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Monday, January 30, 2017

To young, to soon

Russ Johnson
To be honest, I’m not sure how to go about writing something like this, so I’ll just present my truths as best I know them and hope this message reaches the people it is intended for, beginning with friends, family and loved ones…and extending to anyone whose eyes get this far and read on.
The last time I publicly touched on the subject of having cancer, was also the first time. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the disease, and I believed in a pretty private route for myself, mostly because I did not want to deal with a lot of questions about cancer while I was dealing with having it. And so, I quietly did my time in chemo and radiation last year, then very happily went into remission and moved on with my life.
Along for the turbulent ride in the worst of times last year, was the comfort of a dear friend of mine who not only proved to me that short, meaningful moments can last and light up a lifetime, but that well-formed friendships help form who we are.
Her name was Elizabeth.
When we met she was funny and full of smiles, laughter and life. We were sitting in the same airport lobby in Halifax, in 1991, and my teammates and I were heading home from an interprovincial basketball tournament that was held out in Nova Scotia. Since we played for the Quebec team, we were all wearing baby blue travel attire with the province’s name all over it. Elizabeth’s family came and sat down in the same area as us, and like the brave nine year old kid she was, she jumped into a conversation with the team almost immediately. It went something like this:
“Hey, are you guys from Montreal?” she asked with a huge excited smile.
“Most of us are kiddo.” I replied.
“I just got back from the best concert ever in Montreal! New Kids On the Block!”
The sentence burst out of her with infectious joy that got my teammates laughing… and then just like that, for the next two hours I had a little buddy.
She made fun of my arcade game skills, and I made fun of her musical tastes. We played some cards, and shared some jokes, laughs and stories… and then, just before we parted ways at our boarding call, her mom brought her daughter over to me, and I got two huge hugs; one from Elizabeth and then another from her mom.
Elizabeth’s mom held me tightly for a good minute, whispering quickly and quietly in my ear about how her daughter had cancer, and that things were uncertain. They had gone to Montreal as a family to see the concert and make Elizabeth’s dual dream of flying in a plane and seeing her favourite boy-band happen all at once. The family had learned to not take any chances or anything for granted when it came to Elizabeth’s healthier days, and they wanted to give her as many happy memories as possible….just in case.
Her mom thanked me for spending time with her daughter and for making Elizabeth laugh, and then handed me an address on a piece of paper, asking if I’d be willing to stay in touch. I can still see the piece of paper in my mind, over 25 years later.
Elizabeth Jane Giddings
65 Lilac Ave,
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
While my memory may fade at the last three spots on the postal code, it magnifies the little time I shared with her.
I remember once we’d boarded and were seated on the plane, to becoming overwhelmed with sadness at the injustice of cancer, life and fate going after a little kid like that; a happy, funny, sweet little kid, who should’ve had everything to look forward to, like her tenth birthday or staying out of trouble in school. I can remember fearing the worst might happen, and what it would be like to be in her shoes at such a young age. I can also remember thinking “Man, at least I got to 19 and got to live a little,” not yet really realizing that Elizabeth had already taught me a very valuable lesson.
Instead of a healthy future, Elizabeth had more treatments coming.
We wrote back and forth, and saw one another twice more over the next two years… and then, Elizabeth Jane Giddings was gone from the world.
Twenty six years later she remains one of life’s great gifts to me, and her spirit’s presence in my memory remains an occasional and absolute warrior on behalf of my sanity, in the toughest of times. It can be easy to slide into feeling sorry for yourself and into depression when you are puking from chemotherapy, dealing with the aftermath of radiation, or just trying to rest in the stillness of the night, hoping and waiting for horrible cures to kill off a worse disease. During my treatment journey there were times when life bordered on suffering and mere existence: It was in those darkest of moments that Elizabeth would visit me, in my mind’s eye -smiling and laughing- to remind me of what real courage looked like.
With her visits she brought the conviction in my mind that I needed to truly remember that every single year that has gone by in my life since we crossed paths, has made me an increasingly fortunate soul to have had the time and experiences many others never got the chance to have. In other words, Elizabeth Jane Giddings left behind the lessons she personified on her short path through life, and taught me that it is on our most trying days that we need to be most thankful: That may sound like a hollow platitude-and maybe it is- until truly trying days come your way.
While I certainly can’t pretend to be one of those magical people that is “always on,” and always “grabbing life by the tail,” I’ve absolutely no doubt I have been, and remain, a very. very lucky man.
But as it happens in life, and with cancer, it looks like luck may not be enough… and I may just need a visit from Elizabeth again someday, not too far away.
Just before this past Christmas -just like the Christmas before- I was sat down and told by my doctor that cancer was present in my body, and that remission had given way to re-admission: The very simple truth is that a very intense surgery and rehabilitation period is going to be needed to save my life, and without usage of any hyperbole, there are no guarantees on if, or how long the surgery will work in terms of life expectancy, among other concerns.
In layman’s terms, I’m a bit of a mess… and find myself in what amounts to being a “do or die, and we’ll have to see” type scenario from here on out. The surgery got bumped up, and is now less than a week away.
That stated, it is fair and reasonable to say that I may never be as healthy again as I am today, and will be until next week’s complicated surgery in Montreal: That’s just a fact of my reality, and I truthfully don’t need a “you need to stay positive,” lecture from anyone, which I really do get as a concept, and absolutely do not deny. I actually do remain hopeful about what is coming, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing the surgery if the risks involved far outweighed the potential benefits, BUT there is a very big difference between morbid thinking/being consumed by death, and not only being prepared for it, but at peace with it when it stares you in the eye… and so I’d like to offer some words on that final train of thought, if you will permit and read on.
The one thing that binds us as people is that we all meet the same ultimate fate in this life, and to be perfectly honest as an individual human being right now, I’m a little scared (sometimes a lot), and a little sad (sometimes a lot)…but I very much want my friends and loved ones to know –well above it all- I just feel very grateful and peaceful as I head towards a lot of unknowns right now. Even the occasional tears that drop in are more than welcome, because they seem to be accompanied by a reminder of all the beauty and love I’ve been allotted and allowed in this life, and I am more than thankful for it all, and for the friends, and for the adventures along the way.
And so my friends, in the short term what it comes down to is this:
For a guy who is dealing with cancer, I actually feel pretty damn good and oddly healthy, all things considered. The surgery is in a week, so it’s definitely a positive that I got a chance to get “healthy” again after the last go-around of treatments before this next step, because even if all goes very well next week, the several months of recovery isn’t going to be a cakewalk…so, just like Elizabeth, I really want to take advantage of the “healthy days,” and the chance to see some friends in Montreal if they can make it – I know Monday’s may suck in a lot of ways as a day in the week, and I know it’s last minute notice, but if any of you are around the city I’ll be heading down to Grumpy’s on Bishop St to hang out and have some laughs with any buddies who can make the swing, between 4pm-11pm or so. The bartender is a good guy, and they have some great live music Monday nights. It’s basically just going to be chatting and ordering pizza for dinner, and anyone so inclined is more than welcome to come by for a laugh, and a chat.
If you can't make the swing, absolutely no worries. Life is life and sometimes other things get in the way, or maybe you’re just not that into me (and no one can understand that more than me :-) ) just do me a favour and wish me any luck and love you might have to offer, and know I send it right back.
Thanks for reading, and all the best to you all.
I’m hoping to see you all soon.
With love,

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