to live is to fly

My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person: he believed in me. ~Jim Valvano

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years. ~Mark Twain

We walked slowly along the shores of Lake Champlain, my father and I. The warmth and light of the autumn sun burned off the morning haze, unveiling the splendor of the Adirondack mountains across the water. This was the first time since 1998 we have spent more than an afternoon together, alone. Not because of any rift or rendering of our family quilt, but simply because, while we had spoken many times of doing so, getting together, alone for a weekend, had not pushed its way to the front of the jukebox. Other selections seemed to always interrupt our desired family soundtrack.

This past weekend was a revelation of sorts and on many levels. Looking at it through the lens of family, I was able to capture a portrait framed by love, admiration and an appreciation for being “in the moment” with my father. Ah, that “being in the moment” thing. I think I am beginning to get it. Lately I have been working with a close friend, mentor, cancer survivor and practicing Buddhist to learn the practice of meditation. As she shared, it is called a “practice” for a reason. My K-12 Quaker education, attending weekly Meeting for Worship for thirteen years, proved to me that we can all find our centers if given the opportunity. Even as children. Sitting in silence for thirty to forty minutes is entirely possible, even for myself. I know this.

I shared with my friend, with Barb and my doctors that learning the art of meditation, and calming my brain was going to be, in many ways, more challenging than overcoming two surgeries and ensuing radiation treatments. The trauma of an incurable cancer diagnosis, on the other hand, is permanent. One learns, over time, to manage this immobile storm cloud rather than declare victory or assume it will merely disappear. It is no different from suggesting post-traumatic stress disorder, losing a limb, eyesight, hearing or other functionality is always going to be fixable or curable. One simply adapts, manages, learns and tries to accept. New tools are acquired, coping mechanisms are embraced, medication might be prescribed, alternative therapies practiced, prosthetic devices made, etc. Giving up or surrendering is not an option. Down the road, at some point, I suppose we all “let go,” which I believe is very different.

“You are the first patient we have had to say please slow down. Usually we are trying to get patients going” shared my radiation oncologist. I agreed that perhaps I have been “pushing” too hard but that has been simply how I have responded to this mess. Everyone has a different threshold and responds according to their own psychological-physical-spiritual makeup. But I am beginning to recognize my limits, which is very humbling, and sometimes frustrating, to do. All too often, I would forge ahead, ignoring what my body was telling me. I am trying to be a better listener.

The revelation and my time with Dad. Let me first offer some simple, practical advice. I believe I have only done so once before in this blog, when I shared, as I will again, that if you do not have life insurance, and you have children and/or a partner or spouse, stop reading this blog, pick up the phone and get as much as you can afford. Check with your employer if you can increase what they already offer, if they offer anything. Do not wait for “something to happen.” If you are diagnosed with an illness such as cancer, or experience a life-altering accident, insurance agencies will quite literally laugh at you (at least one did) if you ask them about life insurance after the fact. And if they do offer a policy, the premiums will be astronomically high. You are quite simply not worth their risk. If you believe you have enough resources and assume that if anything happens your family will be cared for financially, get some insurance anyway. There are no guarantees that your investments or nest egg will be there tomorrow, next week or in a year.

My new unsolicited nugget of wisdom is this: regarding my experience of spending time with my father, I wished I had pushed harder and sooner for this to happen. Eventually I demanded it. Alas we spoke of it for a long time but life always seemed to get in the way of living. Something always came up or intervened. It’s not that either of us did not want to get together.

While our once or twice a year golf outings, summertime breakfasts at the diner or occasional lunches if I happen to be in Philadelphia remain important, we wanted to get away this time. We are both deeply grateful for the time we did have and look forward to more. I have promised my mother, with whom I speak more frequently (as she always answers the phone) that we will do something similar soon. She had “threatened” to come along but I emphatically requested that this be father-son time and that there will be mother-son time as well.


There is no time like the present to fulfill any and all desires to spend quality time with loved ones be they friends, family or partners. It could be a nice long chat on the phone, an hour over coffee, a weekend away or something even more. In the end, as Lincoln shared, “it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

We spent most of the time either eating or sitting on a park bench looking out at the lake. Sometimes we spoke, other times read the paper or just sat in silence. My father is a quiet, loving, soulful man whose reticence can sometimes be mistaken for a brooding withdrawal. It is not. And while getting around has been difficult of late as his ankles have been a source of chronic arthritic pain, we forged ahead, albeit at a slower pace than either of us were used to. We did the requisite stop at Ben and Jerry’s, took a Lake Champlain scenic cruise, visited a few art galleries, snacked at the Farmer’s Market and on one evening, went to some hipster joint where we listened to live Bohemian jazz. That we were the only ones there over 30 and had no (visible) tattoos or piercings was of no consequence.

The last time we spent that much time together was when he accompanied me on my move to Sedona, Arizona, where I had taken a position as Director of Admissions at the Verde Valley School. With the car on a flatbed being towed behind, we filled up the 24-foot U-Haul to the roof and headed west. Despite a few disagreements over driving and one lengthy dispute over my desire to make a stop in Memphis, we had an extraordinary time: chicken-fried steak with sausage gravy at the Loretta Lynn Truckstop, double-decker freight trains ambling across the Texas Panhandle, feedlots seemingly larger than the State of Vermont, with thousands of beef cattle, truck stops as large as small New England Villages, and one comically touching weepfest when Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” came over the radio, the penultimate father-son sad tale of waiting until it’s too late to connect.

To celebrate our journey, after the Eagle had landed, Dad had customized t-shirts made up, white with green lettering and festooned with cacti, documenting both the highlights and charting some of the towns passed through.

One one side:

Road Trip ’98

No Refunds After 15 Minutes (sign at front desk at cheap hotel)

Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates

Sparkling Tile Rest Rooms

HO-Made Pies (curious sign at local bakery)

P.H.D. (a reference to an MTV documentary on prostitution we viewed entitled “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down” in which a pimp, looking much like a cross between Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, declares that he never went to college and did not need to because he already had a Ph.D. – A “pimps and ho’s degree.”)

Speed Limit 52 MPH

And on the other side:

Saxtons River, VT: Elkins Park, PA: Woodstock, VA: Bristol, VA/TN: Bulls Gap, TN: Crab Orchard, TN: Buffalo, TN: Toad Suck, AR: Conway, AR: Cherokee, OK: Clinton Lane, OK: Vega, TX: Milagro, NM: Grants, NM: Flagstaff, AZ: Sedona, AZ, Oak Creek Canyon, AZ.

The Revelation I experienced over the weekend was this: It has been about two and a half months since the landslide. It has been a harrowing, confusing, frightening-to-the core experience for all of us. The cancer has invaded our lives metaphorically and literally. We have learned much and continue to do so. We have climbed many mountains, my family, friends and I, and will be doing so forever. But the contours of this journey will eventually flatten out as we find sure footing and become as comfortable as one can be with our new reality, knowing that at any time, we may find there are more mountains to summit.

There will be times of stress, fatigue, sadness, fear, anger, emotional and physical pain but alas such is life itself. I have dreams, hopes, goals and wishes yet unfulfilled for my family and friends, for my career and passions. None of these desires have been checked at the gate. If anything, this event has only bolstered my resolve. To strengthen existing bonds, to be a better father, son, partner, friend, neighbor, worker, human. To live to see my children continue to evolve. Perhaps witness the birth of grandchildren. To bicycle across the US, travel to faraway places, write “that” book…the list is long and I have miles to go…

I can no longer focus on grim statistics. I am not a statistic. We are not statistics. I am not a number. We are sentient beings. I am learning how to filter this new library of cancer which has appeared, like some frozen chunk of blue effluent dropped from an airplane, crashing through the roof, and landing in my living room.

As we all know, Steve Jobs, wise, brilliant and perhaps one of the most influential people in recent memory, lost his life to pancreatic cancer. His Stanford commencement address, among his many speeches and lectures, continues to receive enormous attention. Among his many moving passages, he speaks of facing the realities of death:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

The revelation from this weekend, as I move through whatever stage I am going through, is that I am stronger than ever. I am tended to by a phalanx of supremely gifted doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical staff and living in a time where the marvels of modern medicine continue to unfold. I have a great job at a great institution and work with great people. My aspirations are clear and I am driven to achieve them. Most importantly, I am lifted up by loving family, friends, community, colleagues past and present…and that has made all the difference.

“To live is to fly
Low and high,
so shake the dust off of your wings
and the sleep out of your eyes.” – Townes Van Zandt


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8 Responses to to live is to fly

  1. Elisabeth Tomere says:

    Mark, reading this reinforced my own gratitude for the solo trips Dad would take to visit me in Seattle. I would do this with Mom, too, and then at other times they would come together. But it was alone with my Dad when I really felt connected and got to know and appreciate him on a whole new level. After he died I would sometimes experience the pain of regret over the times I was less than helpful or respectful. But I was also comforted and deeply grateful that I did not miss the opportunity to be with him as a more evolved individual, more capable of deeply empathizing, understanding, and loving. Thanks for sharing the story and the photos. Your posts are really profound on a lot of levels, Mark.

  2. Lisa Brande says:

    Mark,
    Wonderful heartfelt writing as always. Im glad you had a wonderful visit with your dad. I remember visits like those with mine before he passed. And thanks for the reminder of living every day as though it may be your last (it is true for all of us). I often try to remember that, though I very often fail. It is good to remember that every day. Wishing you peace in-the-moment.
    Lisa B.

  3. Raquel Fopma says:

    As usual, simply beautiful!!!

  4. Bill Scarlett says:

    Beautiful, just beautiful! So thankful that you had a wonderful trip to Burlington with your Dad. Here’s to many more such experiences!

  5. Wendy Brennan says:

    Mark, I make a daily practice of checking your blog, reflecting and appreciating your incredible candor, facility with language and authenticity. I am looking forward to seeing you soon for a drive to DHMC… Lots of love from me and the rest of the Brennan clan.

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