Friday, February 3, 2017

Why I Am The Way I Am

I learned a lot about myself on this trip to visit family. I flew in Wednesday, and flew back home Saturday. I stayed with my parents, both of whom are in their eighties. Both of my sisters live nearby, along with some of my nieces and nephews and three adorable grand-nieces. Am I really a grand-uncle? Why, yes I am. The grandest, of course. But I wonder how much these young beauties will remember about this visit, and the old man they met this week. I'm afraid there hasn't been enough time for us to really get to know each other. That's what this visit was all about. Time.

It was my first time flying anywhere since I was diagnosed, and my first time seeing my immediate family in three years. Here are two factors that will give you some idea of the family I come from. The last time I was here, three years ago, it was for my parents' 60th wedding anniversary. That's number one. And the reason I'm here now is because my two sisters paid for my airfare as a Christmas present for my mom and dad. Those two things alone tell you something about these people who shaped who I am.

My youngest sister, Lynda, picked me up at the airport and drove me to my parents' house, about an hour's drive. On the way there, Lynda made a couple of comments that I found very revealing. At one point, she was laughing about how she had managed to turn all of her kids into University of Michigan fans, even though none of them had attended the school, or even lived in the state! I asked if none of her kids had rebelled and decided to root for a different team. You know, just to be different. She replied, "No, Mark, I never had a you." Meaning a kid who had to be different, just because. Never had a me. Hmmm...

And when I look at my family, I can see it's true. I'm the only rebel in three generations. And on much more important issues than sports teams. In terms of my view of the world, politics, lifestyle, the music I like, you name it. I always had to be different. Why that is, I'm not sure. But being back here with the ones who stayed when I was the one who went off on my own all those years ago makes me wonder. Why am I the way I am?

I'll admit, I came into this trip with some trepidation and a bit of an agenda. I thought there might be deep issues that needed to be discussed. Cards that might need to be laid on the table. But all of those preconceptions melted away the moment I saw my sister. The one who said she never had a me. From that moment on, this became a time to treasure. It's a gift of time that was as needed as it was unexpected, for all of us.

I've always been a free spirit. Always marched to the beat of a different drummer. And living thousands of miles away from my family for the past 39 years or so has only accentuated those differences. But as in many other areas of my life, cancer has changed my outlook. And being here now with my family, it's made me think much more about how rich I am to come from such people as these. It's gotten me thinking about our similarities rather than our differences.

Both of my sisters teach. One is a college professor who spends her life teaching and mentoring university students. The other has worked with developmentally disabled children for more than thirty years. I've recorded with kids for many years, but mentoring was never high on my list of things to do until cancer came calling. Now, as you know, it's one of the great joys of my life. Just one small way I'm learning to be more like my sisters. But from my perspective, the big difference between them and me is they learned how to serve others without cancer. It took a life-threatening diagnosis to wake me up.

Then there are my parents. My mom has arthritis, and my dad suffers from constant, pounding headaches. Neither ever complains. If you think I exhibit grace in affliction, if you think I have a positive attitude, it's because I have them as a model. If you think I have faith, they were the ones who imprinted their faith on me.

My dad is also the reason I'm such a big softie. My tendency to bless others, to make speeches, and to cry at the slightest provocation all come from him. The last time our friends Derek and Amber visited us, Derek said, "I thought it was Lupron that made Mark so sweet. Now we know it's his dad!" Yup. Pretty much.

So this time I get to spend with family is very precious. None of us knows if we'll get another chance to do this. So we're doing our best to make the most of it. It's too bad we haven't treated past visits this way, but that's human nature. None of us are promised tomorrow, but we act like tomorrow's a sure thing all the time.

Today wasn't promised for someone I didn't get to see on this trip. My main college professor, voice teacher, college choir director, mentor and friend passed away last December. Other than my parents, he shaped the man I became more than anyone else during my formative years. He was universally respected and loved by everyone who ever sat under his tutelage. I missed my chance to spend any more time with him by about a month. But I did get to see his widow this week and pay my respects. It gave me great joy to tell her what her late husband had meant to me. He's another big reason why I'm the way I am.

I won't go into the other telling remark my youngest sister made on the drive to my parents' house from the airport. It's not germane to this post. But it showed how well she knows me. Let's just say she totally busted me on my assertion that I'm done "running the show." In fact, I'm planning one more big show, and I intend to make sure everything happens the way I want it to. And I won't even be there for it, if you know what I mean.

But that's the way I am. I'm a firstborn, after all. Each of us is a product of our environment, no matter how far we run or how much we try to rebel. And I discovered on this trip that I'm not as different from my family as I thought. Nor would I want to be, in all the best ways. #waroncancer


  1. Different drummer? First born? Been there! Done that!

    Cancer? No. Wife's kidney failure and dialysis to deal with instead.

    I love to hear when God Shares His Wisdom with someone and Grants that someone His Understanding. It puts so much of one's experience into Proper Focus. Praise Him that you have had to "deal" with this Blessing. Me? Been there! Still loving it when it happens.

  2. I was living in Wisconsin when i got divorced (jeez over 20 years ago) i moved back here and shortly thereafter made a trip to Oregon, Washington, and down to SoCal to visit family. It seemed like the right thing to do, to reconnect and such. It was a great trip, some me time to heal, driving through the Northwest, and seeing family that I hadn't seen in years. I certainly do not have a Norman Rockwell group of relatives but what I came away was is this: They may be a dysfunctional family, but they are MY dysfunctional family.
    And i love them
    I am glad you were able to make that trip my brother!