On January 7, 2015 when I posted it, it wasn’t titled Part One. I didn’t change its title until January 29, 2015 when I posted Part Two. Both Part One and Part Two were written three months after my beloved bride, Maureen, took her last breath on 10.21.2014 due to pleural effusions caused by the metastasis of her breast cancer. That morning was the last domino to fall. The chain reaction started years earlier… in October of 2003. We were at the obstetrician. Maureen was three months pregnant. We were at the ultrasound. We heard Katelyn’s heartbeat for the first time. And, we heard the words, “that lump in your right breast doesn’t feel like it should. We should get that biopsied.” Needless to say, in the midst of the excitement of soon-to-be third child, this sent shock waves through Maureen and I. Nothing like the shock waves of hearing the words, “you have cancer,” just a few weeks later.
Eighteen years after first hearing those words, I am sitting at one of my favorite coffee shops in Austin, Radio Coffee & Beer. Writing the ninth in my #IHaveBeenProvoked series. I start the ninth with words from the first:
I have been provoked because I’ve watched cancer in the faces of too many people in too many waiting rooms at too many oncologists at too many cancer centers. I’ve watched cancer in the faces of all that attended Maureen’s services and the services of too many others in our small St. Andrew’s Episcopal School community. As our priest said at Maureen’s services, “cancer sucks.” It does, and I have been provoked. I have been provoked because I love Maureen, and I had to watch the slow march of [cancer’s] consequences… I could be angry. I choose to be provoked. To be angry would mean that all of my actions would flow from hate, my hate for cancer. To be provoked means that all of my actions, “what I do,” can flow from love, my love for Maureen and quite frankly my love and empathy for all who are dealing with this disease. I have been provoked. We all must be provoked.
As I started to write the ninth in this #IHaveBeenProvoked series, I was originally going to title it, Stirred by Pink, not Dominoes. The reason for this decision will become clear. You see… here’s the crazy thing. Maureen wasn’t really fond of pink. She wanted to be Maureen. Not Maureen with breast cancer. Pink is a trigger, and that trigger is felt most strongly in October. October. One of a total of 12 months. October has 31 days. Some months have less. February, the month with love in it, gets short shrift, with only 28 days. Since we feel bad, we give Feburary an extra day every four years. However, October has developed a special meaning. Of course, it ends with Halloween on October 31, and like with so many holidays, we’ve expanded that one day to the whole month. However, October is scary for other reasons. It is known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it stirs a lot of emotions. However, before I jump into pink, let me reflect a bit… for whatever reason, October has a lot of important days packed into it. Not from the same year, but scattered across the years.
October always kicks off well. October 1 is our daughter, Kyla’s, birthday. She just turned twenty. It comes so early in the month that we’ve put a note in the Diercxsens’ (Maureen’s maiden name) annual family calendar at the end of September so we don’t miss it before we flip the page! Then, before you know it, it is October 5. Kethan’s birthday. Jimmy Agnew’s birthday. The day Steve Jobs of Apple passed 10 years ago in 2011. On October 12, 2013 I took the stage in Penang, Malaysia to give the first of three TEDx talks in Kethan’s memory. Kethan had passed earlier that summer in July. The second talk on my world tour was October 16, 2013 in Rome, and the final one was in Dublin, Ireland on October 17, 2013. A few days later I landed back in Austin. October 21, 2013. Little did I know as the wheels touched down that one year later I would wake up next to Maureen’s hospital bed at Seton Hospital where she had taken her last breath the night before.
As I look back, I realize that the first of the dominoes that fell for me was Kethan. Not his passing but the day I met he and his family at St. Andrew’s, as he and my Kyla started first grade. Kethan should also be twenty. He was eleven when he passed in the summer of 2013. From the consequences of leukemia. He’s the reason I traveled the world giving TEDx talks 8 years ago this month. I was provoked. Angry that a six year old could be dealing with cancer but provoked by his gentle, kind, and warm spirit. When we met that October in 2008, ironically, is when Maureen’s breast cancer recurred (looking back, likely a secondary occurrence). Another domino.
Needless to say, October is more than a month. Far more than 31 days, and quite frankly, more than a color. When you think about it, the only reason for pink is that it was Suzy G. Komen’s favorite color. Nancy Brinker, her big sister, loved her little sister. She made Suzy a promise, when her little sister passed at 36. I made Maureen a promise, too. The pink ribbon? 1992. Estée Lauder. Who later passed of metastatic breast cancer, just like Suzy, just like Maureen, just like 116 women (and men) a day. Pink, and the ribbon, both have noble beginnings. Noble beginnings or not, though, both stir a lot of emotions. Especially in October when things are full tilt. Especially for me when almost every day in October brings back a memory, some good, some not, but all of them are deeply woven into why I do what I do.
Because I’ve been provoked, I’ve picked a few dominoes over the years. For a decade, I was a dedicated volunteer, fundraiser, and advocate with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society on behalf of Kethan. In the last few years, I’ve picked a few new dominoes, serving as the newly elected board chair of the Side-Out Foundation to being on the Komen Leadership Council, in Austin and regionally, to my own work on Silverlining Technologies. These are my dominoes. There are a lot of other dominoes. There are the dominoes my daughter, Kyla, has chosen with the launch of her #pinkkids vision in collaboration with Surviving Breast Cancer, to the Dig Pink® legacy that her younger sister, Katelyn, continues this year at St. Andrew’s Episcopal. My role as board chair of Side-Out is a result of their dominoes with Dig Pink®. There are so many other dominoes in the breast cancer world… from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, to Metavivor, to Beyond the Pink Moon, to #bcsm, to the Pink Fund, to 305 Pink Pack, to MetUp, to so many, many more.
So why did I pick dominoes and not pink for this #IHaveBeenProvoked post? There are a few reasons… one is the song by Genesis that my dear friend and co-collaborator, Mal Postings, reminded me of a few months back as our work on Silverlining Technologies unfolds. I also have to go back to the 1970s. I vividly remember watching shows on TV with my parents that mesmerized me. You might remember them. Big gymnasiums. With massive amounts of dominoes all lined up. Standing alone. Little tiles. One after the other, after the other. And, until the first one was tilted, nothing happened, they just stood there. Alone. But then, it started as that first one was tipped… and suddenly, this massive cascade unfolded, creating action, creating a massive ripple of clicking, falling, and beauty. The last domino couldn’t fall until the first domino put things in action. So, as I think about October, as I think about pink, I think about dominoes, I think about what happens when we work together. That’s the cool part. One domino isn’t enough. You need a bunch. One domino needs the other domino.
Every one of the organizations, and everyone of us, as individuals, are part of the cascade. As I said from the stage of TEDxTrastevere on October 16, 2013, “can we create a human ecosystem that harnesses the same power as the raindrops in the water ecosystem. Can 7 billion human beings, acting together, carve a canyon through the heart of cancer?” We. We are the dominoes. Together, we will create a rainbow of color on the gym floor of cancer, and one day, the last domino will fall. And the “Emperor of All Maladies” will be toppled.