If there is, we’ve never found it. He’s always been like that, no matter how bad it gets. When people visit, no matter how sick he is, he always gets up out of bed to hug them. If there is a limit to his kindness, I don’t know what it is. —Tara Steele
SALT LAKE CITY — The last days of Dov Siporin were not what he expected.
But the 40-year old Salt Lake man's life was not exactly what he thought it might be, either.
The moment his plans veered from training for an Ironman triathlon to fighting metastatic colorectal cancer, Siporin has been a study in resilience.
In fact, his ability to adapt may be exceeded only by his generosity. His decision to embrace an unexpected, even unwelcome path with the giddiness of a 7-year-old at Disneyland made him one of the most unpredictable and beloved patients to be treated at Huntsman Cancer Institute.
And that explains why, despite being terminally ill for years, his death in the early morning hours of March 26 rocked the community of patients, families and staff who'd come to see him as an inspiration.
“He will (be greatly missed),” said Dr. John Weis, who treated Siporin for the last 7 ½ years. “There’s no question he will. There’s no question that his death has shaken many patients to their core. He was immortal to many people.”
Just another patient
Ironically, Siporin never set out to be anything special. He was just another cancer patient trying to find a way to rid his body of a brutal disease. It was his insistence on accepting, even embracing all of life’s offerings with authenticity that turned him into something of a cancer-fighting hero.
To his family, he was just a more purposeful version of the man he’d always been.
“He has been so healthy, so strong, so exactly like himself,” said his wife, Tara Steele, just 28 hours before Siporin died on March 26. “It hasn’t changed him. It just focused who he is. He’s always been this kind of crazy but generous-spirited person. This has brought that out in him so much.”
If he felt like crying, he wept. If he felt like laughing, he made jokes.
If Siporin felt grateful, he grabbed several bags of candy and wandered through the infusion room where cancer patients endure chemotherapy treatments and talked to them in a way few people do — or can.
Setting tone of humor
Siporin said more than once that his first radiation treatment set the tone for how he would fight his disease. He was terrified as he waited for radiation treatment that would burn the tumor growing in his colon.
“My wife is there and we’re trying to figure out what to do to make this something fun, to get through it,” he said. “I get one of my kids' markers and I write a big smiley face on my (butt).”
The somber room erupted in laughter when they moved his gown to administer the radiation, and he found his weapon for what would become a 7 ½-year war.
“At that moment I realized, ‘We’re going to do this,’” he said. Siporin enlisted the help of his wife in writing “quotes of the day” on his rear end — starting with, “Does this radiation make my butt look big?”
From the moment he found his footing, he offered whatever help he could to whoever needed it.
'I want to help'
“Dov walked in the Huntsman Cancer Foundation offices within weeks of being diagnosed. With a gallant bow, (he) said, ‘I want to help’,” recalled Lori Kun, director of development for Huntsman Cancer Foundation. “From that moment, it was a series of yeses. ‘Yes, I will speak in front of 10,000 people.’ ‘Yes, I will help you with a commercial.’ ‘Yes, I will share my story to anyone who it will help.'
"He had an air of gratitude that he was standing on the shoulders of those who had funded cancer research or who had worked on cancer research. He never stopped saying thank you — a true genuine thank you. He became our very best ambassador and a force for good because there was love in his eyes — always. People connected with him immediately.”
Siporin's wife said that while much of the world will remember him for his silly costumes and relentless (and creative) pranks, she’ll always remember his grateful heart.
“It makes me sound so corny,” Steele said with a little laugh as her daughter snuggled on her lap and her husband slept fitfully in a nearby bed. “He makes me look at this world with a lot more gratitude. I think that’s one of his most amazing traits. He has so much gratitude. He walks around and talks to the janitors and tells them how much he appreciates the amazing work they do keeping everything beautiful. He thanks everybody for doing things they do everyday but nobody notices that they do them. And he says thank you.”
Steve Scoville, a registered nurse with Inspiration Hospice who helped transition Siporin from the hospital to home for his final two weeks, said Siporin’s approach may have been unique, but it resonated with so many people in so many different situations, including himself.
His connection to Siporin was so significant, he said he felt cheated he didn’t get more time with him.
“I think it was his approach. His subversive approach to terminal illness was something that was remarkable and entertaining and, um, hopeful,” Scoville said. “There was so much more I wanted to hear from him.”
Siporin, who earned a degree from the University of Utah, was often a mixture of clarity, philosophy and seventh-grade playground humor. Sometimes that goulash was served to unsuspecting strangers, who almost always become fast, loyal friends.
Scoville said they discussed what it meant to admit that there were no more treatments available to a guy who’d promised to fight to his last breath.
“He had a list of things he needed to do,” Scoville said, a smile spreading across his face. “One of those things was poop. He needed to poop. And then, another one was processing what it was to give up.”
Reasons to laugh
A self-described introvert, Steele said her husband’s playful approach to most challenges has likely helped her avoid some of the dark places that feel so inviting when one is suffering. He may have seen cancer as his enemy, but he didn’t let hate or resentment consume him. He was able to acknowledge the harsh realities of his life while finding reasons to laugh and celebrate.
“We’ve met so many amazing people,” Steele said. “We talked about this a little while ago, maybe a year or so ago. If somebody came to us and said, 'We can take this away; you will never have had cancer, and you’ll just go back to where you were six years ago, everything will be perfectly normal. But the down side of that is that you never meet any of these people, you never have any of these experiences, would you take it?' And we said, ‘Yeah, we’d take it.’ Because you’d have to be crazy not to, but it would actually be a wrenching decision to lose everything we’ve gotten, all the amazing friends we’ve made and the experiences we’ve had.”
