U.S. literacy has not changed since 1990. So for those of you still reading, here is a spelling quiz. Spell
heroism. Well, I do not know either, but maybe if we used it in a sentence. Hmmm, how about this; heroism
is no farther or more familiar than ones everyday freedom to choose.
Here is a true story of a young fellow who didnít win seven Tour de Frances or cavort with Sheryl Crow, but
who was ravaged by the same beast as Lance Armstrong and also conquered mountains.
Jacob was a 20-something, engaging and indomitable USAF Sergeant. Suddenly, testicular cancer, worse
than Lanceís, ravaged Jakes abdomen, lungs, bones, and brain; yet not his spirit.
Weaned in rough and tumble barrios, Jake always had mountains to climb. He saw the cancer as no greater
peak than he had faced before. He embraced the diagnosis with maturity beyond his years and spent
hospital time cheering up other patients. Then all hell broke loose. Relentless nausea and vomiting; kidney
and lungs were both failing. After massive surgeries, Jake was simply too wasted to even cast a shadow.
Yes, Jake loved to climb mountains. His dream was to conquer Half Dome in Yosemite. It became his vision
quest, his reason to fight. We would talk of manly things, athletic escapades and the heroic exploits he
would have when well. When it appeared that we might loose the battle, his engaging and courageous
demeanor smote me. It was the right stuff of heady inspiration.
I saw him 12 weeks before the big showdown - the one-year mark after therapy. He was a cane-assisted,
barely walking testimonial to the carnage of his journey. His right chest wall had been partially removed and
replaced by space age alloy mesh while two titanium rods strained to support his spine. There was no
mistaking his battle-wearied seriousness as he stated calmly to me before we reviewed the test results,
'Doc, a man has to know what a battle is and what a war is. I am not going to confuse em. So, in three
months we are at a year, a year since the last chemotherapy. If it is back again, well, ah, I ainít afraid of
dying as much as I am of not ever living again É so its okay É well just find a way.'
Three months passed. There was something impish and teasingly spry about Jacob. There was a lilt in his
banter. An engaging hint of a wry smile flirted across his face. Crazy sprouts of curly black hair danced
merrily on his once bald head.
That was when he produced his prize. Unbeknownst to me, he had gathered all manner of folk who had
shared his two-year saga just outside the exam room. Beaming and bouncing, he produced his treasure
trove. It was a small banged up, seen better days, dirty cooler. With pomp and circumstance befitting a king,
he bid me to open it. Placed on a bed of mountain laurels, moist, and glistening, as were both our eyes, was
a wet, weeping ball of ice - a snowball. He handed me a photo. Plain in Gods sight and shirtless with a
deformed chest and titanium rods in his back sticking out like bionic harpoons, was Jake. He was high atop
Half Dome in Yosemite, smiling wider than the valley with his fists in the heavens and a snowball in his
hand. It snowed in my clinic that day. We both went out to play.
So, how do you spell heroism? It is not TV, CD, or DVD. How about this - m-i-r-r-o-r. Heroism is reflected in
the choices we can make everyday - to be more afraid of not ever living again, than afraid of dying. Now go
out and slay your dragons.
P.S. Jake is a father, husband, a software executive and oh yes, still a mountain climber.
Kevin Ryan is a retired Colonel, physician, musician and author who lives in Fairfield. Reach him at
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