Ironman Alex – a Solemn, Yet Substantial Teacher

You could tell by how the doctors and nurses responded that the prognosis wasn’t good.

I have never seen a team move so fast to discharge a patient. But the team at Tampa General Hospital understood how valuable time was for my mother. They did their best to soften the blow of the words “brain cancer” but their reaction made it clear her time was limited. Very limited.

Doctors called the cancer Glioblastoma Multiforme, or GBM for short.

Until about a month prior, Sandy J. Andes had been an-outgoing bubbly woman who was incredibly fit for 72.  Then she started to become reclusive and her speech slurred. Seizures were the next signs.  The seizures started small; at first, they seemed to be nothing more than a vein throbbing on her face. Odd maybe, but seemingly harmless.

These trivial indicators quickly escalated.

That is why I was so touched to hear about Ironman Alex.

He is a young man who looks to be about 10, who has a smile that is undoubtedly more powerful than his slender frame.  Just before America was hit with COVID-19, Alex was hit with brain cancer.

Most of us would respond to the news by doing everything we ever wanted. We also might prepare things for our loved ones after we are gone. Then there are those, like my mother who choose to fight like hell. Alex was the same. he was going to give every ounce he had to fighting cancer. I am guessing that’s where the name “Ironman Alex” came from.

But it’s what he did next that literally took my breath away.

He began collecting toys. Not for himself (though who could blame him if wanted to try out new toys in short order.) He was collecting toys for children who don’t have any; specifically, children in hospitals fighting COVID who are forced to be alone in their fight.

The significance of that can be put another way: Ironman Alex was giving his last weeks and months looking out for others. He was helping those less fortunate.

My breath shuttered as I tried to take in air.  And almost just as quick a tear came rolling down my face. I have always wanted to live a life that matters. Who doesn’t, right? But here, this young man was doing it.

He was accomplishing in life what many of us hope we could achieve.

I realized that at the age of 49, I had a lot of catching up to do.

Thank you, Alex for reminding me of the lesson that is more important than anything I could ever write.

If you wish to help Ironman Alex in his quest here is a link to his Go Fund Me page and his Facebook page.

A Woman Unlike Any Other

When my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, there were things we never talked about again.

We always had been a close family, but my bond with my mother took on a life of its own after I became a mom.  There were many weeks we would talk everyday.

She and Dad were in Florida most of the time and she wanted any “Andyisms” and “Davidisms” she could get. Those were the terms we used for the priceless things my boys would say when they were young. They would come out of nowhere, as in the time she joked with them that she was afraid of snakes and hated them. That seemed like blasphemy to Andy who was no more than 5 at the time. 

“Grandma if you don’t like snakes, then you don’t like me.”

We were so close, we even took vacations together. (The boys’ father and I divorced when they were 2 & 5.) Me, her, dad and the boys went to places like Washington D.C. and New York City, though Disney was a group favorite. She loved being allowed to be just as much of a kid as the boys; she never wanted to grow up anyway. 

She also was waiting patiently. SJ as she was called, short for Sandra Jean, wanted me to take her to Paris where I had been twice as an exchange student. My father had no interest in going. And she would say, “Someday when its just you and me.”

And when they visited the boys and I in Columbus, Ohio. Mom refused to say good-bye. She would wake at 5 a.m. and get my father up so they could leave without saying good-bye. There were no good-byes. It’s just who she was. 

But when she became diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforma we never talked about the future or that planned trip again. GBM as it is called for short, is an unrelenting, fast spreading, rob-you-of-every ability cancer.

I have a dear friend who is an M.D./PhD who researches childhood cancer. He was very honest with me. There is no way to cure it; focus on quality of life. 

Struggling with the four or five tumors in her brain, her spirit remained. This brain cancer was Davy-Jones-nasty and had matching tentacles.  Doctors weren’t sure where one tumor ended and another began.

She had been the consummate Mom,  grandmother and peace keeper her whole life. She always was  thinking of what she could do for someone else. And cancer was not about to rob her of that.

Even when she was in Tampa General Hospital awaiting brain surgery. (Doctors said a sample would help them fight it better.) She adored the neuro-oncology resident surgeon. He was kind, extremely intelligent…and well, dreamy looking.

He probably was in his 30s and acted like any good Christian man should. So, in her mind he was aces and she decided she wanted to help him too. From her bed, she scouted for the perfect nurse he could marry.

And of course, she loved to joke with him – well flirt is a truer word. Dad didn’t care. They had been together more than 50 years at that point and he knew she did it for fun.

So when a team of these neuro-oncology doctors circled around her bed the day before surgery, she noticed this young doc was among the crowd, standing at the end of her hospital bed.

“McDreamy!” she said, a reference to a gorgeous doctor in Grey’s Anatomy.

His face took on a level of red I had never seen before in a doctor, and had a winced look of “Ohhh;” he knew he would never hear the end of this.

Meanwhile the head neuro-oncologist – who was treated like somewhat of a god – shot me a look like what is this about.  I shook my head as if to say its nothing. And the family explained that she was just being herself.

My mom had a strong life-long belief in God and Jesus Christ. She knew where she was going ultimately. She just didn’t want to talk about it. She wanted to stay true to who she really was.

And for a year she fought, trying every treatment the doctors could think of. Even when we had to call in hospice, she remained positive. She made us promise we could cancel them once she got better; that was the only way they were setting foot in her house. 

She never once complained. And only my sister, Tammy, saw her angry. And that was just once. It was before the diagnosis when she didn’t understand why she couldn’t get her hands to work right; she decided it was time that bottle of fabric softener in her hands deserved to take flight.

She was true to herself till she left this earth. And I find myself wanting to share her story. As I see it, we all could learn a lesson from her today.

Be kind.

Keep fighting no matter what.

Take care of others.

And live in a way you never want to say good-bye.

Until we see you again, SJ.