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Arizona Daily Wildcat
Labor Day was a pretty boring holiday for most of my life - no televised parades or ceremonial feasts. I pretty much ignored it. That changed two years ago, sitting in my Yuma dorm room on Labor Day.
It was simple: I work at summer camps for children with terminal illnesses and I got a phone call that one of my boys had died.
I remember looking out the window, feeling like I was sinking into the floor.
I'll blow my whistle all day about atheism or smoking, but I can barely write about Shawn dying. Now, a friend's mother just died of cancer and I find myself looking for something to say. I want to be strong, tossing off platitudes about how people find strength and rise to difficult circumstance, but the truth of the matter is that losing someone to cancer is among the worst things that can happen.
My own experience has been as a sort of outsider, spending a week with kids doing the usual summer camp routine of fishing, hiking and eating greasy food. The tremendous part is how often you forget that anyone is sick.
I've had 8-year-olds push me to exhaustion before noon. The fact that they were on chemotherapy was irrelevant compared to the serious business of singing stupid songs and figuring out how to break into the girls' cabins at night. Without a doubt, seeing these very sick kids raise hell has been the best thing in my life.
When Shawn died, I had known him for just about six days, and here I am two years later, just about to cry. I can't imagine, literally, what it must be like to lose someone who's been present in your life as long as you remember. Every day, we should be overcome by gratitude for not having to endure such a trial.
I don't believe in God, making it hard for me to offer some hope of a better world waiting for the dead. As an aside, it was seeing children die of cancer that solidified my atheism.
Spare me the stuff about a better plan beyond our comprehension. It should never happen to anyone, and if a god existed who could give children cancer, it would not be worthy of worship To me, it seems more like cruel, blind luck.
To those in pain, all I can say is that strength follows.
This summer I got to see an example of such incredible strength: We had a camper named Nicki, whose cancer was getting very advanced, and she wasn't sure if she was going to be able to make it through a week at camp.
I had the duty of talking to her, doing everything in my power to get her to come. It was difficult, as the night before she'd had a nightmare that she'd died at camp. I spent an hour talking to her, mentioning all the cute boys she'd doubtlessly meet at camp and all the fun of sleeping outside with ticks. By the time I'd convinced her to come, her oncologist called and denied permission for her to attend. It was obvious why. She turned to me, her head wrapped in a silk handkerchief, and said "I'll come next year."
Perhaps my favorite story from camp involves a muggy, scalding day in central Florida. I was stuck on a lake, rowing Shawn around and providing nutrient-rich blood for mosquitoes. I was in hell, tired and sunburned. Happiness could be described as the opposite of how I felt then. Suddenly, Shawn turned to me and said, "This is Awesome." He was beaming. I was stunned by my own ingratitude.
I am humbled by those children and the parents who love them. Such an intense and honest appreciation of life makes me seem like the world's biggest idiot. We are so lucky, just to be here. We don't love each other enough. We don't sing or dance enough. It takes a sudden, unexpected death to snap us awake, to show the marvel of life. All the stupidity of classes, relationships and money pale.
This is Awesome. Be strong. Sing life.
Brad Wallace is a creative writing and molecular and cellular biology senior. His column, Handful of Dust, appears every Tuesday.