Embracing life, rather than dwelling on death

Some of you may remember all that talk in previous blogs about slowing down and giving myself time to rest. It was great in theory, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I am recognizing there is not much I can change about how I am wired, and everything since Saturday has sort of proven that.

My first unrealistic expectation is doing one blog post a day this week. In my mind, I am forcing myself to write quickly about the many things that did or will transpire. In reality, I am likely putting undue pressure on myself. There is a lot to tell, and rather than jam it all into one overly wordy post, this will get divided into an overly wordy summary post today and some overly wordy details later this week.

The craziness started on Saturday morning. The Melanoma Research Foundation asked me to come to speak to melanoma patients and caregivers, and then be on a panel discussing the difference between what doctors say and what patients hear, and vice versa. Who would think telling a room full of strangers about my melanoma would be the least serious thing all day??  (Side note/plug: They have two more sessions coming up in San Francisco on February 1st, and, much more locally, in NYC on February 8th.  If you have, take care of, or know someone with melanoma, register and go – it’s a lot of information about treatment options and clinical trials).

After the conference, I got some bad news from home – my grandfather wasn’t doing well. I have mentioned him a few times before (particularly in my Moffitt scans post) and knew that his health was declining. Mom told me to be ready for “the call” sometime soon, although they could never tell if it would be days or weeks or even months.

Jen and I had planned a date night with another couple, so with that bit of dejecting news, we headed off to the movies. Looking for a good, uplifting two hours to clear your mind of real-world stuff? If so, “Lone Survivor” might not be the perfect cinematic choice.  Awesome, intense, but definitely did nothing to lighten the mood. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out or read the book – preferably on a day when you are not discussing things like “progression-free survival” and “hospice care.”

As it turned out, we got “the call” from home within hours. My phone buzzed near the end of the movie with a “call us back, we need to talk” message. When I saw it was Mom on the caller ID, I kind of knew this would be the bad news. A call home in the car ride to dinner confirmed Pop Pop Chickens had passed peacefully less than an hour ago. Jen offered to cancel dinner plans.

That’s the funny thing about grief, and somber, heavy topics – they can invade your mind and hover there like a rain cloud that continuously blacks out the sky from any light. But unlike the meteorological clouds, we actually have the choice to bring some sunshine into our minds. Part of me wanted to take her up on the offer, call it a day, and let the negativity run its course. I don’t think anyone would have blamed me.

But, of course that wasn’t happening.  As planned, we pulled up outside Café Martorano’s, a restaurant I had been looking forward to since my first scan results (it was closed when Jen and I went last July). We had a night to relax, with Jen’s cousin watching the kids. We were getting a chance to introduce Rob and Adrienne to Steve Martorano’s transplanted South Philly Italian cooking and the best food in Fort Lauderdale. Fate and timing gave us a path to follow, one that would make the best of bad news. We chose to embrace life, rather than dwell on death.  

So we ate – and ate, and ate.  We drank red wine and had a couple of toasts – to my grandfather of course, but also to creating new friendships now, and watching little friendships grow in the future (their daughter and Josie are buddies at pre-school).  We shared laughs and smiles and swapped embarrassing stories. We even got to meet Steve and have him explain to Jen why marinara sauce is called “gravy.” It was “comfort food” taken to a new level.

I will always remember that night – not just for the sad news it brought, but for the living it contained. I think Pop Pop would have wanted us to celebrate him that way. I imagined nights he and Mom Mom dealt with difficult news with family, friends, and a bottle of red. I did what I thought my namesake would have done, and more importantly, what he would have wanted me to do.

Before our plane up to New Jersey for the services, I have scans and an infusion on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday we’ll talk scan results and then Friday will bring more – a lot more – about my grandfather and his influence on my battle. The weekend will be partially about closure, about being in a better place, and the other things that get said to deal with and describe the grieving process. Mostly, though, it will be about life – the one we gather to celebrate, the ones we lead, and the many we affect. I am extremely sad to say goodbye to my grandfather, but cannot wait to embrace the many wonderful people he will bring together Saturday.

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