Three of the people to whom I owe a great deal of debt aren’t here to receive my thanks. But one thing I have learned about suffering through a hardship is that it is helpful beyond measure to reflect on examples of those who have endured hardships well. In my case, three people come to mind as my examples of how to hold up under pressure and to endure with dignity. So many times in the past year I have not known what to do under my circumstances, so instead I just tried to do what I thought they would have done.
I’ve written about Mike Jacques before. Or at least I think I have. Brain damage does funny things to your memory, and laziness prohibits me from looking it up. No worries, Mike would laugh it off.
Mike was one of my dear friends years ago. He was one of the smartest and most interesting people I knew. A Vietnam-era veteran who had been exposed to Agent Orange, he was recovering from his first round of leukemia when I met him. His long hair, which he let grow in defiance of treatments that had taken his hair previously, certainly stood out in church, as did his passion for the Russian language. Mike and I had long conversations together, although they usually involved him talking and me listening. But those conversations entertained me to no end, and the family knew that if Brother Jacques called during dinner time, they should go ahead and eat without me. It was going to be a while.
Mike had a mantra that he followed during his first (successful) bout with leukemia, and his second (fatal) bout with it years later. He had moved out of state by the time his illness recurred, and I remember talking to him on the phone a month or two before his death. I asked him how he felt. He told me that everything hurt, and then he invoked his mantra: “But that’s ok. If it hurts, I’m still alive.”
I spoke those words out loud many times over the last nine months. And when I was in too much of an extremity to invoke them myself, my wife would recite them for me. That has been my standard for success this year. As long as it was still hurting, I was still in the game.
Thanks, Mike, for managing my expectations.
One of my favorite people ever was Frank Clementino. I met him near the end of his life, when heart and lung problems already had confined him to a wheelchair. Born in Italy (which automatically made him all right in my book), Frank was another bright man, and he possessed a powerful testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His loving spirit and irrepressible sense of humor made you wonder sometimes if he realized he was sick.
But he knew. I learned early on from his wife that each Sunday, he faced a choice: He could take his pain medication and stay at home, unable to function, or he could skip the pain medications, endure the pain, and go to church. If Frank’s wheelchair was not in its familiar place on the right side of the chapel on Sunday, that meant that his pain was too much for him to bear. This went on for years before his death. To this day I miss seeing him there, showing us all what it really meant to “man up.”
Shortly after I had returned home from the hospital, the opportunity came to go to church for the fast and testimony meeting. If I recall correctly, this would have been in May, the first month after my return home. By that time, I had managed to progress beyond a walker to a cane, and although I couldn’t walk well, I at least could walk. Sort of. It was really more of an extended fall. But I wanted to be at church in order to bear my testimony and express my appreciation to the members of my ward. Esther told me I was crazy. I was too weak and in too much pain to leave the friendly confines of my living room. I remember lying in bed, weighing my options. Finally, I sat up at the side of the bed, and Esther asked me what I had decided. I told her that I decided that Frank would go. So I would.
There have been many times since then that I have hovered at the border of feeling well enough to go to church, but preferring not to. Every time I have invoked Frank’s name (sometimes grumbling at his determination and taking his name in vain) and sallied forth if I could. There were plenty of times that I just couldn’t, but if there was a question, I did it Frank’s way.
Thank you, Frank, for showing me how to fight.
My father in law was known more commonly as “Kaqui,” a nickname imposed on him for no good reason by my oldest daughter. Like most bad nicknames, it stuck.
In 1994, Eloy was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was the beginning of a 21-year cancer marathon. Long before I took on three semi trucks and then a liquefied pancreas, Eloy was the original Man Who Could Not Die. He fought against cancer like a lion tamer, holding little more than a chair and a whip in the face of a monster. His will to live, and to stay by the side of his granddaughters, was beyond impressive. He would try any treatment and endure any indignity if it meant a chance to stay a bit longer.
Until he couldn’t. As is the way with cancer, it persists patiently until it wins. After two decades, it spread to his bones and then his lungs. In his final days, tumors were attacking virtually every bone in his body.
Coincidentally, his last fight was being conducted over the summer of this year, when my condition still seemed to be spinning out of control. Although he lived next door to us, walking to our house was a painful fifteen minute endurance contest for Kaqui, but he made it at least twice a day. To check on me. It was so humbling. He would stagger through the back door, ask how I was, give me a hug, and then collapse in my recliner for a two-hour nap.
I spent a lot of time looking at Kaqui this summer and thinking about his life. He had been a hard man in his youth, and not a great father to his daughter. But the diagnosis of cancer changed him fundamentally. Where others might have become bitter and hopeless, he softened and became a source of joy and hope for other people. He embraced the gospel and demonstrated a remarkable capacity for faith and service. He often laughed at his own infirmities, and he patiently accepted help when he had to.
Eloy taught me that you have a choice in the face of adversity. You can become calloused or compassionate. You can harden your heart or soften your soul. You can hate or love.
Eloy did it right. He found new meaning in life once it was threatened, and his hardships became the source of a quiet strength. He enriched lives even as his slipped away. Eloy finally succumbed to cancer this summer. I was there to hold his hand as he drew his last breath. In dying, he taught me how to live and how to endure. I don’t know that I ever can soften to the extent he did. I don’t know that I have the same capacity for compassion and hopefulness. But I know that I would certainly like to.
Thank you, Kaqui, for teaching me everything.
Tomorrow: My Bishop