Letter #2 — A father's response: hope in the face of cancer
This is the second in a series of letters between me and my father, also named Tom Rastrelli, who just over a month ago received news from his oncology team that they can no longer treat and fight his stage IV cancer of an unknown origin.
Sept. 3, 2020
Absolutely, yes! I've been excited to start this project with you ever since you presented the idea to me.
I know I need discipline to get me going. It's like running or exercising for some folks. It's more fun and easier with a buddy doing it with you, and I need a writing buddy if they have the courage to listen to my stories. I'm going to include my thoughts on hope a bit later which sheds so much truth on why I perhaps have such hopes and a positive attitude on life.
I want to answer your question about why I chose to have you back me up at Grandma Ida's wake. I saw strength in your eyes and felt courage in your heart. In my eyes age didn't mean a thing and you were a part of me and we had to stick together. Plus, you were taller than me too! I knew you were a great kid and I needed you to be beside me as a man, and you performed just like I knew you would. And thank God you heard the confrontation and had the courage to step into that mess of shouting and accusing people. You were there for me when I needed a brother to help me, but all my brothers were in the fracas. I knew Jill couldn't and didn't want to jump in as she is very non-confrontational and too sweet. I needed Tommy, and I'm so glad you were there. You know that after I had my radiation treatments in Iowa City, the doctors told me, that I may want to refrain from having any more children as the radiation could have spread to my other organs, but Mom and I prayed about it and we made the decision to have another baby and then, we would take it day by day from there. Thank God we had our bundle of joy — you! Little did we know that 17 years later how I would really need you. And now, we enter another time of our lives when I need you.
When I look back now, I realize the doctors were right in their concerns about the radiation traveling to other parts of the body, even though it's centered on a specific location, because all the problems I developed 40 years later with my heart and lungs were from the cobalt radiation back then. But I will gladly endure the pain and suffering I've had to go through so I could have children like we did after the radiation — you, Maria and Jeff. You all are a true blessing to Mom and me. The autumn of our years will be spent with you and Bruce and Maria's family, as we look forward with anticipation to the days to come in Oregon and Washington.
You know, I've always felt young — and please don't take this as a personal trait of conceit or boastfulness — but I've always looked young, too, as I've aged. My hair has stayed relatively dark and pleasantly happy occupying the top of my head. This is my Uncle Mike story. As you know Uncle Mike has a beautiful full head of prematurely grey hair. He started getting grey in his early 40s and has been fully grey since the 80s. Back in the 90s our churches in Clinton, Iowa, were consolidating and there was a meeting at the school auditorium with the architects who were gathering information from the five parishes as to what they wanted in the new single church building. Uncle Mike was one of the leaders on the parish council and had to give a presentation. I was standing next to one of the architects and introduced myself to him and he asked if I was Mike's son! And I'm only two years younger. So whenever I tell that story to Mike, he'll frown and say "Just hurry up and get there!" So now I'm salt and pepper and thinning.
When I was going through my initial cancer radiation treatments for Hodgkin's disease back in 1972, I lost all the hair from the nape of my neck to the middle of my chest. Hence, that's the reason I have no hair on my chest or underarms because the radiation took care of that for me. I had to have 15 rads of cobalt radiation back then which was about three weeks. I had one week while still in the hospital in Iowa City and they gave me two choices: Would I want to stay in the hospital for the next two weeks for the 15-minute procedure, or would I rather go home and drive Monday through Friday to Iowa City which was about 90 minutes one way? Boy, I couldn't get my bag packed fast enough on that one, send me home! During those trips back and forth to the university hospital, we must have heard the song "McArthur Park" played at least two to three times a trip. I memorized the words as we heard it so much, and nowadays whenever I hear that tune, it always brings me back to those days of great trepidation and fear of the unknown. But I never thought I was going to die. I had too much to live for. I had a purpose, perhaps many as I was so young. I had a loving and sweet new wife of one year, a cute new two-month-old baby Jenny, a new job with my brothers that we were going to build into a nationwide restaurant empire and a great supportive family and friends to pray for me. I have to admit, I didn't pray for myself back then. I think it was one of those "I'm tough, I'm strong and I can beat this" attitude. Yes, I had a big ego, but things in life tend to knock you down a notch and that first cancer experience was one of them.
So, for those two weeks either Mom or Grandma Ida would come with me to Iowa City. But after the third week, I discovered my hair falling out when I showered one morning and there was hair on my pillow. It scared the heck out of me and I couldn't wait to ask the radiation nurse why it was happening. And she asked me if anyone had mentioned that I'd be losing my gorgeous black locks? I thought the cancer had gone into my brain and she said, "Oh I guess they forgot. But it will probably come back soft and smooth like baby hair." And after a few months it did.
Now when I look back at my second encounter with this new cancer I have, I can use my hair as a reference. In my first three rounds of chemotherapy, I had a two-drug cocktail that made my hair thin out badly. All my pepper "took the last train for the coast" and that was the day the music died for my hair! Then almost miraculously, I started a new three-cocktail drug regimen and it started to grow back, and it's stayed that way, even adding more pepper than before. So, I look and feel younger again.
Which brings me back to hope. I recently found something about hope in my file looking for stories and came across this. I think it was written by someone else as I don't think I could provide such an illuminating paper. It was from an article in Richard Rohr's April 17th daily meditation, “Hope and Suffering,” that I had read and liked because it addressed much of what I've gone through in my life battling cancer and all the surgeries that accompanied them. Rohr said:
“The virtue of hope, with great irony, is the fruit of a learned capacity to suffer wisely, calmly, and generously. The ego demands successes to survive; the soul needs only meaning to thrive. Somehow hope provides its own kind of meaning, in a most mysterious way.
“The Gospel gives our suffering both personal and cosmic meaning by connecting our pain to the pain of others and, finally, by connecting us to the very pain of God. Did you ever think of God as suffering? Most people don’t — but Jesus came to change all of that.
“Any form of contemplation is a gradual sinking into this divine fullness where hope lives. Contemplation is living in a unified field that produces in people a deep, largely non-rational, and yet calmly certain hope, which is always a surprise.”
One of the key words in there is meaning: What is your life's meaning and purpose? I had many before when I was younger that drove me forward, but I still have many more to accomplish now. This writing is my new meaning to live and to share. My time is not up here on Earth, as I have much more to share. Thanks for being the catalyst behind my craving to leave a family legacy. I don't want to die yet, but I must admit I'm getting a bit more selfish these days, and I am praying for myself now. We all will experience pain and suffering in our lives and in many different ways, but I need a driver in my vehicle of life. I'm tired of making all the turns and hassles with driving to my destination. I'm willing to let go and let a higher power lead me. And with that, I've felt great joy and peace. Yes, I still have to make decisions and some are still wrong but it's different now. My purpose is to share love and joy with everyone I meet. We all have individual challenges plus the upcoming election and all it brings forth and topped by the Covid-19 pandemic, so we can get through this together but we must find meaning in our lives to endure it all.
Thank you for your leadership on this great adventure and I'm looking forward to many future nights in discussion with you.
March 31, 1974
Jill and Tom (post Hodgkin's) with Jenny and Tommy