The Duncan Banner

June 23, 2013

You can go home, despite the ‘Three Who’s’

Jeff Kaley
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — It’s been over 10 years since I moved out of sports writing and began writing a column for the editorial page. Every so often this year I’m rerunning a piece from the first year of the transition. This column first appeared in The Duncan Banner in May 2003


Thomas Wolfe was wrong — you can go home again. The trick is: When returning to the place of your birth, go with guarded expectations.

And if you’re a Baby Boomer making the trip, pack two things for sure: 1. A realization that as much as things have changed, things have stayed the same; and, 2. A medical dictionary you can use for reference, when everybody your age or older talks about the ravages of time on mind and body.

As April ended, it had been nearly four years since I’d gone back to my little town, Robinson, Illinois. I have wonderful memories of growing up in the community of 6,400 near the Wabash River, and my parents, several family members and most of my oldest friends still live in the area. Thus, I headed to the Prairie State to be spiritually replenished.

However, the trip became more like a tour of a M.A.S.H. unit.

See, something happens when you hit 50ish and every one you grew up with is 50ish or older, and all the folks who were adults when you were young have become “seniors.”

Although the six-day ventured was filled with laughter, family togetherness, pleasant nostalgia and brotherhood, lots of time was devoted to three topics: Who’s sick. Who’s dying. Who’s dead.

My journey began with a stop north of Champaign to visit my best male friend’s digs. His wife is a three-year survivor of breast cancer and his mother is afflicted with terminal cancer. Obviously, health crept into our conversation.

Six nights later, in Robinson, I attended the American Cancer Society Relay for Life at the high school. That’s where I got together with another close compadre; the guy who gave me my first job in journalism with the ringing endorsement, “You can’t be any worse than the sports editor I have now!”

Last Saturday evening, though, Larry Howe Lewis was one of about 120 cancer survivors who walked laps at the fund-raiser. In the past year, Larry had lost so many innards to the Big C that he cryptically joked, “I don’t have to worry about being an organ donor!”

That’s how the trip began and ended — who’s sick, who’s dying and who’s dead. In between, there was much warmth and may a yarn was woven or rewoven. But there was also much, much discussion of the “Three Who’s”.

The day I arrive at my parents’ house, I discovered Mom had pretty well defined the parameters of conversation that would transpire between me and my pacemaker-packin’ pop. On my bed was a 1-foot square cardboard sign that read: “Please don’t talk to your Dad about sensitive subjects. Love, Mom.”

With politics, the war in Iraq, the state of the economy and other “sensitive subjects” being deemed verboten, three days of conversations with my parents revolved around stories about my wife and boys and job, how the Cardinals were doing, the new basketball coach at the University of Illinois and who’s sick, who’s dying and who’s dead.

There was more. The first evening in town, I called dear friend Andrew to see how we might renew our brotherhood vows.

“Oh,” he said, “I guess you don’t know. I had a heart attack last weekend. Just got home yesterday.”

Heart attack! Andy, you’re only 56!

“Yeah,” he replied. “I had 80 percent blockage in two places in the right ventricle. They had to run a balloon through me and put in three stints.”

Uhhh, I said, does this mean we’re not going to party?

“Well, c’mon over. We’ll watch the NBA playoffs and I’ll show you some hellacious bruises!” Andrew quipped, then added, “I didn’t have any major heart damage, but it was really scary, man.”

Who’s sick. Who’s dying. Who’s dead.

One morning, I stopped to see my maternal grandmother. Grandma Helm will be 90 in a couple months and is losing the fight to stay independent. She finally had to admit a “sinus cough” was really emphysema, and her house is now wired for oxygen. (Although that hasn’t stopped her two-pack-a-day habit.)

Also during the week, I visited the grave of a good friend who died of a stroke last spring, and a high school classmate who’d been smitten by disease passed away. During several gatherings with other peers, the conversations focused on things like colons, cornea transplants and cold tablets.

Who’s sick. Who’s dying. Who’s dead.

Still, I do love going back to the land of my raising and the people there.

And on the way back to Oklahoma, I had another reason to feel revived by the visit home. Thanks to my friends and family, I realized I was in pretty good shape, comparatively speaking.

580-255-5354, Ext. 172. Kaley is managing editor of Waurika News-Democrat