How many times a day does the phone ring? At home there’s the telemarketer congratulating you on your credit score, or it’s the Republicans or the Democrats asking for money. Once in a while it’s a good friend asking if they can move our dinner date by a day or two. At work there were way too many unhappy customers, co-workers with problems, or the boss with another opportunity. That day at work in the fall of 2007 I had no reason to expect anything else.
It was a unique hour. No meetings. I was alone in the office answering email. The phone was a welcome diversion from the constant deluge of problems and work items. It was my brother. He sounded tired. A week before we had been in Wyoming celebrating the life of our dad and burying his remains in the National Cemetery near Sturgis, South Dakota. Linn had complained about being kind of tired for a couple of weeks, but I fully understood and agreed. We’d had a tough summer. Dad had faded through the heat of summer and Linn and I had stayed in Gillette for several days to work through the hospice process and funeral planning. The extended family came back ten days later for a celebration of life. We were all exhausted.
In Linn’s case it was more than the normal tired. After getting home from South Dakota he did some yard work. He couldn’t finish mowing the grass. Had to lie down. Couldn’t move. Wendy came home, found him on the couch and they drove to the ER.
On this particular day Linn was calling to tell me the story. It took a couple of days, but they found something. Something serious. Bad. Kidney cancer. The same thing that had killed our step dad just a couple of years earlier. Stage four. The tumor had spun out tendrils into the inferior vena cava. That blocked blood from returning to the heart. Not a good thing.
The phone call felt endless. Linn usually talks slowly, but this was unbearable. He had trouble explaining what had happened. I had trouble accepting what he was saying. We lost Mom ten years before that in a matter of hours. Our step father had died of the same problem Linn was describing. Dad had just died of cancer and we hadn’t even cashed in the insurance policies yet. This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t accept it.
I have three brothers. I love every one of them all like brothers, but one seems closer. I hate to admit it, but he and I get along better than I do with the other two. This was not the person I wanted to talk to about kidney cancer. Especially not stage four.
We got about half way through the conversation. I couldn’t get to the part about what they do next. I knew the treatments for kidney cancer were few and ineffective, especially if it’s spread. I couldn’t talk. Couldn’t ask questions. Fortunately my office had a door. I closed it and sat down. Turned off the computer. Forwarded my phone to phone-mail. I couldn’t think. Could hardly see. Fog. This was my brother. He’s dying, too.
There was only one thing to do. I headed for home. Lock the door. Go home. It’s safe there.
Judy happened to be out when I arrived home. She was buying groceries or something. I dropped my stuff on the dining room table and sat down on the couch. Dazed. My brother was dying. The same thing had killed our step-father. Our Dad had died only a month earlier. I felt alone.
Judy came home shortly after I arrived. She came into the living room, saw me sitting there and knew something was wrong. Really wrong. “What’s wrong?”
I couldn’t answer. Only sobs came out.
“Oh, no! What?”
No words came. Only tears.
“What happened? Who? When?”
It took forever for me to get the story out. I was devastated. We cried a lot and hugged more. What else was there to do?
There were plenty of tests for Linn to go through. Lots of diagnostic discussion. The docs finally scheduled the surgery for a Monday morning. The very Monday morning that I was leading the opening of a meeting for two hundred people from dozens of Fortune 500 companies. I asked everyone else to turn off their cell phones, but begged their forgiveness to leave mine on. Wendy’s regular updates were dribbles of heaven for me. Everything was going smoothly.
Shortly after that I spent a week with Linn so Wendy could go back to work. We sat around a lot. Linn recovered. We talked.
Over the next couple of months death stalked around the edges. We lost a nephew. My mentor Jim. Judy’s mother Lucy. But not Linn. He recovered perfectly.
I take nobody for granted now. They are here today. Tomorrow? Talk to them today, invite them to dinner. Maybe I’ll call Linn now.
After writing this post I got another call from Linn. That’s not unusual. But this time the call was unannounced, at an odd time. What’s that about? He had another, thankfully brief, scare of another cancer. For three or four days we all relived the events of eight years ago, wondering what would happen tomorrow. That’s all the more reason to call your friends tomorrow. Or today.