No Time for Conversation

We coped with my brother's struggle against leukemia by doing instead of talking

Posted Feb 06, 2018

In all the years my brother was sick with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, I don’t remember us ever having a conversation around the dinner table, where everything was explained in detail. It just wasn’t my parents’ way.

We knew Eric was really sick and that he could possibly die. My mother took him to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo several times a month and sometimes they needed to stay overnight for treatment. So, when my younger brother was home with us, the focus became on living fully in this day and the next and perhaps the one after that.

In the summers, we began to sail the inland sea called Lake Ontario, often crossing all the way over to the Canadian side, more than 30 miles of open water. My father bought our first boat, a 24-footer, soon after Eric was diagnosed in 1966. Even though Dad never came out and said it, teaching us the ways of the wind, how rapidly it can shift and grow in strength, was his way of pushing back on having a son contract this cruel disease. On board, our family of six kids had specific jobs to do and, looking back on it, that’s when we were often at our best as a family.

During the winters in Western New York, we again came down to the water, but this time it was to skate on the frozen ponds near our home. If Dad was the one who led us to sailing on Ontario, I was the one who brought us to ice hockey. I had first followed the game on radio and television out of Toronto, but I also wanted to be involved. Soon many of siblings joined me in playing on teams at the local rink, even my little brother Eric.

Decades later, when my own children were becoming adults, I came across Wade Davis’ book “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.” It details the initial British attempts to summit Everest in the 1920s. Sometimes the climbers were asked why they so gung-ho to reach the top of the highest peak in the world and they never fully answered the question. Perhaps the best they could come up with was George Mallory’s famous quip: “Because it’s there.”

Yet when one considers the larger picture, the Everest campaigns had to be made. The British, along with most of Europe, had just fought World War I. The trench warfare, the rapid-fire machine guns, barbed wire and mustard gas were a nightmare for an entire continent, a whole generation. Afterward the British climbers were drawn to try and rise above it all, to move into the silence.

In our own way, my family found a way to temporarily move away from the uncertainty and discord, too. Though we weren’t climbing Mount Everest, a wide horizon of water has always calmed my father. And even though Dad never came out and said it, he had to believe that to would help the rest of us, too. In my own way, I believe the same about a glistening stretch of fresh ice. At such times, the impulse was to push away from shore and see what we can do together, as a family.

When I told Dr. Donald Pinkel, the founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, about such times, he understood. Before moving to western Tennessee in the early 1960s, Pinkel had been director of pediatrics at Roswell Park, the same hospital my brother was later at.

Permission of Pinkel Family
Source: Permission of Pinkel Family

During his time in Buffalo, Pinkel moved his family across the border to a wind-swept house on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. There they became more close-knit, focusing on the day to day and what passed for normal at the time.

“Both of us are describing a family’s reaction to this immense challenge,” he told me. “How we tried, in our own particular ways, to cope with the enormity of it all.”