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The Stranger with Cancer

Wisdom from a stranger.


“You see, I have cancer.”

That got my attention. What I had assumed would be the usual superficial conversation between myself and a cab driver had unexpectedly grown much deeper. Initially, the man appeared nice enough when he picked me up at my house. An older man with tussled grey hair, he had grabbed my bags from my hands and politely offered me a seat in the front of the cab next to him. I was reluctant at first, but felt compelled to do so for some reason. I had been looking forward to the anonymity a cab ride can provide, some time to myself during a lengthy ride to the airport, but the man seemed eager to have some company. Once seated and on our way, he began an ongoing conversation — more of a monologue actually — in which I punctuated his remarks with a casual nod or a quiet “Yes.” The man was amusing as he spoke with his hands almost more than he did with his words. Yet in spite of this man’s obvious good nature, I had much more on my mind than to waste it on idle conversation with this stranger. Eventually, I kept my gaze out the window in hopes that he would stop and I could be left alone with my thoughts.

That was, at least, until he mentioned cancer.

I was startled less by what he said and more by how he said it. It was so casual, no different than someone said he had a cold or a headache. The remark actually seemed flippant, but that just couldn’t be. After all, if he had cancer, he should be upset or teary eyed. This man showed none of that. He was sitting with one hand gripped the steering wheel while his other would go back and forth between an armrest and his strategically placed mug of coffee. His eyes darted towards me as my head turned.

“Really?” I replied calmly. “I am sorry to hear that. Are you undergoing treatment?”

“Nah. Not yet, at least. I’m holding on until I get back from London. My wife and I are going to London at the end of July. July 28th.”  He grabbed the mug of coffee and downed a large gulp. “You see, my son is in the military — he and his wife both are. They are stationed overseas. Somewhere in England, a little outside of London.” He replaced the coffee and rubbed his chin. “Can’t really remember. Anyway, he’s just been promoted to master sergeant.”

“Congratulations,” I interjected. He turned and smiled.

“Thanks. Yeah. I am really proud of him.” He looked down the highway, careful never to exceed the posted speed limit. “Anyway, I am going out there for the ceremony. Looking forward to it. The best part is that they are going to let me give him his stripes. I get to walk on stage and everything.”

“Wow. That’s nice.”

“Yeah.” He smiled and glanced over at me. “Then we’re going to do the whole England thing. Travel out there for a week, see the sites. You know: do the whole tourist thing.” He waved his hand as if he were dismissing it all. “So anyway, I’m not going to start the treatment until I get home because I do not want to be sick. I really want to enjoy that time with him and his wife.” He speech slowed. His hand rubbed his chin and pulled at his lower lip for a moment. He continued. “That chemo can be nasty stuff,” he said, almost as if I was not there. The highway rolled by. A wave of his hand. “Anyway, the reason why I tell you this is that I’m a religious man." He turned and looked at me: “You religious?”

“Yes I am,” I replied confidently, surprising myself somewhat. The driver nodded, glad to hear it.

“See,” he looked at me, “I may be old fashioned, but I believe in the power of prayer — you know? So I ask all my passengers if they could kind of say a prayer for me. Nothing big, mind you. I know everyone’s got their own problems. Just something when they get around to it. You see, I figure, I’ll need a lot to get through this.” His hand dropped down to the console and he fumbled with some quarters. A tollbooth was approaching. He rolled down his window looking into the palm of his hand to make sure he had the correct amount.

As he did so, I quickly re-evaluated this man sitting next to me. At first, he appeared to be nothing more than a very simple man. He clothes were plain and his cab, unspectacular. To look at him, it could be easy to dismiss him as uneducated. But nothing could have been further from the truth. This unknown man possessed more wisdom, a deeper love of life than I could ever imagine. For days before this trip, I had been seeking to make sense of a family crisis. But I had no answers and I had found no comfort. Yet here I had found my answer. It was sitting next to me: a man of courage; a man of passion for life; a man of faith in a time of darkness. He was noble. He was noble facing his pain and in being unafraid to share that pain with others.

What an amazing stranger.

The lesson was so obvious.

The man gathered his receipt from the attendant, politely said thank you, and we drove on. He turned to me as he vigorously rolled up his window, continuing on as if there had been no break in our conversation. “So do you think you can do that for me?”

“Sure I will,” I said.

“See, I figure it couldn’t hurt.”

