New Year’s Eve, 2001. Most of my friends and family were celebrating the hope of what a new year brings… more success, more memories, more growth, more everything.
Do you remember where you were?
I was naked in a bathtub for two hours, lying fetal-sideways in water long since chilled by the air of the bathroom. I was shivering, but in too much pain to move. I had popped Advil numbers 13-16 before I had submerged myself, and they had stopped dulling the agony about an hour into what was becoming a frightening routine.
I have always said that nothing affects your life more adversely than pain. I had started having nightmares about it, even before I would get into bed. Instead of daydreaming about the new burgeoning love with the woman who would become my wife, I would think of nothing but how I was going to be able to fall asleep when it simply hurt too much to lie down. And once I was able to get myself horizontal, I would try in vain to stop immersing myself in the terror of not only repeating this cycle, but the anguish of knowing that it would be hours before my body would give in to the exhaustion.
I had nothing but time to think of how once I did wake up from three hours of sleep (four if I was lucky), my physical torment would start the moment I made my first roll to escape my bed.
This was my life almost every day for the better part of three months. I had been physically miserable long before, but the true torture started around the first week of December, 2001.
In reality, it should have been the happiest time of my life. I had met and fallen in love with Stephanie, I was working for a syndicated morning radio show, and I was producing videos for a local company that seemed to make a difference. For the first time in my adult life, I truly had a fairy tale existence.
But like all classic fairy tales, there had to be a villain. The villain was a faceless rogue who seemed to take great delight in slowly extinguishing any thoughts of happiness I had.
This villain was cancer, and he was not only killing me physically: emotionally, I was all but finished.
Eleven years after that New Year’s Eve, I felt what was an almost painful shock of energy that coursed through my veins. I had just arrived in Port Au Prince, Haiti in January of 2012. It was a whirlwind of frenetic activity just getting from the plane to the car. Wayne Elsey, the man who had brought me down to help tell his story through video, gave me a few things to remember:
“Stay with us at all times.”
“Don’t let go of your bags. Airport guys will try to physically take them out of your hands.”
“Keep your eyes open.”
His words were unsettling, and entirely accurate. About thirty porters tried to physically take my camera case out of my hands. They weren’t trying to steal it, but they didn’t want to pass up the chance to make a buck by not only getting me to a cab, but forcing me to actually take back what had been previously mine via the almighty dollar. And it was very loud. There seemed to be a sea of faces yelling at you to “Come this way,” or “Go that way.” I would be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable.
We loaded into the truck that our amazing guide, Annie, had brought to pick us up. As we started out into traffic, I found myself trying to get my camera ready to film everything I could, but as it was dusk, almost nothing was registering on the viewfinder. So I closed it up, and I tried to wrap my mind around what I was experiencing… the traffic, the tap-cabs (public transportation in Haiti), and the smell.
All of a sudden, Wayne pointed his finger off into the distance. I looked out the window, and my world changed in an instant. I saw a completely darkened tent-city that consumed an entire park, sprung up from a devastating earthquake two years prior. My whole body jolted in that unmistakable way when you hear or see something you just can’t believe, even while staring at it.
The next day, I found myself standing in the middle of a tent city located just outside our exquisite hotel. I took out the camera and started filming houses that were made from plastic sheets and corrugated metal slabs and tarps and zip-ties. There was no electricity, no running water, no anything. The smell almost knocked me down on two occasions. I caught myself breathing through my mouth… a lot.
And then in the corner of the view finder, I saw a baby, no more than ten months old. He wore a shirt and nothing else. And he didn’t crawl. He walked like a bear, hands and feet, because it hurt too much to crawl across the concrete.
I seriously could not believe what I was seeing. I looked at Wayne, a man who has made it his personal mission to help the people of Haiti, and simply asked, “How do they keep going?”
“Hope, Dan. Hope.”
According to Dictionary.com, the first definition of hope is “the feeling that what is wanted can be had, or that events will turn out for the best.”
