Until last week, this photo was about celebration.
Now, this photo is about loss.
The celebration part is the setting for this picture: my “Kiss Cancer Goodbye” party, held back in 2009. It was to celebrate my remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while raising money and awareness for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. And damn, was it fun.
That’s my cousin Donny with the guitar and his son, DJ, on his shoulders. The smiling boy on the bongos is my son, Chris, then 11 years-old and nowhere near the six feet-tall he is today. The band playing was the Flying Mueller Brothers, featuring Donny and his brothers (my cousins) CJ and Billy, and my neighbor Ace on the drums.
At one point, they had what was, to me, a surreal combination of people up on stage, including 12-year-old neighbors, fellow soccer coaches, writer friends, my own children, and–naturally–my mother.
On the bongos.
When my cousins finished their set, the Sugarhill Gang (now Rapper’s Delight) took the stage. Yes, I mean THAT Sugarhill Gang, the “hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, you don’t stop” Sugargill Gang.
Because that’s how you kick cancer to the curb, dammit.
Until last week, that is.
That’s when cancer came calling for my cousin Donny. Last week, he died from pancreatic cancer, a mean son-of-a-bitch that’s tough to beat. Case in point, with treatments…:
…my stage III non-Hodgkin’s 5-year survival rate = 91%.
…his stage IV pancreatic cancer 5-year survival rate = 1%
Up yours, cancer.
We both fought for our lives, for the right to see our kids grow up. I had an atomic bomb of chemo and five weeks of radiation to blast the 6-inch tumor in my lung, and it worked. He had his own explosion of poisonous meds, but the odds were stacked against him from the start.
I had a shot at a cure. He was buying time. And now, time has run out.
At Donny’s funeral last week, his son DJ, now 11, got up to speak. He had prepared a speech, which he whipped through, running sentences into each other as though if he stopped to take a breath, he would fall apart.
So I fell apart for him, sobbing quietly in my chair at the funeral home. I fell apart for him, for Donny, and for my own kids, who could easily have been up there giving their own tribute to a parent lost to cancer, racing the words into each other to get ahead of the tears.
Even now, the tears keep coming back, especially whenever I hear a song that reminds me of my cousin, something he played bass guitar to, or something he sang. So if you see me plugged into my iPod and teary-eyed at the gym, it’s only because it hurts.
It’s been a week since Donny died, and just four days since we buried him on a hilltop during a biting winter wind. As I drove out of the cemetery, I spotted a tombstone that read, “MANY.” To that, I would add — in Flying Mueller Brothers electric yellow spray paint– “Too.” Too many parents have been taken from their children by cancer, and too many children have suffered this rotten, no good loss.
But Donny wouldn’t want me to end here. He’d want to sing a happy song, or tell a funny story. Since I can’t sing very well, I’ll tell one of my favorite Donny stories:
I was sitting in the waiting area at the Music Den, checking my watch. My kids had a piano lesson, and I had run out of things to distract myself with as I sat there, head in hand, surrounded by bags of groceries.
That’s what I noticed a man walk by, carrying a very small trumpet. I heard the salesman say what a great investment this trumpet would be for his three-year-old son. Immediately, I pictured life in a house with a toddler with a trumpet, and got a sharp pain over my right eye. I thought, Who the hell buys a trumpet for a three-year-old?
I looked up and got my answer: My cousin Donny, that’s who.
We miss you, cuz. Play us a song, would ya?