Reflections on Ronnie’s Life:
A Memoir of My Brother’s Battle with Brain Cancer
Intro: The Bad News
I was 21 years old, and I don’t recall exactly where I was when I heard the news, but I know I immediately dropped whatever it was I was doing. My mother called me to tell me that my 18 year old brother Ronnie had apparently had some type of seizure in the early morning hours at a friend’s house. He had been rushed to the hospital, where apparently a “spot” of some sort had been found on his brain when they checked him for brain damage after the seizure. Well, the “spot” turned out to be a very large malignant tumor that was too close to his “motor-strip” – the part of the brain that controls one’s reflexes and limbs. And over night, one of those terrible travesties you always hear about, but never believe will ever happen to anyone you know, actually happened to my baby brother- he had been diagnosed with cancer of the brain.
Ronnie was a Senior at Needville High School getting ready for Christmas break when he received the life-altering news. But to his credit, he did not fall apart, crumple-up, or wither-up and die as a result of the news like I thought he might, or like I felt. Instead, he asked how quickly brain surgery could be arranged, and he positively and systematically prepared for a Christmas break surgery that he might possibly not even live through.
I was in my second year of college at the University of Houston, and it was difficult for me to spend as much time as I would have liked helping my brother (or my mother) to prepare for his Herculean battle ahead. Nevertheless, all of us, (even our father and step-mother from Alaska) were at the hospital (thankfully along with our Dad’s medical insurance) when Ronnie faced his future with courage and a resolve beyond his high school years. I was scared for him, but I believed if anyone could beat this tumor crap, it would be my little brother. Of course, I still hadn’t come to terms with what a malignant tumor really was, or what toll the “cure” would have on my brother. We were all so naive and trusting of what the doctors said they could do for him. They didn’t promise anything, but they made us think surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments would get the job done.
Most Likely To Succeed
Hey, and you know what, they were right, for a while… Ronnie came back from his surgery a changed “boy,” or I should definitely say a “man.” For facing his own mortality turned my little brother into a man before even I had truly even become one. I realize that now. He came back to school after Christmas vacation after not having missed a single day of school during his ordeal! He had staples in his head where a section of the top of his skull had been removed to expose the portion of the brain the surgeon cut into to remove the octopus-like arms and “tentacles” of the tumor, but he was going to school, keeping up with his work, and seemed to be back in the saddle. Of course, don’t get me wrong, his head was now shaved, and the huge scar on his head was just beginning to heal. But to be honest, the pain of the procedure itself, and the mental anguish of almost having died at the age of 18, was just the “tip” of the psychological “ice-berg” my brother would have to face once he got back to school.
For once back, Ronnie became an object of ridicule for at least a few of his so-called “friends.” They started calling him “scar-head,” “Frankenstein,” or just treated him like a freak. I guess they just didn’t understand what he had been through, what he was going through, or perhaps being teenagers, they just didn’t know how to react, and so they chose to react poorly. Whatever their reasons, they made him feel insecure about his appearance, and so he got permission from the school to let him wear a hat every day until the scar healed. Of course, Ronnie (or my mother) I’m not sure anymore which, would need to humbly request to extend this “special permission” later on when the radiation treatments started to cause all of his hair to fall out.
To be sure, Ronnie’s journey through medical lab-rat hell was a long and arduous one. You see, Ronnie survived the first surgery, the chemotherapy puking sessions, and all the most “advanced” radiation treatments (at the time) to graduate from high school the “most likely to succeed” even if he had already lost all of his hair. I guess despite the ridicule from some, his courage in the face of adversity had made quite an impression on others in his class that last semester he was in school recovering from his brain surgery.
College & Cabin Conflicts
He certainly made an impression on me, and as a soon to be finished sophomore in college, I was proud of my not-so-little brother. We were running in different circles at the time though (me in the city), and him in Wharton (in the country), and so I didn’t get to see him as much as I would have liked. It was just like Ronnie to choose to go to a local community college closer to home instead of going to the “big city” like his big brother. Eventually though, after two years of community college, I talked him into coming to Houston to see how city-folk lived, and maybe to try to open his mind up to more liberal opinions and ideas. You see my brother had begun to develop quite a conservative streak within him, and he and my mother would often attend church together even though I seldom ever did. I recall that it amazed me that he and my mother could find a quite strength in their faith at a time when I was blaming God for all that he had allowed to go wrong in my brother’s (and by extension, my own) life.