Siporin said he’s lucky that so many people find his way of coping socially acceptable. But Steele said his choice in using humor, love and gratitude to cope with the brutal reality of his situation gave others permission to find their own way as well.
“I think it just gives people permission to feel everything they’re feeling,” Steele said. “With cancer, there tends to be a lot of, ‘You have to be upbeat,’ ‘You have to be strong,’ and ‘You’re fighting a battle,’ and that’s helpful some of the time. And kind of hard to live up to some of the time. He always talked to people about how they really are, and not how they feel they have to be in front of other people.”
Siporin was adamant about sharing his story even when he couldn’t complete a sentence without stopping to catch his breath. He smiled his big, face-consuming grin and chuckled when told how others might characterize him.
“People tend to make cancer patients into something they’re not or into more than they are,” he said. “Because we’re all people. We just get stuff placed in our path, and we try to figure out our way through it.”
He said to only talk about the joy, the laughter, the triumphs was to only tell half the story.
“I think the pain is important,” he said. “I think the loss is important.”
When asked if she’s ever surprised by her husband’s capacity for kindness, for generosity, Steele lets the tears fill her eyes before she answers.
“If there is, we’ve never found it,” she said. “He’s always been like that, no matter how bad it gets. When people visit, no matter how sick he is, he always gets up out of bed to hug them. If there is a limit to his kindness, I don’t know what it is.”
And then Siena, still curled in her mother’s embrace, softly adds to what her mother has said. “It’s outer space,” she said of her dad's capacity for giving.
The 7-year-old and her 10-year-old brother, Matan, which means "gift" in Hebrew, have been involved in their father’s journey in a way few children are.
“It’s worked for us,” Steele said. “The kids are remarkable people. They have dealt with so much. They’ve been very strong and very loving and very giving. I think a lot of that is watching Dov do what he’s done. They’ve always seen that’s the way you deal with hard things is by being that open spirit and loving the people around you. That’s made them even more amazing than they already are.”
As Siporin prepared for his impending death, he snuggled with his children as he told them that they would get some of his ashes after he was cremated. He hoped they would spread them somewhere special so he could always be with them in that place.
Siena assured him she’d do that, but then admitted she wanted to keep a bit of her dad for herself. Just a day earlier, she showed a stranger the beautiful wooden puzzle box shaped in a star where she will treasure her father’s ashes.
Siporin stirs and Steele moves quickly from the couch to his side, checking his pain medicine and sliding a pillow under his back. After Steele returns to the couch, Siena stays by her father’s side. He opens his eyes, smiles and runs his hand over her hair still soaked from a bedtime bath. Then she returns to her mother’s lap, where questions from a reporter always lead to more stories about her dad.
His last day alive, they planned to pretend they were camping in Canada. They were going to play games, and maybe he’d tell them stories of Siena and Matan, the famous explorers.
“Marshmallows,” Siena squeaked. “Roast marshmallows.”
But his last day, much like his last decade, didn’t go as planned.
Kicked in the gut
"I'm always amazed at how strong he's been," Steele said. "We call it the kicked-in-the-gut feeling. Everything was fine, and then it was going to be a year of chemo and radiation, and then we got kicked in the gut. We found out it wasn't going to be just a year. We thought, 'We can do it; it's just going to be harder.' We believed he would be cured. Then we found out, no, that's not going to happen."
Treatment prolonged his life, and Steele said reaching out to cancer patients and their families energized him. But they always knew that couldn't last forever. In mid-March, the reality of his situation was unavoidable as doctors told him there were no more treatments available to him.
The kicked-in-the-gut feeling was a near daily occurrence in the final few weeks of Siporin's life. When he left the hospital on March 13, doctors told him to expect to live two to six months. He planned one more family vacation to Canada, a trip to Denver for the Color Run and various get-togethers with friends.
After just over a week at home, Scoville and his staff said told Siporin his decline had been quicker than anyone expected. He was told he now only had a week or two left. He responded by planning a comedy show, a night with a friend to see one last concert and the Color Run offered to bring the event to his neighborhood.
But instead of a week or two, he got three more days. He didn’t get to see that last concert, run that last 5K or stand on stage for his last comedy show. He did get to kiss his wife, express his love, embrace his children and comfort those who can’t imagine life without his antics and affection.
"Cancer ruins my plans," he said the day before he died, "and I make two more plans."
After he died, his family picked up where he left off making plans that would have delighted him. Instead of an ordinary funeral, the man who saw being surrounded by color in his final days as the ultimate victory over cancer will be celebrated in a 5K costume and Color Run on May 7.
Life awash in love
Matan and Siena take a break from playing with their young cousins to share their thoughts and memories of their dad a few days after a tearful goodbye.
"I will remember that he was always super funny,” Matan said. “He was never, um, almost never serious. And I’ll also remember the amazing three-story fort we built."
Siena holds a stuffed rabbit made for her dad by his mother, and she smiles wide when asked about her memories.
“I’ll remember that he was really funny,” Siena said. “And he never gave up fighting."
Her brother whispers to her, and she adds, "And he was always happy. He always tried to be the person that made the world better."
Neither Siporin, who was raised Jewish, nor Steele, who was raised Mormon, practices a religion. While Siporin considered himself spiritual, Steele said she is an atheist. Her comfort, she said looking around the room decorated with family photos, comes from a life awash in love.
“The impact he’s had on the world,” she said, tears glimmering in her bright, blue eyes and a smile on her lips, “it’s never going to end.”
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