Will cancer give me a chance to show my kids Key West?

T.J. and his Key West buddy Keith watch his brother-in-law Matt get his first tattoo.

Life took a few unexpected turns in the past week. First, quickly, the medical.  Scans showed growth in one non-targeted tumor, and after meeting with Dr. Patterson at Holy Cross yesterday, the feeling we got was that there is a good chance the medicine has stopped working, or will soon. We still need to wait and see regarding the targeted lesions, but we left the cancer center much less optimistic about staying on PD-1 (although we are still on the trial). There are already appointments and contingency plans made at MD Anderson and Mass General over the next few weeks, so we got a jump on dealing with it. More in the next post, when more information is available - just wanted to update everyone on where we stood.

The other unexpected event was outside cancer (although I suppose nothing is really outside cancer in our lives anymore). Many of us have that “happy place” we travel to – judging by Facebook, the Jersey Shore seems to be the overwhelming favorite amongst family and friends, but it could be any number of locales that elicit fond memories and promise enduring good times each subsequent journey there. With all my travels as an adult, I have found quite a few of them, but none bring that “I’m at home, away from home and on vacation” smile more than Key West. 

So when my two brother-in-laws called Thursday about leaving Friday morning on a last-minute, impromptu “guys family trip” to Key West, the knee-jerk reaction of “No way, I have to get back to taking it easy” was manually overridden based on location alone. The three of us are all at crossroads in our respective lives, and could use the combination of bonding and head clearing the Keys provide. It’s a bit cliché, but there is something about the salt air, sunsets, and general escapist vibe the island exudes that always resets and balances me. If you have been there for more than just a cruise stop and a few frozen daiquiris on Duval, you may have experienced it, too.  

My last trip to the Southernmost Point was nearly four and a half years ago for a good friend’s wedding; we had Josie two weeks later, and Duval Street escapades quickly sank on the priority list. It’s been an eventful 52 months since then, to say the least. I couldn’t wait to get back to Old Town, to see some friends, to absorb the intoxication of the island (both figuratively and literally). I won’t “bore” you with the details (i.e. let’s not publish to the entire world any overindulgent misbehavior of the cancer patient or his brothers), but suffice to say, we hit a good deal of Key West fun in the short 40-hour trip. 

At the end of Saturday night, I had a moment of… a moment of the past and future meeting together in my mind. There’s probably a name for it, I’m sure – whatever you would call projecting your fond memories into a future for your family, and especially your kids. I was walking back to the condo, looking around at the different places I’ve been through the years – “hey, here’s where you can get great Key Lime Pie; here’s the best fish sandwich and limeade on the island; here’s where they actually race turtles (or used to)” – and wondering how their little eyes will see it. They will have much different experiences, of course, but I desire to share, and pass on, some of the small things that made me fall in love with this place.

At the time, I put a quick blurb on Facebook about the feeling. I probably should have just saved it for this post, written with a clearer head and lengthier format, but it captured a moment – at least somewhat – of emotional mental fragility:

Am I going to be able to pass down to them not just a laundry list of places to see, but a lifetime’s worth of little memories, of details, of ‘didjaknow’s and ‘isn’tthiscool’s?   Will they ever ‘understand’ what it is that makes the Keys and Key West touch the soul?  Most of all, will they have moments that are important to them not because of where they are, but because ‘Daddy took me here when I was a kid’?

In the blog, I can articulate scan results and next steps, and even the emotions they bring with ease.  I am just writing what I know, what I live, and who I am. But it was exponentially more difficult to contemplate and extrapolate those potential missing moments or lost chances and put them into words.  There are stories to tell (like the time Daddy stayed for a hurricane), sunsets to see, geography and history and oceanography lessons all blended together for sharing.  There are memories to be made, and more important, young lives to be influenced and little minds to be opened.  Seeing the flash-forward in their lives of a fatherless trip to one of my favorite places stung, a midnight smack of reality.

The kids will get to Key West one day. In between the fun kid-type tourist things, they will experience a few of Daddy’s favorites, too – cheer the Phillies with Jodi at the Rum Barrel, watch Magician Frank, get a bite to eat at the Conch Farm, buy a shell necklace from a street vendor. They can even see where Uncle Matt got his first tattoo (see pic above), where Uncle Mike swapped clothing with a bachelorette party, and where Daddy… where Daddy was always on his best behavior (the advantage of writing the blog is also editing any questionable decision-making out of it!) Those last ones had better take a little more time to develop, but they won’t be kids forever. I know they will get there and I know I will be a part of their journey from childhood visitor to adult vacationer. I just hope the part I play is literal and not figurative.



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