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Facing death with a smile

Posted: September 24, 2010 8:54 a.m.
Updated: September 24, 2010 8:51 a.m.

Every year in September, I remember Neil Wester.

We  weren’t best friends, but we were close. As fraternity brothers, we ate together, partied with one another, studied side by side and lived just down the hall from each other.

I guess I envied him a little because of his athletic ability. He was on the varsity baseball team at North Carolina and was a star intramural player in other sports. Strong-bodied and muscular, he seemed to have a boundless energy that few people possess.

We called him Porky, but I’m not sure where the nickname came from. He wasn’t chubby -- in fact, he was lean and dark, and the girls all thought he was handsome -- and he didn’t have a pink face. I think the moniker traced back to his rapid-fire speech that reminded us of the cartoon character Porky Pig.

When he first became ill, nobody gave it a second thought. After all, flu hits everyone once in awhile. It hung on for some time, but it didn’t seem like anything to worry about until we got the doctor’s diagnosis: leukemia.

It was a strange word, one that conjured up visions of sterile needles and stern-faced nurses. None of us students knew much about the disease, other than the fact that it was usually fatal. This was 1968, and leukemia treatments were far less sophisticated than they are today.

But nobody would mention the possibility of death; after all, we were 20 years old and bombproof. Terminal diseases just didn’t happen to people our age. The question was always “How sick is he?” and not “Will he live?”

Somehow it seemed that mentioning the word “death” might hasten its arrival. I suppose all of us, including Porky, knew from the beginning that he might not make it, but nobody was willing to admit it.

He was just too strong to die.

Visits to the hospital were awkward for Porky and for us. Underneath falsely cheerful expressions, we told him how well he looked and asked him how long it would take to lick his sickness and get back to class and the fraternity house.

“It might take awhile,” he’d say, “but I’ll be back.”

Miracle drugs held out hope to us, and for a time he got better. The disease was arrested and Porky went home to Atlanta. Occasional weekend visits brought him back to Chapel Hill; he laughed and joked as always, but the sparkle in his eyes was gone, replaced by a sad, weary look of age and experience that belied his 20 years.

During semester break, a group of us going to Florida stopped by his home in Atlanta. His cheeks were thin and gaunt, his face the color of a granite tombstone. But he talked of “next semester, when I’ll be back in Chapel Hill” and “how good it will be to play baseball again.” Some of us had to leave quickly so Porky wouldn’t see the mist in our eyes.

Time went on, and word came that he was improving and would be back in summer school to begin his senior year. Hope -- that wonderful-but-at-the-same-time-deceptive character -- bared itself to us once again. Dreams of an “unexplained cure” filled our conversations.

After all, the doctors wouldn’t let him come back to school if he wasn’t well, would they? We tried to convince ourselves that a miracle had occurred. We wanted desperately to believe it.

I left UNC to spend the summer working in Maine, where Wife Nancy and I live part of each year now. Letters which drifted my way from campus said he was much better and that he was having a good time and enjoying himself.

I began to believe that he would be OK. My faith in miracles became a little stronger and I waited eagerly -- and anxiously at the same time -- to get back to school in the fall so I could see for myself that he was really well again.

I arrived back in Chapel Hill in early September; school started much later back then that it does now. My roommates, sad-faced, broke the news: “Glenn, they buried Porky last week.”

It had been sudden. He had become very ill, had gone home to Atlanta and had died only days later. “I’m going to sleep, and when I wake up everything will be OK,” he had said as he lapsed into a death coma.

Until the end, I was told, he kept a smile on his face and maintained the façade of “getting back to Chapel Hill.” He didn’t burden anyone else with the terrible fears that had to be strangling him. He endured the battle bravely, making it as easy as he could for his family and friends. He never looked for pity.

We all marveled at that. But we also knew that it must be hard to face Death with a smile when you’re 20 years old.

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