Well, regardless of my personal intentions, Ronnie flourished at the University of Houston (down-town) branch in the very heart of “H-town.” I say this, not because I pressured him to attend there, which I did, but because he truly did seem to take to living in the big city and enjoying all the educational opportunities it had to offer. Ronnie made new friends, became a Barista, and appeared to become quite a social person at the center of the refreshment business on campus. Plus, an added benefit of his moving to the city, was that it meant he and I could live together away from the restrictive dorm atmosphere we both had grown weary of.
Of course, Reena, my girlfriend at the time, who like most women of her age and upbringing expected me to be a mind-reader, wanted me to show her I was serious about marrying her, and in other words, she wouldn’t say it, but she had wanted me to either ask her to marry her, and/or have us move-in to an apartment together (even if it meant us keeping it a secret from her parents). Well, to make a long story short, I remained clueless for far too long, and so I didn’t prove my love for her in the correct fashion, and so she chose to break-up with me instead, and in virtually no time at all, I was living under the same roof with my brother again! However, all this roommate madness had not occurred without a major price paid. I lost the love of my life’s love, and missed out on marrying a beautiful young woman, even if she had been very high-maintenance, she had been my “Indian princess.” I called her my “lotus blossom,” and she thought I smelt like a camel, but she apparently just didn’t care about that, until I chose my brother before her. She had never really liked him, and I guess he had never really liked her either. It didn’t help that the first apartment we moved into together got robbed three times before we finally had enough and decided we couldn’t afford to lose any more guitars, class rings, or other memorable things, and moved to a better neighborhood in Memorial Park.
Ironically, however, I might not have made the choice that I made to move in with my little brother if we had not had a major fight about her in Alaska at my Texan turned Alaskan cousin’s project-cabin on Montana Creek. It was a great place to unwind, but despite all the fun we had there that summer: surfing the current of the river on pieces of plywood tied to logs; fishing for salmon with our bare hands; swimming with them when we realized we couldn’t catch them; and practicing our aim by throwing Michael’s ax against his favorite chopping log; it all ended very poorly one July afternoon with a debate about her gone very wrong.
Ronnie threw a can of beer into my face that day, because of what I had said about how I felt about Reena, and how I thought his negative opinions about her just stemmed from him being an apparent racist. I didn’t really believe the accusation myself, but he was saying some pretty hurtful things about her, and I was mad as hell that he would question my intentions, and then throw a beer in my face (despite what I had said)! So one thing led to another, and I found myself starting to charge towards him in the cabin to defend my honor, and that of my precious Reena. Luckily, our cousin Mike – a.k.a. “Bubba” stopped us and told us to “take it outside,” so we did. We both ran out the door into the yard, and I turned, and then we charged each other!
But, to be honest, by then I had lost much of my initial anger and embarrassment. Apparently though, Ronnie had not, because he came at me with a red-hot anger in his eyes that startled me, his fists were flying, and so I knew if I didn’t pin him against the truck and get him to calm down quickly I was in trouble. I can’t say it was the first time his behavior had ever made me somewhat afraid of him, but then, as a kid Ronnie was the type of little brother who would hit you in the mouth with a family-sized Bible if he felt you deserved it! Or, if he thought I was getting a little too rough with him, he might try to jump on my face with his football cleats on! So let’s just say we had the typical love-hate relationship that older and younger brothers tend to have in a dysfunctional family.
Roger or Wayne, Which Dad to Love?
I was old enough to remember our dad, or “Pop” as I affectionately call him, but Ronnie was not, and thus he loved our occasionally abusive step-dad Roger, and could apparently turn a blind-eye to the way he treated mom and me. Not surprisingly, I often viewed Ronnie as being Roger’s step-henchmen in training, and so we often would fight when we were young kids. But once we finally ran away to Texas, and our step-dad died (of natural causes), we began to “bury the hatchet” so-to-speak. However, once our “real” dad showed-up on the door-steps of my mom’s inherited four room tar-paper home to start trying to renew visitation rights (after not having been in our childhood for almost eight years) the “battle royal” between us was once again on! But I guess it wasn’t until real “adult blows” began to be thrown (a couple of years after my brother’s first brain surgery) that I realized I really didn’t want to be fighting with him anymore. I would like to say that is the whole truth, but I would only be lying to you (and myself) if I kept going with this line of crap.
