One of the last times my brother was healthy enough to come home we played touch football. The game took place in the public park across from Lockport Memorial Hospital, where Eric had first been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Fifty years ago, the disease was a death sentence, with only a 10 percent survival rate. Soon afterward my little brother was transferred to Roswell Park in nearby Buffalo, where he was treated by an extraordinary group of doctors and nurses, the so-called Cancer Cowboys, who led the effort against such diseases. Thanks to their work, 90 percent who those with ALL today live to be adults.
For the Thanksgiving holiday, the Turkey Bowl football game always drew a good crowd. What gave several of my friends pause was the how the chemotherapy drugs had caused Eric to put on weight, even swelling his face.
“He’s the husky Wendel,” somebody said, and that afternoon he was nicknamed “Beefy” and “Porky.”
As the big brother, I should have stepped in – told everyone to stop it, just shut up. But Eric shot me a look, urging me to be quiet. That day he was interested only in playing football. If anything, he seemed concerned that any disagreement would break up the game. So we played on under grey skies, with the promise of snow.
Perhaps it was the chilly weather, or the growing number of players, but the game soon became chippy. Instead of two hands touch above the waist, the ball carrier was routinely sent flying with an extra hard push. Blocks along the line took on an extra vengeance.
Usually touch football becomes a passing game, but in the swirling winds and cold weather, nobody could hang on to the slick ball very well. As a lark, I handed the ball off to Eric, who ran with choppy, determined steps up the middle, sending bodies flying.
“Same play,” I said in the huddle. Once again I stepped back to pass, only to hand the ball off to Eric, who put his head down and ran straight ahead. “What have you been putting in his feed?” somebody on the other team cried out.
“Wonder drugs,” somebody else said.
We ran the same play again: my 10-year- old brother lugging the ball with both hands up the middle. Though it wasn’t hard to touch him, trying to stop my little brother took a piece out of you. Guys on the other team fell on the ground, mud smearing their jeans and sweatshirts.
“Again?” I asked Eric in the huddle. He only smiled and nodded.
We continued to run variations of the same play – Eric straight up the gut, Eric around either end – and we soon scored.
As I watched my brother roll into the end zone, covered in muck and with a huge grin on his face, I realized that he had become tougher than the rest of us. He didn’t care about the teasing, the lousy weather, or the wet field. Right before our eyes, he had risen above it all. We were afraid of such things, the pain that could be upon us, that could overwhelm us. Eric had moved past such concerns long ago.
A few months later, in the spring, the doctors ran out of treatments and medical options, and the cancer became too much for my brother. When I think about those years, the times when everything in my family seemed to be taken to such extremes, when we seemed to be living well outside ourselves, so far beyond what passed for a normal life, I think about that afternoon when we played touch football in the park, with winter fast approaching.
I remember the smile on my brother’s face. How he did the best with what he had and how it was enough. How it can always be enough, if we learn to accept it.
It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that Eric shared the same attitude as many of the doctors and nurses who treated him a Roswell Park in Buffalo. The ones who were at the forefront of the biggest “cancer moonshot” in medical history.
Day after day, they went about their work, fashioning the next clinical trial and then painstakingly analyzing the results. In doing so, the doctors and patients learned that even the most devastating piece of bad news could hold a glimmer of hope. How even a string of great results didn’t mean everything has been decided and settled.
For the world often stands astride such opposing yet complementary forces as light and dark, the yin and the yang, success and failure. When we find ourselves in such a place perhaps the only choice we have is to acknowledge it all and try to smile as my brother once did.
Tim Wendel is the author of several books, most recently “Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia.”
About Tim Wendel
Tim Wendel is the author of 13 books, including Summer of '68, Castro's Curveball and High Heat, which was an Editor’s Choice selection by The New York Times Book Review, and his upcoming memoir CANCER CROSSINGS: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia (Cornell University Press, April 2018). His writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Gargoyle, The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. He's a writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches nonfiction and fiction. For more information, www.timwendel.com.