hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

May 24, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: The gift of life is a gift indeed

Tom Vartabedian

I did not know my aunt had cancer until I saw her recently at a family gathering.

She showed up with a bandana around her head, was ashen in color and lethargic, though buoyant. She passed off a good front.

The woman isn't really my "aunt," though that's what everyone called her. She never married, yet she was everyone's Auntie Mame, everyone's tour de force. When she held court, everyone listened and obeyed. This time was no different.

The fact is, she didn't want to fuss about it, let alone get everyone all riled up over her condition. For her, pity would have been an albatross. Instead, she chose to keep her condition as subtle as others would allow.

"How are you doing, auntie?"

"Never mind how I'm doing, it's you that counts," she interceded. "Could be a lot better. But could be worse."

Auntie brimmed with optimism. She often told us that before you saw a rainbow, expect a downpour. Before a diamond sparkled, it was a raw stone.

Nobody in the room was quite sure how far along auntie was with her cancer. She had kept it pretty much under wraps, coping with the treatments, and putting her trust in God.

The dinner table was sagging with food. As custom prevailed, grace was said as hands were held.

"May I have this privilege?" auntie volunteered.

Unprepared, she went on to ask God's blessings for these "gifts which we are about to receive, the food we are about to eat." She went on to praise the children, all the good that represented our lives, the bounty provided by family, and to enjoy the good that's often taken for granted.

By today's standards, auntie still had a future ahead of her. To see her nieces and nephews graduate high school, perhaps see one or two secure a college degree. And if fate allowed, a wedding would be nice. But each day would be a gift.

Like any family, cancer has infiltrated our ranks. A young niece with two children was diagnosed with melanoma. After weeks of steady treatment and a lot of prayer, she is now in remission. The many people she befriended along the way — her doctors and fellow patients — became a steady source of encouragement.

My thoughts sometimes reflect upon stories I've written about those overcoming obstacles. Among the more pronounced were the marathon walks people take for charity, including the "Relay for Life," and how this arena of buoyancy took on a ripple effect.

A teenager I knew was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Doctors feared for the worse and gave him a specified amount of time. He was a member of the football team and the other players had their heads shaven to emulate his appearance.

Jarad felt like one of the boys.

As the basketball season followed, he warmed the bench until one day when his coach decided to play the senior. As the game proceeded and players began fouling out, Jarad remained on the floor. With the score tied, he was fouled and stepped to the line with a chance to become a hero.

He missed the first shot and swished the second as players and fans spilled out onto the floor. His photo being carried away made the front page of the local paper. It was the best sports picture I ever took.

For the next 10 years — yes, a decade — Jarad led the Relay for Life and was a veritable poster child for the crusade against cancer. He had a radio show going and became an ambassador for the cause. No one expected it, not even him.

I often think about Jarad and how he prolonged his life with a will to survive. When adversity struck him in the face, he gave it the elbow. No medicine in the world worked as well as determination and faith.

Auntie was a lot like Jarad and many others who refuse to crumble under the weight of affliction. The picture of health requires a happy frame of mind.

I get up each day, do my exercise, play racquetball with my friends at the YMCA, and live what I consider a good life. I see people my age ready for a tranquilizer. Health issues have caused havoc with their lives.

They spend so much time worrying about their condition that they no time left to enjoy it.

As we said our good-byes, auntie embraced each of us with a warm hug and a pleasing smile, thankful for this day that just passed — and any others which good fortune may bring her.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.