For in fact, that fight up in the Talketna mountains didn’t really make me realize how much my brother cared about me, that awareness would only come much later, but what it did do was send me dramatically running home early back into the arms of my not-so-understanding girlfriend. The rest is history, as they say, because after I chose to take a paraplegic friend to a YES concert (rather than her) due to the way she was acting about my plans to room with my brother (for a couple of semesters) instead of her, our relationship QUICKLY deteriorated. So before I knew it, Ronnie and I were living together in the same apartment across highway 45 on the other side of U. of H. in a poor Hispanic barrio neighborhood, and as my brother’s things got moved in, she was soon “out of the picture” for good. So I guess maybe it was the fight with her about him that really gave Ronnie and I our last chance to live together before Ronnie died. Either way, I was destined to get to spend a few more quality years with my brother before the tumor grew back, and I thank God, Heaven, and all the stars in the sky for those few precious years. My only regret is that I couldn’t have a few more, and I didn’t use the one’s I had more wisely. Ronnie was able to have almost four relatively “care-free” cancer-less years in college in remission before the sky fell in on him (and us) again.
Round Two of the Real Battle
A warning sign of horrors to come arose just before I took a break from graduate school to work in Alaska, Ronnie’s face one night froze in a “funny-like” upward curl of his upper lip at the apartment we were staying at. I say “funny-like,” because it might have been “funny” if he had been able to control it, and if it had not been such a scary premonition of the trials and tribulations that would lie ahead for him and our family. I guess, looking back on it now, I realize it was a mild seizure. Nevertheless, we weren’t sure if it meant anything at all, and so I went ahead with my summer plans, and as soon as the semester was over, I moved up to Alaska to work on the North Slope at the Kuparuk oil field as a scaffold builder. By this time, my brother and I had both grown long hair, and his covered-up most of his scar, and the bald spot that would not go away from his first round of radiation treatments. And it was his long hair, his self-confident air of being comfortable in his own skin, and what my brother said to me at the airport when he dropped me off to go to Alaska that I remember most from that time. He had said, “I hope this trip helps to get some of that traveling bug out of your system.” It turned out it really wouldn’t in the least sort of way, but I guess in his own way he was just telling me he was going to miss me. I think it was the first time we had ever been apart for more than a week or so at a time, it was the first time I had ever traveled to Alaska without him, and things would never be the same. Because when I saw my brother again six months later, he looked like Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins! He was completely bald (because he knew he was going to lose his hair again, and didn’t want to experience it falling out again from the radiation treatments), and cutting his hair actually helped him to take control of his destiny, and in perhaps a weird way, mentally gear-up for his second brain surgery. But what he told me went right through me when I arrived and had settled in, “I can’t go through watching my hair fall out again, and so I just cut it all off.” My heart sunk into the couch springs when I heard this, and I realized the nightmare had all started back again. I also realized I had just spent six months wasting a large chunk of “quality time” away from my brother in Alaska freezing my ass off, and trying to make some extra money, when I could have been spending that precious time with my brother in Texas before his next surgery. I felt like a cold-hearted fool.
Well, it didn’t take me long to discover that my brother had grown-up some more during my absence, as he did every time we were apart, and he and a couple of his other college buddies, Durell and Randall were rooming together in a poor, minority-rich part of town on the North side of Houston. But it didn’t matter, come hell or high water, now that I knew Ronnie was going to have to have a second surgery, I was not going to miss another moment away from my brother while I had the opportunity. And so my brother, and his flat-mates begrudgingly allowed me to move in with them, since I didn’t really have a place to “crash” of my own, and since Ronnie and I both knew he would probably be needing my help in the months to come (even if neither of us spoke about it). And it was during this time that our “commune-like” college hippy existence flourished and floundered the most for those fleeting few months before and after his second life-altering procedure. Why was the place so magical and hectic all at the same time? At one point, I think we had four guys and one girl all living in one three bed-room apartment together, with another buddy of Ronnie’s Nathan, coming over to play drums, watch sports, and eat up any potential leftovers, lets just say it was quite a testosterone test for many of us, but we made it work, and we were all happy together for a time.
