Saturday, February 23, 2013

Courage and Death

     Lieutenant Colonel Mark Weber is dying.  Prior to deployment, he decided to have a doctor look at an ulcer that had given him problems in the past -- just to be safe.  An endoscopy uncovered a lesion in his stomach, and then a CT scan uncovered something worse.  Stage IV Cancer.  Mark Weber -- husband and father of three young sons -- was not even 40.
     I first heard about Mark Weber while drinking a cup of coffee in a waiting room, waiting for my car to be fixed.  A television was on, set to the news, and General David Patraeus was asked what has given him strength following the extramarital affair that ended his illustrious career and tarnished his legacy.  I looked up at the television, expecting to hear him say something like prayer or friends, and then maybe he would elaborate a bit about either one.  But no.  He immediately mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Mark Weber's book, Tell My Sons.  He said it had helped him put life into perspective, and that he should be grateful for what he had.  Something like that.  No, it wasn't groundbreaking, but I was interested.  I wanted to read it.   I went home and bought a copy for my Kindle.  I finished it in three days.  

     The "dying man's memoir," if written well, is a good read; and it sells  (e.g., Tuesdays with Morrie).  Randy Pausch, a computer science professor who died from pancreatic cancer in 2008 made a huge splash with the publication of his book The Last Lecture.  Before he died, Mr. Pausch's book (which is about achieving your childhood dreams) had sold thousands of copies, made the NY Times bestseller list, and the lecture that started it all, has -- as of now -- 15 million views on YouTube.   Tell My Sons is cut from similar cloth -- it is written as an open letter to his three children.  He writes about beginnings, dreams realized, leadership aphorisms, significant impressions of people and places; and as a man who spent many years as an army officer, a large part of the book is about his time in service.  He uses all these to paint a picture for his children about what made him the man he is today, the men he hopes his sons become, and the life best lived in the time we all have on this earth.

     Weber's ordeal is horrific. I can't think of a better (or worse for that matter) word for it.  After going through a procedure called a whipple -- in which parts of the cancer are removed but along with it, large parts of vital organs as well (i.e., his liver) -- he battles the constant side effects: leaking puss (into and out of his body), sepsis, fevers, and constant pain -- and that's just a few of them.  But he has the heart of a stoic and a solider.  He names the various abscesses and open wounds.  He finds humor in little things; he remembers to laugh.  And eventually he goes back to work.  As a naval officer and expecting father of a baby boy, If I'm half the man Mark Weber is, then I'll be just fine.
     In an interview with the NY Times, the writer George Saunders talked about the time he almost died in a plane crash.  They had hit a flock of geese, smoke was billowing into the plane, but somehow they made it back to Chicago O'hare intact and alive.  He said "for three or four days after that it was the most beautiful world.  To have gotten back in it, you know?  And I thought, if you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it's actually going to end..."
     My guess is he's living everyday with that awareness.  His book is a reminder for you to live your life.  We will all go, and maybe not on our own terms.  Mark Weber knows his time is coming, and his ability to face death on his terms, and to talk about it, well, it is a beautiful and courageous thing.

I recommend you read it.

Visit his webpage and view more pictures here.
Finally, here's his "last lecture" -- Army Style.

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