“No, no — I agree,” I replied emphatically. I paused. “You really seem to have a good perspective on all this,” I said looking at him. He nodded strongly.

“I do. I do,” he said. “See, the way I figure it is, I’ve had a good life. I’ve been married to one woman and seen a lot of the world being in the Air Force.”

“You were in the Air Force?” He nodded.

“Twenty years.”

“You must be really proud of your son then — kind of following in dad’s footsteps.” He turned to me and smiled broadly as if I had discovered some sort of wonderful secret.

“I really am; you’re right. But you see, that’s part of it. I’ve got a good family that I love and loves me. My kids are doing really well. I’m a grandfather. I’ve got a job where I get to meet nice people — such as yourself — and I really am just very happy. I don’t have a lot in the ways of money or whatever, but I have a lot more than most people—you know?”

I did know. I understood. It’s just that I had forgotten. We all do. Yet this stranger was modeling the answer to the questions that had been going through my head for the longest time. I simply had to open up.

“You know,” I said, thinking out loud, “one of the reasons why I’m going home is that my grandfather has liver cancer." The driver just nodded. Like he expected that answer. I continued. “He was diagnosed about a month ago. Mother’s Day I think it was. My parents had come back from Florida and saw him. My mother said she was shocked at how yellow he had become. They took him to a doctor the next day. It was then that the doctor gave him three months to live. That was about a month and a half ago.”

“Is he doing the treatment?” I shook my head.

“No, he refused. Can’t really say that I blame him. The man has done a lot. He is a diabetic, he has had two strokes, his foot has been cut off, but he has never let any of that stop him. He would go to bingo and do odd jobs — just keep living life.” The driver nodded and muttered “Good for him” as I spoke. “That chemo would have just eaten him up. He’s lived a long life. A good life. I guess he’s just tired and ready to say goodbye. I just don’t want to see him suffer.”

“No, no you don’t. Sometimes it's just time. How old is your grandfather?”

“I don’t know for sure — 83 I think.”

“That’s a good long life. Good for him. Me — I’m not ready yet.”

“No, no — I know, “ I stammered. “I wasn’t implying ...”

“Oh, I know you weren’t. I know. There is still a lot of stuff that I still want to do, a lot of time that I still want to spend with my family.”

“I totally agree with you. I am really impressed with your perspective on life,” I said. He laughed. “It’s nothing special. You know — I just do the best that I can do. The way I figure it, life is meant to be fun and exciting. Yeah, bad things happen — but what can you do? You just need to make sure the good times outweigh the bad.”  

"You know, my grandfather was in the military too. Army. He was a sergeant....” And so I went on. Now it was my time to share with the man who shared with me. I spoke about my grandfather and Christmas. My grandfather and Foxwoods. My grandfather and my dog. I rambled on, but all the while, I knew the cab driver was listening. He nodded and smiled and I opened up.

It all began to make sense.

We finally turned into the airport and I gathered my stuff together. The car was quiet now as he concentrated on the traffic. He zipped on in between cars and pulled up to the Southwest gate. We both got out of the car. He pulled my bags from the trunk and placed them on the curb. I took the fare and tip out of my wallet and handed it over to him. Somehow payment did not seem right.

“Let me tell you, it has been really nice meeting you," I said shaking his hand.

“You too. I hope everything is okay with your grandfather.”

“Thanks. You too. I hope it all works out for the best.”

“Wait a sec,” he said. He turned and went back into the cab only to pop out a moment later with a notepad in his hand. “What’s your grandfather’s name?” he asked.

“Francis,” I replied, somewhat puzzled. “Francis Kenney.” The man scribbled the name down onto his pad. There seemed to be a number of names copied down in different colors of ink on the page. When done, he placed it in the breast pocket of his shirt.

“Prayer list,” he said, tapping the pocket. “I added his name. After all,” he said smiling again, “it can’t hurt.”

“Thank you," I said meekly, shaking his hand again. “Thanks a lot.”

“Hey, no problem — good luck to you.” He walked away and got back into the cab. I turned and gathered up my bags. As I dragged them into the airport and the cab drove away, I said my first prayer for the stranger who had cancer.

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Spring Street January 24, 2012 at 11:38 PM
Terminally Ill Cancer Victim hauled into debtors Court-Judge Montalbano stands by her. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJz2SJ4YGnE

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