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Dealing with cancer on Thanksgiving Day

Gary Caruso | Friday, November 20, 2009

I had planned to write a whimsical yet demonstrative Thanksgiving column full of ironically fun topics for which others should give thanks — like last week’s opposing football teams of Coaches Charlie Weis and Bill Belichick who coincidentally employed similar yet equally unsuccessful “Fourth and Dumb” tactics in losing efforts on the gridiron. I further intended to announce the awarding of what I call my laundry scholarship, an earmarked contribution I make every decade to a new freshman who holds the equivalent of my 90217 laundry number issued 40 years ago at the start of my freshman year. Again coincidentally, this year’s winner also resides in my dormitory, Lyons Hall. I had even anticipated urging disgruntled Irish fans to follow my lead by ignoring our inept football coaching staff and donating anyway to the University, but in an innovative, restricted way like my laundry earmark.
My writing this week was to include other impetuous muses, finally punctuated with my thanks for returning to the world of federal employment where I have actually become a Dilbert on my jobsite. But on Monday, a longtime friend and 1980s Notre Dame graduate who currently works at the University finally returned several of my voicemails and text messages — such an unusual delay that I wondered if something was wrong. Early during our conversation my friend eased into the reason for such tardiness with a harsh sentence, “I have cancer.”
Our next few exchanges are still a blur to me. Only once before had anyone told me directly about battling cancer — my elementary school music teacher, Margaret Stanley, who always was so happy and cheerful in or outside of school. So while my mind drifted back to Miss Stanley, I barely heard what type of cancer we discussed, but remember that my friend did say that several doctors are more confident than my friend at this point in time. We continued our conversation outlining a six-year plan for survival followed by successive five-year incremental survival plans. We concluded with my promise to light a candle at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in D.C. when next I serve as a lector, and a pledge to stop by the Grotto together when I next step on campus.
My friend is a rather typical Catholic Notre Dame graduate, returning to campus to a rather prestigious position, with a child currently attending the University and a spouse from the ND-SMC community. In true Fighting Irish fashion, my friend is determined to retard the cancer’s progress and do whatever it takes to prolong life — even through the use of stem cells. Such a task is not quite the memory of my friend I ever thought would burn into my soul, never to fade and become part of my being. But such a turn of events is an important lesson of life.
Thus far, my friend’s life — as are all of our lives — has been like a boat floating on a sea of adventure. Together we head towards the sunset on an uncharted route despite whether we row, use wind in our sails or motorboat along. Perhaps the lesson of life is not how fast one glides along the water, but on how willing one is to accept the length of the cruise. That may be my personal focus next Thursday.
I cannot imagine how my friend’s family will express their reasons for giving thanks next week. Might it be with an eye on the past and memories of good times? Maybe it will focus on making the most of each upcoming minute in a true “live for the moment” fashion where they can slow time and suck the essence out of each waking second. Regardless, it will be a time of introspection and hope.
Spiritually, it may be easier than expected for them to face their mortality now that they are given a personal timeline. Obviously, the longer the timeline, the more we can do to tie up loose ends, say our goodbyes and complete tasks we put off into the future. It occurs to me that put in the same position, my personal priorities would certainly shift. However, my approach would probably differ. I believe that we come from an unknown realm of many levels of life onto this world while moving through forms of reincarnation without the strict polar opposites of heaven or hell. I also believe that we are on this earth for only as long as we need be here, to learn or teach our lessons before we depart back into the unknown.
So given what I have gleaned thus far as my life lesson, I stand ready to assist my friend. My message this Thanksgiving is that you can count on me until God turns your sail into a shroud and throws you back into the sea.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.