get home. Facing rising medical bills, George had an idea to raise money to get home – he would ask The Huddle to sell bookmarks and ask people to make a donation to help him get home. George said he decided to sell bookmarks because they are something useful for the students.

George contacted Jim La Bella, general manager of The Huddle and George’s former boss, about the idea and La Bella got on board right away.

“George’s been like a grandfather to all of our employees [in LaFortune],” La Bella said. “He always takes time to tell a story. Any subject, he’s got a story for.”

La Bella said he would put the bookmarks, along with George’s book, at the cash registers in The Huddle. People could pick up a book or bookmark and contribute to George’s trip home.

But in order to do this, George needed someone to print the bookmarks.

Luckily, events marketing coordinator at the Hammes Bookstore Cassandra Wilarski, who met George during an autograph session at the Bookstore for “A Boy Amidst the Rubble,” had a few contacts she could use to get the bookmarks printed.

“I have a great working relationship with the local printing company Rink,” Wilarski said. “Once the bookmark was designed, I called my Rink representative Bill Deethart and asked him for a favor – to print the bookmarks for free.”

Rink agreed. Wilarski designed the bookmarks which feature the word “faith” spelled out vertically in British flags, against the backdrop of another British flag. On the back is a message from George, detailing his struggle with cancer.

“I have spoken to my Lord in the privacy of my night prayers and told him we’ll have a meeting of the minds,” part of the message says. “Of course, I’m certainly not ready for him and I know he’s not ready for me. However, when it’s time for me to meet my Lord, we shall fully understand each other.”

George is also receiving help from the University. Supervisor for Events and Educational Planning Dee Dee Sterling said the Univeristy will pay for George’s train ride to New York and his hotel stay there through the Employee Compassion Fund. The cost is estimated to be about $500, Sterling said.

“The program is funded by University of Notre Dame employees for the purpose of ministering to Notre Dame employees who experience a bona fide need for emergency assistance,” Sterling said in a e-mail to The Observer.

George does not expect the University to help him in any other way to get home.

“Why doesn’t Notre Dame pay for my fare? Well Notre Dame is not a charity institution. It’s a business and it’s run like a business and should be run by a business. And I understand that,” George said.

So far, The Huddle has raised over $1,700 for George, La Bella said, but George still needs a few thousand more to have enough to go home. The Huddle is also holding a pie sale on May 7 to raise money for George. The order deadline for the pies is May 6 at nine a.m. The Huddle will cover the cost of the caramel apple pies, which are $10 each, while the Bake shop will cover the cost of the labor needed to bake the pies. One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go toward George’s travel fund.

Leaving Notre Dame

After seeing a travel poster advertising New York City back in 1966, George decided to come to America. Since that time, he’s lived in El Paso, Tex., Davenport, Iowa, and San Diego, Calif. In 2001, financial troubles brought him to South Bend and forced him to settle here. But since joining the staff at LaFortune, George has had nothing but fond memories to take with him when he leaves for England.

“When I bring friends to the University, they say, ‘George, I’m just amazed how much they love you. They come around, kiss you on the cheek,'” George said. “It’s a wonderful situation and that’s what I’ll miss most – the students. I think it’s wonderful just to get to know them. It’s nice when people recognize you. A lot of places nobody says, ‘Hello, how are you, how are you doing?'”

La Bella even said he always thought George specifically requested to work at Sbarro because it allows him to interact more frequently with the students. Sbarro doesn’t have as many customers as Subway, and this allowed George some time to chat with the students that came in there.

But for as pleasant as his experience has been at Notre Dame, George is ready to go home.

“I’m sorry but I don’t want to die in Indiana,” George said with a laugh. “I really don’t. I have nothing against Indiana, it’s been very good to me, but it’s not where I want to be.”

And when his dying day comes, George knows where he wants to spend eternity.

“I told D.J. I want him to take my ashes and put them in the ocean in Puerto Rico so I could go swimming with the dolphins,” George said. “And he said, ‘You don’t want them to go in the English Channel?’ And I said ‘No, I don’t want them to go in the English Channel because that water is cold. I want to go to Puerto Rico to my favorite part of the beach, spread my ashes in the sea so I could go swimming with the dolphins.”

George has always lived his life as if he’s everybody’s friend. He’s one of those people whom you never forget, no matter how long he was in your life. His laugh, his smile – and his accent – are hard to erase from memory. George said he hopes he has brought as much joy to the students of Notre Dame as they have brought him. He only asks for one thing from them in return – to help him get home one final time.

Contact Chris Hine at chine@nd.edu

Note:

– If you wish to make a contribution to help George raise money to get home, send a check or money order to:

Mary Kowalski

Anthony Travel

LaFortune Student Center

P.O. Box 1086

Notre Dame, IN 46556

– Make checks payable to Anthony Travel and include a note saying the check is “For George.”

– Donations can also be made in person on campus at The Huddle or at Anthony Travel.