In fact, despite the back-drop of impending doom, we all actually managed to make music together, we painted, some of us wrote poetry, many of us philosophized on the meaning of life, and of course we all partied! So, in general, despite the bad news about Ronnie’s tumor returning, we had “fun” together right-up until the very day before the actual second surgery. Ronnie and I even both got tattoos to commemorate this major transition in our lives, and to show our bond and love for each other. I got a large tiger on my back, since Ronnie was born in the Year of the Tiger on the Chinese calendar in 1974 (and would also die in the year of the Tiger 24 years later in 1998), but of course I did not know this ironic and tragic symbolic twist of fate until a few years later. Ronnie got a thick black tribal design that had a red heart on the top and a blue tear-drop on the bottom. Ronnie’s tattoo was done long before mine, and since he had already promised Nate his second ticket to go see the Smashing Pumpkins (since he hadn’t expected me back in town yet), I missed that one. To this day, I still regret having missed that concert! Nevertheless, once the actual date of the surgery arrived, all the peace, love, and happiness idealism conjured up in that wild little apartment, in that funky little Hispanic and African-American mosaic of a neighborhood came crashing down all around us in a nightmare of sterile bleach smells, metallic surgical instruments, and a harsh radioactive reality that only an oncology ward can create. The feeling was infectious, and we brought it home with us like a stench of death that affected everyone in that apartment from that point on. I can only remember arguing, shouting, and hurt feelings after Ronnie’s second surgery. I seem to recall Ronnie throwing an electric fan at me through a window on the day we were moving out, I don’t remember why, I’m sure it had something to do with me being aggravating, and him not really wanting to move out.
But let me back-track for a moment, and mention that I remember more clearly the night before Ronnie’s second brain surgery, after our mom Jeannette, step-dad Buzzy, our dad Wayne, and my step-mom Janet all arrived, and said their hellos and then eventually their goodbyes till tomorrow, I couldn’t sleep at all, so I literally stayed up all night thinking, and then hand writing a multi page letter to him about what he meant to me as a brother and as a friend. I still have that letter somewhere. He read the letter (when I gave it to him in the morning). How he even slept that night at all I still can’t fathom, but I do remember I over-heard him almost silently weeping in the privacy of our bathroom while he read it. Ronnie had grown to be a strong man in more ways than one, but even he could break-down and cry when the moment called for it, and I guess my letter had found a small “crack” in his “emotional armor” just before his second battle with cancer began. I was not proud of this literary feat, because it had not been my intention to make him cry, but rather, only to convey to him how much he meant to me as a brother and as a best friend. In the end, I think I accomplished that, but having him know how much he meant to me did not make it any easier for him to face the harsh reality my father drove him towards (as we all rode with him) in the solemn early morning darkness of the big city.
We all had rode in virtual silence to the hospital that morning, because what does someone really say to a loved one about to face death so squarely in the face? I told Ronnie I loved him, and that I would be there for him no matter what, but I felt helpless. Would he survive the day? If my little brother was being attacked by a group of street thugs, I could have at least tried to jump-in and maybe I would get my butt kicked, but I would at least be there to help him face his attackers. But with brain cancer, all I could do was sit there helplessly and watch the disease slowly tear my brother apart physically and mentally.
After the second surgery, in the hallway, before I even had a chance to approach my brother’s hospital bed, the brain surgeon apparently devoid of any bed-side manner at all that I could ever detect (who had operated on Ronnie not once, but now twice) told us just outside the door that “I couldn’t get it all out,” and that “it would have required me to cut out far too much surrounding brain tissue to have extracted all of the tumor, so we should expect for it to return again.” Mr. White Coat without any Feelings went on to inform me that he had already presented this hopeless conclusion to my brother Ronnie (who had not even been transferred out of the intensive care unit (ICU) yet), and it was at that moment that I realized just how much I wanted to rip this insensitive doctor’s heart out and show it to him. My brother had just gotten out of brain surgery, had not had any time whatsoever to recover, and he was basically telling him (and us) that we should not be getting our hopes up too high now that he was done cutting and the bill would be in the mail! I expressed to the doctor that hope had a healing force of its own, and that perhaps he had been a bit hasty to choose this exact moment to be quite so honest with my brother about his potential recovery chances, but the doctor seemed unfazed by my arguments, and so as to avoid strangling the life from his heartless body, I turned my back on him in the hallway, walked in my brother’s hospital room, and immediately saw my brother’s sad eyes staring back at me from above the clean white linen sheets of the hospital bed that had stained his innocent hopeful heart forever. I was filled with a rage and a sadness that couldn’t be extinguished by any known means to me at that time, but since then, I have learned to be careful with what you wish for in life!
