Curtis never planned for this. At twenty-three years old, he was just beginning to live — or so he thought. He was the lineman of his high school football team, he graduated from Milwaukee School of Engineering, and he had just started his first engineering job at Johnson Controls in Wisconsin. “The scariest thought on my mind at the time was proposing to Christine (his girlfriend and my sister),” he said jokingly. Little did the former lineman know that he was soon going to face a tougher opponent than the thought of walking down the isle: a rare form of inoperable and terminal brain cancer.
Curtis was diagnosed with a grade three anaplastic astrocytoma tumor in the thalamus of his brain six months ago. From the time of the diagnosis, he began treatment — full brain radiation and oral chemotherapy. Yet, despite these efforts, the cancer spread to his optic nerve, leaving him legally blind.
“He’s the most upbeat person; he always has a smile on his face. He’s always had a special personality. Even in the face of cancer and the loss of his sight, he still remains positive,” interjected his older sister, Ginny, as I tried to start my conversation with Curtis. I knew Ginny would have a lot to say — she always does — but today I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. It was Curtis’s turn to speak. That was my first objective. Curtis is the youngest of six very outspoken kids. At times, it’s hard to get a word in. He used to be able to keep up with them and he always used to have something to say, but since his diagnosis I have watched him become a quieter version of himself. So, with this conversation I wanted to give Curtis an opportunity to speak without interruption. Therefore, as politely as I could, I turned away from Ginny in order to face Curtis and asked him if he believed what his sister said to be true?
He responded with this, “Everyone has a choice about whether or not to be happy. Everyday I choose to be happy. Besides the cancer and my loss of sight, my life is pretty good relative to other people’s lives. I have a loving and supporting family. For that, I’m thankful.”
Looking back on the conversation, I do not think the next question I asked came out right. However, my second objective for this conversation was to address Curtis’s most recent decision: discontinuing treatment. Of the two objectives, I thought I would not complete this one, but now I saw an opportunity to ask him about it. “Does that mean your family supports you in your most recent decision to discontinue treatment?”
You see, up until Curtis’s most recent MRI, the treatment seemed to be working. In other words, the tumor had been shrinking. However, the last MRI revealed the opposite: rapid progression. In light of this, Curtis reevaluated his plan of action. The chemotherapy had not been easy on him, neither had the forty-five minute drive to and from radiation treatment everyday. With this in mind, he no longer saw the point in suffering as a result of the treatment if the treatment was not working anyways. Bringing him to his decision to stop it all: the radiation and the chemotherapy.
“It wasn’t any easy decision, and it isn’t a decision I believe my family [of eight] agrees with, but I don’t want to spend what little time I have left feeling nauseous and tired all the time. I don’t want to use all the strength I have left to fight a losing battle; I want to use it to spend time with the people I love. People like you.” Then he turned to where he knew his sister, Ginny, was sitting and said, “And you.”
With that, I cried…Ginny, too. Now, I won’t deny the fact that I have shed many tears over Curtis’s diagnosis, but those tears were usually shed alone. The only other time I cried with Curtis was the day he came home from the hospital six months ago. That time, I cried because I was scared and uncertain. This time, I cried because I am grateful. Grateful for the conversation and for the time I get to spend with him — grateful for knowing him. “I will never be the same because of you, Curtis,” I told him.
Overall, the conversation with Curtis about death and dying was pretty short. We spent more time reminiscing about past memories than talking about the future uncertainties. I didn’t want to push him. Even though the length of the conversation about death was lacking, the quality of the conversation was not. Through this conversation Curtis was provided with an opportunity to explain his reasoning for discontinuing treatment, which prior to this conversation, I don’t think he had talked about in lengths.
I still struggle with the thought of life without Curtis. He has been acting as my “big brother” for nearly seven years now, but I know that when the day comes, that he is no longer with me I can simply ask myself, “What would Curtis do?” and he will guide me. In the seven years I’ve known him he has shown me true kindness — and so, I try to show others Curtis-like kindness. He has taught me the importance of knowledge beyond a textbook — and so, I try to learn in hopes that one day I’ll have Curtis-like wisdom. He radiates confidence — and so, I try to carry myself like he does. And his humor — well, no one is as funny as Curtis is. “Curtis-like humor”: many try, most fail, but all greatly admire. I could go on and on but what I’m trying to say is that Curtis has changed me for the better. So, “What would Curtis do” if the situation were reversed and I was the one who was sick and dying? He would crack a joke and tell me, “I love you kid.” And so, upon leaving him after our day together, I didn’t attempt a joke, because I already established Curtis-like humor is an out-of-reach aspiration, but I did do the latter. I gave him a hug and said, “I love you, Curtis,” and with that, he sent me on my way back home so I could continue living my life to the fullest like he is trying to do with his.
Love is a losing game. She sat there silently sobbing, reminiscing on the good times and bad times. She hoped to hear the doorbell ring, or a call from her phone. After hours of tears and waiting, she lost all hope. She knew he wasn’t coming back, and now she’ll have to cope.