Memorial Day has multiple meanings for this cancer survivor.
I have never served in the armed forces; I want to make that clear. But in my career as a stage magician, I was offered a rare glimpse as a civilian into the life on the Air Force bases around the world, and it's a story I feel honored to share for Memorial Day.
There is a surprising link to cancer in this tale as well.
In 1989, I was introduced to the gentleman who was in charge of the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) programs for the United States Air Force abroad. That's the organization responsible for the schooling of thousands of students whose parents are serving abroad.
I was asked to visit Okinawa for two weeks to present my "Dr. Wilderness" magic shows for the elementary schools at Kadena Air Force Base on the island. My shows have always featured environmental and natural history themes. It was a wonderful experience, and in addition to several thousand kids, I was able to meet many teachers who obviously and openly loved their jobs.
What stood out for me were the attitudes and the sense of pride the families who lived on the base had. They were well taken care of on the bases, and the stories I heard were always positive. I was a 39-year-old magician and a teacher with a "rat tail" in my hair, wearing blue jeans, sitting in the officers’ club. I had been given a GS-15 ranking as an entertainer that allowed me to enjoy all of the privileges of those in active duty, and not once did I feel unwelcomed or out of place.
The following year, I was offered a tour in South Korea for two weeks, and the next year I was invited to visit 11 cities in a month-long tour of Mainland Japan. By this time my wife, who had been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, was seriously ill, having endured a number of clinical trials and rigorous chemotherapy. Over the years, she had assisted me in my shows with some of the stage illusions and I was determined to share what we both knew could be her final opportunity to perform on stage.
Eleven cities required 11 flights. I realized that this would be a grueling experience for her, but she too was eager to find a way to travel with me. Unfortunately, her experimental chemotherapy was scheduled during the four weeks that we would be traveling.
She made the bold decision to ask her oncologist to approve of us obtaining all of the chemo drugs, IV equipment and other medical supplies and pack it in dry ice, with the intention of finding a physician who would agree to administer the drugs to her halfway through our tour.
To our amazement, and after a good deal of soul searching, he agreed.
As always, we made some wonderful friends along the way. We had arranged, through a teacher we had met on an earlier visit, to have a physician on the ready when we reached the city of Kyoto. At the last minute, he became concerned over the possible legal consequences that might befall him and backed out of the agreement.
We were alarmed by this turn of events, but confident that someone would step forward to help us.
We were introduced to an oncologist in our next stop, the city of Yokohama, and over a four-hour period, between shows, she received her infusion. My wife was bald at the time, having lost her hair for the third time and there were a couple of days when she did not feel well, but she never missed a performance.
It was a memorable adventure that we both were very thankful to have had.
The men and women (and children!) of the United States Air Force were remarkable in their support of the two of us, and so Memorial Day has a very special meaning for me these days.
I am indebted to the men and women who have given their lives in service of our country, and forever grateful to those who gave their time and compassion for a couple of wayward magicians.
I was offered one more tour the following year, this time in Germany. My wife died two weeks before my contract at Ramstein Air force base went into effect. I thought about cancelling. In the end, I had an obligation to the kids, a commitment and promise to my wife, and a deep-seated need to move on with my life by immersing myself in my work, all of which pushed me forward. There wasn't a single performance that I didn't think of her.
Cancer has the power to strip away important moments in our lives. But it does not have the ability to remove the memories, the milestones and the memorials that we carry in our hearts.