An extraordinary everyday hero

All four Thomas Sharpe's: Tommy, TJ, his dad and his late grandfather.

When cancer and treatments are doing their best to kick your rear physically and mentally, where do you get the fortitude to soldier on?  It is a question I have been asked many times, and the canned response is usually something along the lines of “You just do what needs to be done to be here, for your family.” Or, like I told my cousin Lisa, “Wouldn’t YOU do anything and everything possible to see your son grow up?”  She would, I am, and many of you would too.

The roots of determination are planted at a young age, fostered through both education and example, and tested by trial as adolescence turns to adulthood.  This starts with family, and although most of my lessons were taught by my Mom and Dad, there was always a secondary figure.  Thomas Johnston Sharpe passed away last weekend, and carrying his name is only the tip of the iceberg that describes his influence.

You can probably insert a typical “The Greatest Generation” story here; my grandfather’s followed the same storylines many did.  Go to the War, come home, get married, raise a family, work hard, and retire to enjoy the Golden Years. For Pop-Pop, that meant lying about his age to get into the Navy, then serving in the Pacific.  He always downplayed his deployment as “just a cook”, and it was only recently we learned that he was involved in heavy fighting in the Battle of Okinawa. He came back and worked for the post office for 30 years, accumulating enough banked sick time to retire a couple of years early. I didn’t need to look very far for an example of dedication.

He also raised his family, five kids through Catholic school (my Dad is second-eldest). The story took a sad turn when my Grandmother passed away of breast cancer. A single father in his early forties, he walked his postal route and performed side jobs to put all five kids through high school and college. More remarkably, those five college graduates all married and had children of their own, and each of the fourteen grandchildren graduated college (or are on track to – no pressure, Trevor and Brian). Those times I talked about sacrifice for your family?  Or the blogs describing setting expectations high and putting in the effort to make it happen? Pretty easy to see where that inspiration originated.

The amazing thing about all of this isn’t diplomas or early retirement. It’s the families that the Sharpes, Fallons, and Montgomeries became and the relationships they nurtured.  Of all the “lead by example” lessons, this was the most important. My grandfather remarried in 1976, and the love he and Mom Mom shared and passed down to our families have been a big part of what has kept me going. Tommy and Josie have a lot of life lessons to experience, but love and family are ones they can’t just learn anecdotally. The best lesson a father can teach his children is to love their mother, and the only way that can happen is to kick this cancer thing in its rear. 

So when I got sick, when I spent those nights in the hospital with needles and catheters and NG tubes, I thought about everything my grandfather endured to make it to Pop Pop status. His physical strength disappeared by 2012, but it was present elsewhere — in every operation, every recovery, every time I got out of that bed and walked one extra lap around the nurses’ station. I did it because I was shown what that extra effort meant (and because I could get away with flirting with the nurses, another Pop Pop special). Those lessons set the bar impossibly high and pushed me to get over it, and over it I am getting.

There are many other stories to share, and we will do plenty of that at the funeral and afterwards.  

It won’t be a sad day. We may have feelings of sadness or grief, but I will look around the room and think, "This is life. This is love. This is what my grandfather's entire existence was all about.  Raising good people; setting them out in the world, and then bringing them together. Having them love others, and love one another."  There will be tears, of course; there will also be a lot of smiles and laughs and hugs and kisses (LOTS of kisses… you wouldn’t believe how many, like an Italian mob movie sit-down). 

A wonderful husband, father, and grandfather has left this world. His memory and legacy will live on in the love he gave to all. I will see you in Heaven one day Pop-Pop, but know that you will help make that day far, far in the future, after the love you showed me has been passed down to Josie and Tommy. I hope I can do your name proud.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »