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The Road Ahead

 Ofttimes the test of courage becomes rather to live than to die.

- Vittorio Alfieri, Oreste (IV, 2)

 

            It wasn’t his fault.  He knew that.  Everyone did.  There’s no way the accident could have been avoided. 

            Mike was driving south on Nebraska State Highway 133 when the other vehicle veered across the centerline heading directly toward him.  Mike was going into Omaha in the black Dodge Ram 2500 pickup to buy a load of wood from Menards when the accident occurred.  Although he turned his truck sharply to the right and went into the ditch, he could not get the flatbed trailer that was hitched to the rear of the truck off the road fast enough, and the oncoming car struck the front left corner of the trailer.  Shaken himself, Mike got out of what remained of the Ram and rushed back to the other vehicle to tend to the other driver.  The emergency sirens sounded in nearby Blair just miles to the north, and police and rescue  units arrived at the scene a short time thereafter, but Mike could only cradle the man in his arms as the life flowed from the latter’s body. 

            Afterward, Mike could not help but wonder if his condition somehow caused him to be responsible for the tragic accident, if somehow he could have reacted quicker had he been completely whole.  The police report showed that the victim had somehow fallen asleep at the wheel and was at fault.  Regardless, Mike never spoke much about the accident to anyone.  No one in the family spoke of it.

*          *          *          *          *

What type of cancer were you diagnosed with?

Liver cancer.[i]

 

            The prognosis was grim: stage four liver cancer.  Apparently, the disease had begun in his pancreas and spread to the liver.  Mike hadn’t suspected the full extent of his condition until he went to the clinic in Blair, Nebraska a third time.  He originally imagined that he had the flu and could not account for the pain in his stomach, but in April of 2005, the growing intensity of the pain compelled him to seek a doctor.  At first, the medical personnel diagnosed his condition as constipation, and they gave him some medicine to facilitate a bowel movement, but when that didn’t help, he returned a couple more times to the clinic.  In August of that same year, the doctors at Methodist hospital in Omaha ran blood tests and determined it was cancer.  A second opinion from UNMC confirmed the results.  That day, Mike and his wife Kathy called friends and family members to inform them of the news.

            “Hi, Pam?  It’s your mom.”

            “Hi!”

            “Are you sitting down?” the older woman asked.

            “No.  Why?” the girl responded, suddenly filled with dread.  Her parents had been to the doctor in Omaha as Mike had not been getting any better.

            “It’s your dad . . . We . . . we just got back from the doctor . . .”

            Silence.  Pam’s cheeks began to flush, her eyes filling with tears.

            “Pam?”

            “Yea . . . ?” her voice trembled.  She stood motionless.

            “Your dad,” Kathy began, her voice wavering.  “ . . . you dad has cancer.”

            Both women broke down in tears on the phone as the older woman explained the details of Mike’s tests and his prognosis for survival.

            Results of the white blood cell count doctors had tested from Mike’s blood had come back.  Normal counts are usually five to ten thousand.  Counts higher than 100 thousand are indicative of a very bad cancer.  Mike’s count exceeded 200 thousand.  No one knew how much longer he had to live.  Stage four is considered late stage, and Mike and his family knew he would have an uphill battle if he was to live.

            Although family members brought up the topic of Mike’s illness whenever they saw the man, inquiring into his health and how he felt, Mike simply shrugged and said little more than, “Yea, I’m doing alright.”  It was Kathy who would usually do the talking for him.  He seemed to tell his wife more, and she would quietly communicate that knowledge to the rest of their family and friends.

*          *          *          *          *

How old were you when you were diagnosed with cancer?

Fifty-seven years old.[ii]

 

 

            Michael Smith stepped out of the old, dark blue Dodge Dakota pickup truck and shut the door behind him, the truck’s hinges squeaking once before the heavy door slammed shut with a resounding thud.  His son-in-law got out of the other side of the vehicle and followed the older man.  Mike walked around to the back of the open bed truck and reached inside, grabbing an old, dusty chainsaw that had been sitting in the garage most of the late winter.

            “Hmgh,” Mike grunted to the younger man, pointing to the round, metal tank of gasoline that sat in the bed of the truck.  “Grab that.”

            Mike set the saw on the dirty, rocky ground at his feet while his son-in-law followed suit. Bits of green grass sprouted among the rocks and dried chunks of dirt crisscrossed with deep tire tracks in once soft, wet ground that eventually dried and hardened.  He pushed his dark, wire-rimmed glasses back into place as they slid down the bridge of his nose.  He had been working all morning in the barn and, though it was a cool day, he had already worked up a sweat.  He was a tall, very slender man much unlike own his father and his son, both of whom were husky, thick-built men. 

            In fact, his father, Frank was stronger than ever at the age of eighty-eight, and Randy, his son, once “busted broncs” in the rodeo.  No, it wasn’t that Mike lacked strength.  He worked harder than most and possessed a willful, sinewy strength and dexterity that other men lacked.  He was simply a wiry man.

            Mike quickly bent over and unscrewed the cap on the gas-powered chainsaw, turning the power tool by its black handle and peering into the tank.  Almost empty.  Dropping the saw, he bent down on one knee and unscrewed the cap on the gas can, rising slightly and repositioning the saw until the lip of the can was just above the open hole of the chainsaw’s tank.  Pouring gasoline quickly, Mike swore quietly under his breath as some of the gasoline dribbled over the lip and spilled onto the ground.  Finished, he screwed the cap back on the chainsaw’s gas tank.

            “Hmm.  Here,” he said, handing the can to the other man.  “Put this back.”

            Standing up, Mike wiped his fuel-moistened hands on the side of his dark colored blue jeans, adding to years worth of stains.  His red and black flannel, long sleeved shirt was tucked into his pants hastily, and one tail of his shirt hung out slightly from the back of his pants.  Within moments, he was walking quickly into the lightly wooded field, examining one or two of the downed ash and walnut trees.  His glasses slowly worked their way down the bridge of his nose.  He peered at the road behind him, instinctively pushing his glasses back on his face.

            “Where the hell’s Randy?” he said, to no one in particular.  He turned, then, and continued surveying the field.

            “I don’t know,” the younger man shrugged belatedly, unsure how to respond.

            Mike grunted something and mumbled out loud, but the other man didn’t understand a thing he had said. 

            “I’ll start here, Jim,” he motioned.  “You come up behind me an’ start picking ‘em up.”

            Straddling the fallen limbs, his brown, pointed cowboy boots dug firmly into the dry, crumbly dirt.  Mike pulled several times on the rope of the power tool.  With a high pitched, grinding buzz, the saw started, and soon limbs both small and large were dropping to the ground.  Every time Jim went behind Mike to pick up newly cut branches, the latter would move to an adjacent branch, and the younger, city-born man would scurry, trying to stay out of his father-in-law’s way.  Finally, as the older man worked his way around the tree-littered field, the younger man began picking up some of the larger pieces, carrying them over to the pickup and tossing them as gently as he could over the side.  He didn’t want to be thought “lazy” since most of the time he could do nothing but stand there and watch, so he figured he would get the big ones first so the older man wouldn’t have to do it all himself.  Mike spotted the man, and turned the chainsaw off.

            “What the hell?  You don’t-” he yelled, cutting off his words and approaching his son-in-law.  He laughed once, a loud, frustrated noise that sounded half-laugh half-bark.  He shook his head, smiling, exhaling audibly and wiping sweat from his face. 

            “You put the little pieces in first, then put the big one on top, see?”  He began to show the younger man what to do.  “That way they don’t blow out the back of the truck when you go down the road!” 

            The younger man nodded.

            Soon, the men resumed their worked.  There were a lot of downed trees to cut.  It had been an icy, windy winter as was evident by the number of limbs lying strewn across the ground.  After a short while, another pickup truck with a flatbed trailer rolled off the twisting, gravel road and into the field.  The driver swung the truck and trailer around the old field and backed up carefully, parking adjacent to the blue Dakota.  Noticing this movement out of the corner of his eye, Mike stood up and turned off the chainsaw, removing his curved-billed, black hat with one hand and wiping his brow with his forearm before replacing the headgear.  His brown, insulated jacket lay in the cab of the truck.

            “Hmmmgh,” Mike exclaimed, motioning hello with his hand. 

            “Hey, dad,” the man called, stepping out of his four-wheel drive, Ford F150 pickup and walking toward his father. 

            “Hrgh,” the older man responded, holding the saw with one hand.  “Where you been?”

Mike took a couple of steps toward his son, and the two men met before a pile of uncut branches.  Jim worked a bit slower, now, greeting his brother-in-law and receiving a warm greeting in return.  Randy surveyed the field of mostly cut lumber before speaking again.  “I had to fix the chain again on this old thing,” he responded, shrugging his shoulders.  “Want me to start over there?”

            The older man grunted, hefting the saw to his side and pointing toward the trees just to their right.  “Why don’t you start over there, Randy.  We’ll get these little pieces on the trailer first an’ load the big ones on top.”

 Randy stepped over the fallen limbs and positioned himself alongside one of the scattered piles before puling on the cord of his saw.  He wore tan coveralls and a pair of tan work boots.  A cigarette hung out of his mouth trailing a small, wispy trace of dark smoke behind him.  After half a dozen pulls on the cord, the saw started, and within moments, both men were cutting quickly. 

It had warmed a little although the morning air was buffeted with a north wind that felt more like late winter than early spring.  All three men’s faces had grown red.  After an hour, most of the downed limbs and some of the other trees were cut and thinned until only a few one to two foot pieces lie scattered across the ground. 

Mike began picking up some remaining smaller pieces and tossing them across the short distance of the field into the back of the trailer.  Most of the pieces landed squarely onto the bed, and soon after, they began to carry the larger pieces, throwing them atop the smaller ones.  Some of the very large pieces, parts of the trunks weighing a hundred pounds or more, sat idly on the ground until Mike bent over, wrapping his arms around the wide trunks and lifting with legs and back. 

“Shit,” he breathed as Jim approached him to help.

Grunting and swearing under his breath, Mike stood and repositioned a log in his arms, but after taking a couple of steps, he lost his footing and nearly fell, the large piece tumbling from his arms and landing on the ground only inches from his boot.

“God damn it.”

“Dad,” the younger man called out, tossing branches into the trailer and moving toward the other man, “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to get these big ones in the front of the trailer,” he yelled.  “You gotta put ‘em up front near the hitch.”

“I know,” the younger man said, “but let me help you-”

“I can get the goddamn things myself if I can just get my hands around it.”

Resisting help, Mike tried a couple more times to hoist the newly cut stump all alone, but his efforts were futile.  He half stood and pulled off his sweat-soaked gloves, holding a hand over his stomach for a few moments as Randy stood watching him in silence.  The two younger men exchanged a concerned glance.  After a few moments, Randy spoke.  “Are you alright?”

Mike stood to his more than six foot height and replied, “Grab on the other end.”

Together, Randy and Mike lifted and carried the huge piece over to the front of the trailer and tossed it over the short side rail.  It landed with a loud noise and rolled once before coming to rest against the other side of the railing.  Before long, the two men filled both the pickup bed and the trailer.  They picked up their tools and made their way toward their respective trucks.  Before long, both vehicles were moving down the gravel country road, a trail of dust rising behind them and trailing off southward across untilled fields and brown earth.

*          *          *          *          *

What has been your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that I won’t be here to watch my

grandchildren continue to grow up and become adults.[iii]

 

            It was the third birth that year, and Mike and his elderly father, Frank, rode out to the field in the pickup to assist in the delivery.  Mike had raised cattle ever since he began farming in 1975.  There were other animals that they raised, to be sure, but of all of them – pigs, chickens, and more – raising cows seemed to be something he never stopped loving.  Often he would send the call forth, and family and friends from all around would come out to help him move cattle from one field to the next, using vehicles, four-wheelers, and “hot pokers” to encourage the animals to move down one country road or another to their new home in adjacent fields.  Whether mending fences or hauling hay or corn for the animals to eat, Mike often spent hours a day out among the cattle when there was nothing to be done elsewhere.  Summer or winter, spring or fall, there was always something to do on a rural, north Washington County farm. 

            The delivery was not a clean one.  The cow lay on her side among the brambles along the outskirts of the pasture, breathing heavily, her belly large and heavy upon the ground.  Mike reached his hand into the birth canal and helped pull the young fetal animal out, and within minutes, the birth was over, and the newborn calf was standing over her mother.   Placental blood was everywhere.  But the mother never rose.  Mike and his dad worked hastily to get the cow onto her feet, but the animal was too weak, unable to stand.  Within hours, she would be dead. 

Soon after, they took the calf to the small, fenced-in field just behind the farmhouse where he and his wife would care for the animal, bottle-feeding it until it was able to join the herd.  It was nearly impossible to get any of the other new mothers to care for the calf, and the latter would require much attention until it had grown large enough to fend for itself. 

            Several days later, a neighbor drove out to the farm with a hoist and lifted the dead mother from the brambles.  The calf, all alone in the small, grassy enclosure, called out for days, bellowing over and over again, but her cries went unanswered from pasture across the nearby road.

*          *          *          *          *

How did you feel when you were first diagnosed?

I didn’t feel well in April of 2005  . . . When my doctor

told me that I had stage four liver cancer, I felt shocked.

[iv]

            So far, the change in routine had worked.  Mike and his wife began eating differently and instead of coffee, Mike had begun drinking green tea.  The kitchen counter was filled with books and magazines featuring special anti-oxidant food recipes and strategies for living with and surviving cancer.  His daughter, Pamela, had taken up the fight in her own way by participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraiser.  Each June, the extended family would gather on the track around the football field of the local Blair high school and walk all night around the candle-lit field in symbolic hope for cancer patients everywhere.  Pamela was able to help raise over $1500 dollars her first year in 2006, and in 2007, she formed her own team and raised over $3000.  Every friend and family member seemed motivated to help where they could, and even relatives who had never been raised around farms or animals volunteered to help.  Mike, though, was reluctant to receive assistance around the farm, preferring, as he always had, to do the work himself.  Occasionally, Randy or Frank would volunteer for one task or another, but Mike rarely asked.  Whether splitting logs, repairing something, or collecting and burning trash in the burn pile, Mike usually did things himself.

            In a year, his white blood cell count had dropped to under five thousand, and the weekly chemotherapy treatment and pain medications seemed to be having an effect.  Although for a couple of days after each such treatment Mike’s body would be weak and tired, he would nonetheless tread out into the shed or yard, finding one chore or another that had to be done.  Yet in the end, it was always the field to which he would return, taking his blue heeler or one or more of the three grandchildren along on the ride.

*          *          *          *          *

What has been your greatest challenge in facing the disease?

My greatest challenge has been the pain

that I am in . . . the pain is constant.[v]

 

            “Give me a hand with these.”

            Mike’s son in law obeyed without question, grabbing one end of a railroad tie with gloved hands and trying not to stumble in his tennis shoes as they hauled the timbers across the short distance to the field behind the old white, two-story farmhouse.  Mike wore his usual blue jeans, flannel shirt, Con-E-Co hat, and cowboy boots as the sun poured down its hot ray from the clear sky overhead.  He wore no gloves. 

            Mike had just returned from a doctor’s visit and chemo treatment, and his face strained with the effort.  All day he had been working, cleaning tractors and farm implements before deciding to move the massive pile of wood.  Randy worked out in the shed welding parts on his flatbed Ford.  Randy was walking toward the two men when Mike nearly stumbled and fell.

            “Not so fast!” he yelled at his younger helper, dropping the timber and bending over to catch his breath.  He held his arm tightly against one side for a few moments before bending down again to pick up the wood. 

            “Dad, why don’t you go inside?  We’ll finish this.”

            Mike motioned toward the men and grunted something unintelligible before hoisting the fallen timber.  Together, they resumed their trek and hauled the piece into the new pile.  Mike’s limp had worsened that day, a remnant of the time he was run over by one of the bulls in the field.  He had always walked, afterwards, with a slight limp, but today, it was pronounced, and he seemed, to both men, to be breathing heavier than usual. 

            After a few more minutes of working, Mike turned and made his way limping into the house.  No one said a word.  The other men finished the job.

*          *          *          *          *

What insights or advice do you have to share with others who may be diagnosed with cancer?

The best advice that I can give . . . is to keep fighting

and try and have a positive outlook on your situation.[vi]

 

            “Don’t you tell mom I said this,” Randy implored his sister over the phone the night that Pamela had visited her father and noticed that he had taken on a tremendous amount of water weight.  “But she is killing dad.”

            Just years earlier, Kathy’s mom, Gwen, had been ill for quite some time.  Before her last days, Gwen had taken on a lot of water weight, and her features had bloated quite noticeably.  The parallel was all too frightening for Pam and the family.  Thus, after finding her father in a similar condition that evening after taking her four-year-old son out to spend the night with his grandparents, she felt compelled to call several family members and share what she saw.  She cried for a long time.

            Mike and Kathy had been taking long trips since the news of his diagnosis in 2005.  They had traveled from Alaska to the Caribbean over the past two years, and Randy felt that all of this activity and traveling was having a detrimental effect on their father’s health.  There had been places, of course, where the older couple had once spoke of visiting when they retired, but now, there was an urgency that seemed to drive Mike and Kathy in everything they did.  Their father never complained.  

            “I have never seen him this bad,” Randy continued.  “About four months ago, dad started calling me and asking me for help around the farm.  He never did that before.  We used to help him with stuff, but now he calls and says, ‘It’s no rush, whenever you got time, but if you get a chance, could you mend a fence out here’ or something like that.  I have never seen him like this.”

            During his last trip to the doctor, the news wasn’t good.  It had been just over two years since Mike’s diagnosis, and it had been a physical and emotional rollercoaster.  The tumor count in his blood had risen to 15 thousand, and it took longer after each chemotherapy treatment to recover.  Doctors had increased the potency of the chemo, but Mike was nearly debilitated from the treatment, so they were forced to reduce the level of cancer fighting chemicals.  Mike seemed to move around less and less with each passing month. 

            It was decided that Pam and Randy would set up a photo shoot with all of the closest family members.  They arranged to call relatives and have them meet before a gathering Mike and Kathy were having for over 250 family and friends.  They had chosen to have a large get-together to celebrate both their 40th wedding anniversary and Mike’s 60th birthday, never admitting the family’s unspoken fear that this might be Mike’s last holiday with them.  No one ever mentioned the motivation for all of this, but the implication lingered over the family like a fog that would not recede.  Together, Pam and Randy were able to cajole and coerce some of the less frequently seen relatives to come out to Herman, Nebraska for the photo session. 

            That night, Mike was up until four o’clock in the morning writing thank you notes to all who had attended and brought gifts. 

            The next day, he barely moved from his chair.

*          *          *          *          *

            The three grandchildren ran across the living room and into the kitchen, laughing and giggling.  All three were wearing socks, and Colby, the youngest, slid and fell on the linoleum floor when his older cousins, Dillon and Taylor, suddenly stopped just in front of him.  Everybody in the kitchen laughed profusely.  Dinner was over, and they had just discovered toys hidden in an old tin can that grandma had placed inside the children’s toy box, and the newest discovery was too much for the youngsters to just set aside.  Held within were several odd toys and some tops that their grandparents had played with when they were kids.

            “Grandpa, grandpa,” they cried, gathering around the man, “Will you play with us?”

            Mike smiled and put his hand on the younger grandchild’s head, messing his hair.  “Come on,” he answered, and together the four of them walked into the living room.

            The children spilled the contents of the can on the floor while their grandpa seated himself beside them, grimacing momentarily until he had sat down. 

            They played together until it began to grow dark and the grandchildren had to go home. 

            Afterward, Mike rose slowly and saw the kids and their parents off.  Back inside, he removed his boots, his face grimacing, before sitting heavily upon his chair, closing his eyes, thinking, perhaps, of one chore or another that had to be done.  Often he could not sleep at all, but he slept, now, a broken sleep, dreams marred by pain.

            Mike awoke to find the sun not yet risen over the hills in the East.  He rose from his chair, made his way into the bathroom, came out a few minutes later, and put on his boots, hat and dusty brown jacket before heading outdoors, the white screen door banging heavily behind him as myriad cats of all ages and sizes emerged from under shed and bush to greet their morning visitor.  The sound of that slamming door was like a dinner bell for all of the farm animals. 

            Stepping carefully over one of the little orange kitties who had not moved quickly enough, others gathered around his feet, purring audibly.  Even their blue heeler, Maggie, had come down from her sleeping place upon the stepped-like, low-inclined roof of the farmhouse to greet her master.  Mike bent over and scooped up an orange and white-striped, long-haired cat in his hands, holding it firmly to his chest while stroking its fur in the cool morning air.  The cat meowed several times as the man petted the animal before he placed it back upon the ground to join its hungry companions.  Mike opened the door to the white, paint-chipped shed that stood just outside the house, scooping dry cat food from an open sack and pouring it into several bowls that lay just outside the shed. 

            After a few moments, the man turned and made his way to the barn. Limping noticeably and holding his hand close against his stomach, he opened the sliding metal doors of the large wood and tin structure.  Within minutes, he had filled the four-wheeler’s gas tank and drove out of the building, heading out over the hill onto the rough, gravel that lay just ahead.



[i] “Washington County Purple Periodical,” February, 2007 Interview with Michael J. Smith.

 [ii] Ibid

 [iii] Ibid

 [iv] Ibid

 [v] Ibid

 [vi] Ibid

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