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Chuck Nowlen and best friend James Carr, shortly before Carr’s wedding in the Cook County Courthouse. (Submitted photo)

Get Me the Manager: Ghosts of cancer past continue to haunt - bittersweetly

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The last time I held my mother’s frail, bony hand, she had gritted through pancreatic cancer for four cruel months, but her big, round eyes were the most radiant blue I’d ever seen.

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“Really? They are?” she asked when I told her, as if she were a kid who’d just been promised that lollipops were waiting for her in the kitchen. She smiled while trying to measure one of those long, slow sighs.

My mom was sighing almost constantly by then. She wasn’t the type who cried out in pain.

“It’s the kind of pain … that seems like it should go away soon,” she’d explained a few seconds earlier, measuring yet another, completely innocent sigh before murmuring: “But it never does.”

A little while later, my best friend knocked at the door and joined us for one of the most poignant moments of my life.

I’ll get back to that momentarily. First, an explanation of why I’m writing about this.

I was doing a phone interview two weeks ago with Karen Humphrey, Hudson’s 2014 American Cancer Society St. George Award winner. Now and then, Humphrey -- understandably -- had to choke back tears as she talked about the friends and family she’d either lost or seemed certain to lose.

I found myself choking up with her as we spoke. But at that point, anyway, it was sympathy.

Then I happened to glance at the date and time in the lower right-hand corner of my laptop and realized that it was June 20, my mother’s birthday.

She would have been 91 that day. “I always thought I’d make it to at least 90,” my clean-living, teetotaler mom had said, near the end.

Suffice to say that by the time my chat with Karen Humphrey was over, both of us were one detail away from turning into a pair of sobbing, blubbering fools.

Everybody’s waiting

It’s one thing to hear about how cancer doesn’t discriminate, how it changes people’s priorities, how it brings folks together who seem to have nothing else in common, how it rips like a permanent shotgun blast through everyone and everything it touches.

It’s another thing when it’s you. That’s when sympathy turns to empathy. And if I grasped anything when writing about Karen Humphrey and others during this year’s Hudson Relay For Life campaign, it’s that cancer stories are part of almost everyone’s life.

Including my best friend James Carr’s. He would die of bone and prostate cancer 23 months after my mom, almost to the day, on June 25, 2009. He was already starting to weaken when he knocked on my parents’ door.

I’d left him sitting in my Chevy Cavalier in the driveway. Mom had wanted it that way.

“Can we just keep this visit for the family?” she’d asked between drawn-out sighs when I said we’d be stopping by. She knew these were her final few days, and, well, she wanted to keep them as intimate as she could.

Not that she didn’t know and like James. They’d made each other laugh many times before that, and she knew that I considered him my closest brother.

“I understand completely, man,” James smiled in my car in the driveway before I went in. “I know where she’s coming from. I’ll wait right here ‘til you get back.”

James, you should know, was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio’s most notorious ghetto and, for several years, was one of the craftiest, most successful and most lethal bank robbers and stick-up men in the city’s history. He’d also been a decorated medic and Green Beret in Vietnam and was, when I knew him, the most genuine, human and intelligent man I’ve ever known.

I met him while doing a magazine story on gangs and drugs in Madison in 1991. We were odd-couple inseparable for the next 18 years.

I spent most holidays with James and his family; we got together at least once a week for a fight or a ballgame on TV; and we talked every day. I was the best man at his wedding -- ironically, in a Cook County judge’s office in Chicago.

My mom and the rest of my family? Whitebread and small-town suburban through and through.

Hauntings begin?

So nobody knew exactly how to handle it when James knocked on the back door and strode -- all 6-foot-4 of him -- into my parents’ living room, offering sheepishly, ”I’m sorry, man; I know y’all weren’t expecting me. I couldn’t help but come on in.”

He sat with my mother across the room, holding both of her hands in his, looking into her eyes and either talking to her in his low, Barry White voice or whispering in her ear. She seemed totally enthralled the whole time. We all left them alone.

As they were finishing about 15 minutes later, they hugged for a long time. My mom clasped his hands again, pumped them up and down weakly, and said to him, “Thank you James. Thank you so, so much. I love you too. I really do.”

Two days later, I was meditating in my St. Paul apartment after a frenzied day at work, and suddenly -- I swear to God -- my mother appeared, happy as can be, with the following words:, ‘Hi there, Chuckie. Just thought I’d pop in.’”

I think I actually laughed out loud. Soon the phone jerked me awake. It was my sister Julie.

“Oh, Chuck,” she said, gulping through an extended pause of her own. “Um … Mom just died. About a minute ago.”

Twenty-three months later, I was alone in a suburban Madison hospice with my best friend James, who’d been in a coma there for a week. For some odd reason, the Tibetan Book of the Dead was on my mind, and I decided to mutter what I thought would be a Buddhist joke in his ear before I left:

“I love you, my brutha. But I gotta head back. Just watch out for them wrathful deities, man – cuz they’ll be #%in’ with ya.”

As sure as I was standing there, he exhaled a faint chuckle. But he never revived.

I was just north of Black River Falls on my way home when I knew that my best friend was gone now too.

See this column’s title? Right in front of the headline? This time out, it's aimed a little higher than usual. I think anyone with a cancer story might know what I mean.

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Chuck Nowlen
Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.
(715) 808-8286
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