By Malachi Koop
I greeted Keith from across the street. Syracuse, Nebraska is a small town and house numbers aren’t prominently posted. I had knocked on his neighbor’s door by mistake. He motioned me over, greeted me warmly and invited me inside. The house was small, but quaint. Something was cooking on the stove and the aroma filled the room. I sat down at the dining room table between him & his wife, Kathy.
All things considered, he was fortunate to still be alive. His Leukemia had gone untreated for nearly five years when he was first diagnosed. The blood work was only done as a routine pre-op procedure as he awaited surgery for a torn rotator cuff. That was back in 2010. He endured chemotherapy for nine months. Six years later, his Leukemia is in remission.
Their dogs Kacey & Buddy sniffed my legs as I opened my bag, took out my notebook and began scribbling notes. Both dogs were rescues – they thought Kacey to be a Pomeranian Shih Tzu, Buddy a Havanese.
Keith began to tell me the story of when he found himself in a Chinese restaurant with his wife & son. He couldn’t bring himself to swallow his food. His family rushed him to a hospital where he was eventually diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer. He had 30 days of radiation, another six months of chemotherapy. He spent three months on a feeding tube. That was a year and a half ago, in October of 2014. His second cancer diagnosis.
I wasn’t really sure where to begin. I asked him how his life has changed.
“Well I don’t go to bars & drink anymore!” He laughed, his wife giggled as did their son’s girlfriend Lisa, who was sitting on the couch next to the dining table.
I found myself sitting here because I volunteer with the Heartland Cancer Foundation, a local nonprofit whose mission is to connect cancer patients to care & help relieve the financial stress that often accompanies treatment. I try to help them tell the stories of the people they’ve served. The reality is, when people are diagnosed with cancer their first instinct is no longer to ask, “How am I going to survive this?” Instead, they ask “How am I going to afford this?”
For Keith, it’s been a difficult question to answer. After his first diagnosis in 2010, he cashed in his 401k to pay for treatment. This time around, he didn’t have anything left.
Fortunately they were connected with the foundation shortly after the Esophageal diagnosis, Kathy said it’s been a life-saver. I thought perhaps she said it to be polite, I do volunteer for them, after all. But every word she spoke carried such genuity, such conviction. I couldn’t help but believe her.
I felt so small, asking about the worst parts of this family’s life. There was this looming sense of uncertainty that filled the room, but Keith smiled nearly the whole time. I was their guest and they were happy to have me. I commented that I found his attitude remarkable & inspiring, he said that he’s always been positive. Kathy laughed, “he always says it’s a good day if he’s on the top side of the daisies.”
She said they recently found spots on Keith’s lungs that they have to go get checked out. Her smile disappeared momentarily, “but there’s a brighter side always, somehow.”
“Just look around & you’ll see someone worse off than you are.” Keith has this tangible love for life, it just spills out of him. His wife said that he walks up to strangers and just starts up conversations. Sometimes, to their dismay.
When I first called to set up the meeting to interview him, I asked Keith where he lived. He didn’t take the question as a detail to set our meeting, he took the question as the beginning of a conversation.
“Syracuse, Nebraska! Where do you live?!”
I commented that it was obvious how close their family was. Lisa’s eyes welled up with tears, “there’s been other things going on too.”
Last fall, their son suffered a stroke. Just 30 years old, it came as an incredible shock. He also suffered an aortic aneurism – the tear is two tenths of a centimeter too small to be operable, at least at this point.
Lisa herself suffers from lupus & fibromyalgia.
Kathy has rheumatoid arthritis & diabetes.
I just sat there, silent. What do you say?
After Keith’s second cancer diagnosis, Kathy started crocheting scarves & gloves for other patients – she’ll take them to the cancer center and pass them out. She estimates she’s made over 100.
I can’t articulate what it was like to sit at the dining table with this family, hearing their stories and tangibly sensing their hope for brighter days. But just imagine the type of person it takes to endure that much suffering and respond by crocheting scarves for others who might be worse off.
If any family had reason to complain, to give up or become cynical or bitter, it’s this one. They hardly have two pennies to rub together as their medical conditions have robbed them of all of the money they ever had. Yet, they find themselves grateful. Grateful for the help of the Heartland Cancer Foundation; for their “rock” Lisa, who drives them to appointments between Nebraska City, Lincoln & Omaha – grateful just for another day together. On the top side of the daisies.
I asked if they had a message for other families who might be suffering through a cancer diagnosis for the first time, “Stay Positive & Never Give Up.”
I had them write it down and took a picture of the three of them before I left. Keith walked me out and thanked me for coming. Then he looked up at the sky and breathed deeply and smiled,
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”