Loss of Hope
It was not until that exact moment that Ronnie and I both knew that he had once again won the battle, but that he would ultimately lose his own personal war against cancer. For you see, the doctor removed most of the tumor once again, but at the same time, with his overt no-holds-bared diagnosis of Ronnie’s lack of potential for recovery, he removed most of Ronnie’s hope of any real second recovery as well. It was as if the second surgery (along with that damn doctor’s dire diagnosis) had taken my brother’s belief in living a long life away from him. But that is not exactly true, because Ronnie always seemed to realize from a relatively early age that he was destined to, as the Neil Young lyrics put it, “burn-out,” rather than “fade away” even before the rest of us had a clue. I remember this, because I remember Ronnie saying after the first surgery that he didn’t expect to have a long life. It was almost as if he knew the cancer would come back even before the rest of us wanted to think about such potential eventual horrors.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ronnie did not bounce back from the second surgery like he had as an 18 year old teenager with his whole life ahead of him. Rather, he seemed to struggle to be able to talk, and he had trouble moving certain parts of the right side of his body. The steroids the doctors gave him to reduce the swelling in his brain helped to improve his speech and physical control, but they had terrible side-effects. This fact became readily apparent on our one and only camping trip with our cousin Michael to Arkansas when I saw Ronnie eat two bananas in a row like they were french fries! The steroids made my brother’s appetite and waste-line bulge out of control, and before he knew it, he was twice his normal size, and had stretch-marks all over his body. He went from being a muscular 165 lbs to a rotund 225 lbs in a matter of weeks, and we both knew things would never be the same. Plus, the steroids were not getting the job done.
The Beginning of the End
When things went from bad to worse, I didn’t want to believe it, but I remember the day clearly. We had just gone to the Houston zoo the day before with his friend Nathan, and I had noticed that Ronnie seemed to be dragging his right leg and holding his right-arm with his left-arm some, but I had not thought too much about it, or at least not enough to say anything to him about it and ruin the walking tour. Then, the following day, we went to our step-uncle Mark’s house to visit, and since he was an excellent masseuse, and Ronnie had been complaining about his right-side bothering him since even before the day before, I suggested he give my brother a massage to see if that might help him. Ronnie truly loved the massage, but afterwards, when he tried to use his right hand to open the door to the outside patio, he couldn’t get his hand to work. So as he would later tell us, he kept trying to make his hand open the door, but it just wouldn’t cooperate with him.
I guess the struggle to get his brain to regain control over a specific part of his body must have triggered something within Ronnie’s brain, because it was at this moment that Ronnie had his second major seizure. He fell down on the floor, yelled for me to come help him, and laid there having a seizure all the while trying to alleviate my almost hysterical concerns (since this was the first time I had ever seen him have a seizure) while at the same time I was wishing I could do something more to alleviate his own. All I could do was try to make sure he didn’t swallow his tongue, and I remember petting him somewhat like a cat while he looked into my eyes and tried to tell me he was fine, but we both knew better. It had been almost four years since his first seizure had revealed the brain tumor (that some doctors thought he might have had since birth, and that if it had continued to go on un-noticed would have certainly ended his life far sooner than it eventually did). Nevertheless, the “stage” for Ronnie’s third and final battle with cancer was being erected before our very eyes, and less than a year had gone by since his second surgery!
So, to say the least, we quickly rushed him to the nearest hospital in an ambulance with sirens blazing (yet again), and the doctors confirmed what the heartless doctor in the White Coat before had already warned us about, the tumor had grown faster than they had anticipated, and it was putting pressure on Ronnie’s “motor-strip” again, which is why he was having trouble using his right side, and had had a seizure. They said we should expect more to come, and that they were a natural side-effect of the tumor enlarging above the part of the brain that controls a person’s motor functions.