When Wayne said, “hope,” what he was really saying was that these people knew exactly what was going on. They made no bones about the fact that they were living in earth’s version of hell. But they also knew that by work, luck, and faith, things would get better. They were, and are, a hopeful people.
They may be some of the last hopeful people on earth.
And it brings me back to that bathtub on New Year’s Eve all those years ago. It wasn’t simply the pain that was dragging me into oblivion. Truth be told, I had lost hope. All of this occurred pre-diagnosis. I didn’t know I had cancer. All I knew was that I had unimaginable back pain, possibly the side effect of a roll-over Jeep accident five years prior.
I’m Catholic, so it was never in my mind to end it. But I did pray to God, and I told Him that while I wouldn’t commit suicide, I couldn’t picture my life for another forty years in that kind of pain, and I would not be upset if He did something about it.
This past weekend, much like one of my 2001 nights, I could not get comfortable to fall asleep. It was about 11:30, and while flipping through the channels, I found and caught the last hour-ten of Cinderella Man, the film based on the life of boxer Jim Braddock. If you haven’t seen it, nor heard of Braddock, he was a professional boxer… or construction worker…depending on the day. He was a common man, poor, at one point on welfare, and a husband and father. He worked hard, but was not particularly successful at anything he did. In other words, he was someone with whom the people in that era of the Great Depression could relate. He truly was one of them.
In a time in this country that looked not unlike Haiti in 2012, Braddock was given what he thought would be a final chance… a fight that would put food on the table for his family for a few weeks. In what was considered an upset at the time, Braddock won the fight. And then he won again. And again. A man past whatever prime he might have had, Jim Braddock found himself fighting for the world championship against Max Baer… a man so ferocious that he’d killed two other men in the ring.
Not many gave Braddock a chance to win against Baer. Many didn’t think he would even survive. Yet to all who followed what he was doing, he had already won their hearts. When Braddock’s wife showed up at a church to pray for Jim’s safety in the Baer fight, she found the place completely packed. The priest simply said, “Jim gives them hope.”
I’ll never forget the day that I was told I had cancer. Everything I once thought was normal went flying out the window, and creating a new normal became something more important to me than I ever thought it would.
For me, though, the diagnosis provided something that I did not expect. Because I now knew who my enemy was, I was going to be able to fight it with everything I had. I didn’t know if I would survive, but at least I knew I had a chance for my life to be better than it was. As crazy as it sounds, my diagnosis gave me hope, which was some of the fuel that gave me the energy to fight.
I’m not saying that I didn’t lose hope, because I did… all the time. Battle seven straight days of pure nausea during your first round of chemo, and hope starts waning around day four. It is invisible by day six.
Yet on day eight, the day when you wake up and think, “I could really go for a cheeseburger,” hope comes racing back. And that’s one of the true beauties of hope: it never really dies. Other things may overpower its presence, but deep down, it’s always there. There are times when we have to go searching for it, but let me be the first to assure you that it is worth turning over every stone.
Today, the “Hooverville” across from our hotel in Port Au Prince is once again an amphitheater. In fact, most of the tent cities are gone… replaced with housing that is light years removed from the makeshift dwellings that served as shelters for way, way too long. The Haitians who lived there never gave up, or gave in to the cancer that is hopelessness. They believed that a better day would come, and it finally did.
And not to spoil the ending for you, but Braddock did beat Max Baer in a unanimous decision to win the world championship. He spent his winnings on a house where he and his wife lived out their days. He started a construction company, and he put many unemployed men to work, giving them hope for a better future.
I truly understand that it is easy to lose hope in this day and age. Many of us are going through hardships the rest of us have only seen in movies or in places that are not in our own backyards. My mission is to help others not to lose sight of the things that give us hope. And for those of us who are blessed beyond what we deserve… myself firmly entrenched in that category… we need to look for ways to foster hope in the hopeless.
There is nothing more important we can do.