A lesson from my father

In 1992, businessman Ross Perot created a stir when he selected Vice Admiral James Stockdale as his running mate in Perot's historic third-party bid for president. In the vice presidential debate, Stockdale, standing between Republican candidate Dan Quayle and Democratic candidate Al Gore, famously began his opening remarks by asking, "Who am I? Why am I here?"Some of you may be wondering the same things about me.Who am I? I'm the new managing editor of CURE magazine.Why am I here? Because of a lesson I learned from my father.The date was July 10, 1983. I knew something was wrong the minute I pulled my car onto the driveway at my father's home. I wasn't expecting a problem. I had just seen him the night before, when we watched "Hee Haw" on TV. He loved that show. This night, I was going out with friends and I needed to borrow $20. Dad was always a good supplier of spending money.But there he was, lying halfway out of the car with one hand on the door and his face toward the ground. Maybe he's working on his car, I tried to convince myself. But I knew it wasn't true. He was dead. His advanced lung cancer wasn't to blame. Nor were his radiation treatments. Instead, it was a coughing fit that caused a rupture to an artery.In the quiet twilight of a summer Sunday, I spoke my last words to my father: Dad, why did you go and do that?What went through his mind as he went to his car? As he opened the door and put the key in the ignition? As he started the engine and reached for the door?The motor ran until it used up all the gasoline. Eventually, the battery died. Dad's body remained there through the night and all the next day. The horrible scene will always haunt me.Dad's death was a life-altering event for me, a 20-year-old college kid. When he received his cancer diagnosis 10 months before, I thought we would have more time. One of his doctors said it might be as long as five years. How could he be so quickly gone? Why did he have to die in such a painful, panicked way? Had he been treated just two years later, he would have benefitted from new protocols that deliver more targeted doses of radiation that are less damaging to surrounding tissue.It wasn't easy to know my father. Like many men of his generation, he rarely showed tenderness, much less vulnerability. Yet, at the end of his life, he lived as close to meaning as anyone could. He was absolutely determined to beat his cancer. But the radiation proved to be too formidable. The treatments scorched his esophagus, making swallowing an excruciating endeavor. It was distressing to watch my strong, certain father grow weaker; to see his muscular body become frail. During those months of helping him with daily tasks, of buying his groceries and picking up his meds, of taking him to the doctor and, yes, sitting with him through endless hours of terrible TV shows, I began to appreciate him in an unexpected way. Although his body became a prison, he made of it an opportunity for discovery. In that short time, he helped me to believe in something deep and abiding and profound in human beings. For inside that body that deteriorated before my eyes, there was a person with immense questions who cared deeply about the truth. The truth was about personhood. He wasn't a cancer patient. He was Joe. And Joe had cancer. He refused to be defined by his disease.He wondered why, despite all his efforts, he never seemed to be able to win. He never wrote a book or made a fortune. He didn't leave an indelible mark on human history. Because his large family suffered grinding poverty in the Great Depression, he had to quit elementary school and go to work to help support them. He and his brothers fought in World War II, but his lack of primary education meant he couldn't take advantage of the G.I Bill. Instead, he went to work as a meat packer; a truck driver; a garbage collector. His marriages ended in divorce. His kids rarely spoke to him. He drank too much. And smoked cigarettes every single day--for 50 years. Still, despite a lifetime of setbacks, when he received his cancer diagnosis he was absolutely convinced that he was going to win. "I'm gonna beat it," he said, fiercely.He didn't beat it. But by facing his cancer, he left me something precious: the memory of his determined spirit. So, who am I? I'm Joe's son. And why am I here? To beat cancer.