I think the very worst days were when Ronnie stopped being able to play the guitar, and when he realized it wasn’t safe for him to try to get in our Dad’s hot-tub in Alaska. Now, for those of you who are music lovers out there, or who have played a musical instrument before, imagine what it would be like to just one day not be able to play your instrument anymore one day. I remember futilely attempting to strum the guitar for Ronnie while he lied on his back and tried to work the fret board. It was a sad moment when we both realized it just wouldn’t work, and that Ronnie’s guitar playing days were officially over. It was equally sad seeing Ronnie relieved when I conveyed to him his last time in Alaska that he didn’t have to go into the hot-tub, and we could find something else to do.
The doctors recommended he take more steroids, and have a third more experimental surgery where chemotherapy would be time-released directly into his brain from some sort of patches they would insert directly into the surrounding tumor tentacles after the majority of the tumor had been removed yet again. I think it was at this point that Ronnie recognized “third time was not the charm,” but rather, another surgery would be “strike three, your out!” In other words, his fight against his cancer was now a futile one, because he was tired of being picked, prodded, and probed, and he just wanted some relief from the mental and physical torture he had been feeling for so long now. I can remember how tired I felt at that time, and how tired my mother, and others felt, I can only imagine how tired Ronnie felt, since he was the one actually undergoing all the treatments that made him weak, or that made him puke his guts out. I also can remember when he started to break-down and cry in the doctor’s office when he heard the bad news, and him telling me that he just couldn’t do it anymore, and that he just didn’t want to have to have a third surgery. It was at that very moment, sort of like when alcoholics obtain what they call “a moment of clarity,” that I realized he didn’t have to, and I told him as much. For some reason, it was just Ronnie and I in the Oncologists office this time (Mom must have been working), and so I was the only one to witness his final medical treatment decision made as a grown man facing his own death, but having the courage to face it anyway. He looked up at me, and then asked me to go out in the hallway and just tell the doctor “that is it,” and that “there will be no third surgery.” In other words, my brother’s battle with cancer and perhaps his hope for recovery had been lost not with a loud “bang,” but with a courageous “whimper” of enough is enough, within the glistening skyscraper of Smith Towers across from Methodist Hospital.
In a sense, looking back on that sad fatal decision in the doctor’s office now, I guess Ronnie and I admitted defeat in his battle with cancer at that moment. But at the same time, if even for a few months, it was at that very same moment that he showed the courage to free himself from the illness that had taken control of his life. He chose that moment to take back control of his life from all the doctors, nurses, and “well-wishers” that believed his only choice was to keep fighting the cancer. Instead, Ronnie chose to place his health in the hands of a higher power, and to chose “quality of life” for himself (no matter how short) over an uncertain “quantity of life.” Now, I’m not writing any fairy tales here, so I won’t try to sell you a bunch of bull, but even though each day grew progressively worse with each new devastating seizure, his faith never seemed to falter, his prayers grew stronger as he grew weaker, and he faced the remainder of his short tragic life on his own terms. I wish I could have been as strong and as brave as my little brother, but I will admit it now, back then I lacked the will-power and the moral fortitude to be brave and strong when my little brother’s world was crashing down around him. The best I could do at the time was to hide my true feelings as much as possible, and attempt to mask them behind a veil of self-induced emotionless coma. But that is another story, to be told at another time… when I have finally managed to muster-up the courage to dig out skeletons from my closet that I would rather stay buried.
I hope these reflections on my brother provide you with a window of opportunity for remembering his life (if you knew him), and/or for finding your own courage in your time of need. He was surely a great brother, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and he literally would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it more than him. I am proud to have known him, to have walked a while with him, and to have had him follow me around for a while, when I probably should have been the one following his example of how a man should live out his own life. The character he showed in his final days, weeks, and months has been an inspiration for me in my own life to emulate as I begin to see a “dead-end” at the end of my own road home. May we all aspire to inspire others to believe in themselves, and to have courage in our own journeys through this challenging but awe-inspiring life. I think Ronnie would have liked it if he knew his own story had helped just one person to deal with their own inner turmoils wrought from harsh external realities. Thus, please let me know if this non-fictional recollection of my brother’s struggle with cancer speaks to you.