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Jeff Benedict: Relative's illness a reminder that life is a gift

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 8:27 a.m. MDT

Lydia Benedict and her brother Douglas Hansen, who has leukemia. (Provided by Jeff Benedict) Lydia Benedict and her brother Douglas Hansen, who has leukemia. (Provided by Jeff Benedict)

NEW YORK — I got out of bed at 4 a.m. in rural Virginia last Tuesday and headed for the airport to catch a 6 a.m. flight to New York. At 8:15, I touched down at LaGuardia. By 9, I was jogging in Central Park. I had a 9:30 breakfast appointment at a nearby hotel. But I needed to squeeze in a run. I had a lot on my mind.

Last week, my wife's brother was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia (AML). He's 44 and has a wife and six children. His AML — a blood-borne cancer that compromises bone marrow and floods the bloodstream with leukemia cells that travel to other organs — is so advanced that he's on an unusually aggressive course of daily chemotherapy combined with a powerful new cancer drug. If the chemo and drug tandem works — and that's a big if at this point — he will still need a bone marrow transplant.

The suddenness and uncertainty are bewildering. "I don't know what is going to happen to me," my brother-in-law told me through tears.

His tears made me cry. Until now, I've never heard my brother-in-law cry. He may be the most rugged man I know. Drop him in the mountains with a couple of canteens, a hatchet, some matches and a buck knife and he'd do just fine on his own for weeks. He'd eat well, stay warm and dry and sleep fearlessly under the stars. He's a real-life survivor.

But surviving cancer is a different story. The IV bags and the blood transfusions and … the … shortness … of … breath make that clear. It's a jarring reminder that we all live on borrowed time. Life is a gift with an expiration date. That's what was on my mind as I jogged through Central Park.

Normally when I run, I listen to AC/DC or Van Halen or U2 — the sort of music that makes me run much harder and faster than my 46-year-old body prefers. But on this occasion I was running to appreciate life. So I scrolled through the menu on my iPhone and selected "Home (When Shadows Fall)," written by composer Peter van Steeden in 1931 and later performed by Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and others.

Evening brings the close of day,

Skies of blue begin to grey,

Crimson hues are fading in the west.

Evening ever brings to me

Dreams of days that used to be,

Memories of those I love the best.

When shadows fall

And trees whisper, "Day is ending,"

My thoughts are ever wending home.

When crickets call,

My heart is forever yearning

Once more to be returning home.

Running to these words, I felt the sun warm my face and I looked at people going through different stages of life.

A mother with her little girl wearing a princess dress, tiptoeing like a ballerina on a curb.

A businessman in a dapper blue suit, gripping a leather briefcase, hustling along the footpath.

An elderly woman limping along with her poodle.

A homeless man curled up on cardboard under a tree.

A slim, college-age girl in a form-fitting "Columbia" T-shirt, texting on her pink iPhone.

A father and son sitting on a park bench, sharing a doughnut.

I ran more slowly than usual. I took more in. That's how I feel about life right now. I want to take more in. But then I looked up and saw the CNN clock above the southwest corner of the park: 9:25.

I sprinted to my meeting. Sweating and wearing shorts and a Red Sox cap, I met my close friend Rob Wallace outside the Empire Hotel. He is Barbara Walters' longtime senior producer. A few years ago, he produced Walters' two-hour special for ABC called "Heaven." It featured interviews with leaders from many world religions discussing the afterlife.

ABC will re-air an updated version of the heaven special next month. This time around, Walters wanted to include a Mormon voice. That's where I come in. Rob asked me to approach church officials in Salt Lake City in hopes of getting a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to sit down with Walters and answer questions.

The LDS Church sent Elder William R. Walker of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He and an associate were waiting to meet Rob and me inside the Empire. Over breakfast, Rob asked Elder Walker questions. Is there an afterlife? Who will be there? What is the purpose of this life?

A few hours later, Elder Walker faced those same questions from Barbara Walters. The setting was a chapel that's inside the building that houses the Mormon temple in Manhattan. As I sat there, I thought about the significance of those questions. Especially that last question — what is the purpose of this life?

Then I thought of my brother-in-law. I thought of his wife. I thought of his children. Then I thought of my wife and my children. Like most people I know, I value my family more than anything.

Last night when I went to bed, I slowly ran my fingers over my wife's forehead. I did it again and again until she fell asleep. I was tired but I didn't want to sleep. The moon was shining through the window, illuminating the pretty face that lay sleeping beside me. I just wanted to keep seeing. Life is short.

Jeff Benedict is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 11 books. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.

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