Scared to death, I watched as the drips of chemotherapy entered my veins. This was my first step in the long road to beating lymphoma. I glanced around the infusion center nervously trying not to stare at the sickly people that were soon to be my tribe.
My wife sat next to me and with an assuring grasp of my hand, we fought the urge to let our minds wander to awful places. Like always, I attempted to break the tension with some self-deprecating humor but my fear was obvious. My mind was racing with questions. How long until the nausea sets in? When will I start losing my hair? Will this treatment work?
Not long after that first drip, I feel the vibration of my phone and see that it’s my brother. This was the call that I needed!
Life is built on memories. They are what makes each of our journeys unique. When a memory sticks in your brain, there is always a moment that triggers it. Many moments occur during milestones marked by planned ceremonies like graduations and weddings but our deepest moments occur when we are stricken by tragedy or inspiration.
The first memory of my life was the day he entered the world. I was four years old and my imaginary friend was about to leave to join the circus, replaced by a little brother. Like most early childhood memories, it was probably formed more through the story-telling of my parents than recollection, but I do remember the moment my mom left for the hospital. That day was the beginning of the greatest friendship of my life.
Nearing the end of his wrestling career, it was the big match against our rival high school. My brother was a .500 wrestler and facing a kid who previously had beaten him. His team was losing and his loss would most likely seal the victory for our rivals. Halfway into the third and final period, he was losing but it was tight. Suddenly, through sheer determination, he made his move.
He flipped the other kid onto his back but was not in a position of leverage for a pin. His grasp and the now slim margin of victory were slipping away with almost a full minute remaining in the period. Everyone in the gymnasium was on their feet screaming for him to hold-on or the other kid to escape. He was facing away from his coaches and the clock but could see me. I put my chest on the gym floor to make eye contact and immediately realized that there was no way in hell that kid was escaping. As I signaled the slow countdown to the buzzer, a smile emerged from the strain on his face. This was the moment he worked so hard to achieve.
I happened to be in town for business on the day my first niece was born. She was not due for another few weeks but decided she wanted to meet her uncle early. Her premature birth was difficult and resulted in complications.
When I arrived at the hospital, my brother greeted me with a hug that portrayed strength over exhaustion. His baby girl was struggling, and he was not about to rest. As we walked into the NICU, I could sense a feeling of helplessness in the room full of new parents huddled over incubators. Never in my life had I witnessed the amount of love and caring as I did that day.
My introduction to the newest family member was through gloves connected to the side of an incubator. She was beautiful in her little pink hat and heart-shaped electrodes that connected her to machines rhythmically chirping signs of life. I looked up to see my brother gazing down at her with an intense affection as if he were transferring any strength he had directly into her tiny body. One of the most powerful moments of my life.
In our forty-six years together, there have been thousands of moments shared between us but these two led to a moment that my brother might not realize exists.
I answered the phone to hear my brother’s voice with his familiar tone of support. As she was attending to my IV, the nurse overheard me say that I was doing okay. She then spoke loud enough for my brother to hear, “He’s doing great!”
“Did you tell her it’s because you’re a bad motherfucker?” he replied. I chuckled and tried to change the subject, but he persisted, “I want you to say it. Tell her you’re a bad motherfucker!” I then looked the nurse directly in the eye and exclaimed, “I’m a bad motherfucker!” With a look of slight astonishment, she agreed, “Yes you are.”
Those few words, stacked upon the memories, changed everything. He said them half-jokingly and not with some tough guy machismo, but they transformed me. Just as he did with his daughter, his strength became mine. My fear turned to determination and I have not looked back since.
It had been eighteen months since I left the infusion center for a bone marrow transplant. I wanted to go back and thank everyone. As I got closer to the door, I was once again struck by the nervousness of my first visit. The first person to recognize me was that same nurse. I looked at her and smiled as she said, “There goes that bad motherfucker!”