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It's never too late to reconnect with family

I guess I always knew we might find ourselves playing catch-up, but I thought the circumstances would be reversed.

My son, Sean Holland, 47, is approaching the final stages of his 12-year battle with cancer. He is at his stilt house on the banks of the Suwannee River, receiving home health care and getting frequent visits from his daughter, grandson, mother, stepfather, extended family and, more than ever, me.

At the 11th hour he has elected to try a last-ditch combination of three chemotherapies which, if successful, may buy him up to 24 months. The side effects are very unpleasant and I admire him for courage I can only imagine he inherited from his mother.

I hope we get the two years. We have a lot to say.

The time, of course, is out of joint. Logically I should be in his position and he in mine, but the universe doesn't always play things out the way we thought it would.

And that is why I want to write about this — to recognize his bravery, grace and dignity and to express my pride. These events have closed a space between us, and I also know there are many others out there who need to reach out to a loved one or friend and don't know how to go about it.

Sean was 9 months old when I left for Vietnam. By the time I returned, his mother and I were divorced. The whys are fading into a haze of more than 40 years past. We have both grown since then and remained friends, usually with our son as cause for contact.

Sean has a different last name than mine because he was adopted by his mother's second husband. I, too, had grown up in a home where everyone but I had a different last name, and didn't oppose the name change.

Maybe it was lack of bonding. Maybe it was living in different states without much money on either side. Whatever, Sean and I didn't see much of each other. Our infrequent meetings were congenial. Years ago we agreed that "estranged" was not the proper word to describe us. We longed for something else.

His cancer is the result of a genetic condition called Lynch Syndrome, which causes a greatly increased risk of colon cancer and, eventually, other cancers.

He inherited the gene from me. I had colon cancer when I was about his age and probably will again. Of nine members of my generation of my mother's family, six of us have the gene. My mother and both of her siblings died of Lynch-related cancers, as did her father and both of his siblings. A medical study of the family traces the disorder back to the mid 1800s. By the 1960s researchers were acknowledging the existence of "cancer families" but it took later research to isolate the gene and, more important, devise a test for it.

Experts didn't agree on standards of diagnosis until 1991 — the year I got cancer.

People with the gene have a 50 percent chance of passing it on. I did. It is unknown yet whether Sean did to his daughter.

He had his first colon cancer 12 years ago and doctors removed an 8-pound tumor. He had a recurrence about a year later and appeared to be okay after that — until two years ago when the disease struck his biliary tract and liver.

During those years he has endured frequent chemotherapy and radiation treatments and many surgeries. He has displayed courage and even humor beyond anything I could imagine.

And we have reconnected.

I have steadily gained respect for the way he conducts himself. We have talked for hour upon hour about everything. We talk about the blacked-out portions of our lives when we weren't in touch. We talk about relationships and things we did and didn't do and things we wish we had or had not done. No holds are barred, no punches pulled.

On the day I drove him home from an inpatient hospice house in Gainesville to enter home care, I got to see him greeted enthusiastically by his dogs. I saw him walk around and reacquaint himself with his home, and I watched him quietly place his pumps, tubes, drains and lines into a backpack and climb slowly downstairs to where his truck is parked.

It is a huge Ford 350 turbo diesel — "Big Blue'' — converted to burn reclaimed vegetable oil and loaded with state of the art sound and video equipment from his days in that business.

For a minute I was afraid he was going to try to drive. He had spent a lot of time reminiscing about the truck. I wondered if I should speak to him … what responsibility, or even right, I had to do so.

I decided to just watch.

He sat in it a while, started the engine and then shut it off and got out.

He had just wanted to sit in it again.

That was the man I have come lately, but not too lately, to know.

I have watched him interact with his brothers and with his mother and stepfather with whom he has a great relationship.

They are wonderful people and I would be remiss in not noting how many times they were there when I wasn't.

We talk a lot about his daughter, Olivia, and her son, my great-grandson, Jackson. We both point out hastily to nurses that we were both child grooms.

I watch his wife, Bonnie, a nurse, care for him and note his appreciation and love.

I write this with his and his wife's permission because all of us know there are other people who need to reach out to a loved one and don't know how.

The answer is simple: Do it. Make the call, knock on the door. Write the note.

You may be rebuffed or you may discover the type of wealth we have.

You can't lose. The worst that can happen is that you will break even.

And maybe you will get to do what we do: look each other in the eye and say "I love you."

Twenty years or more ago, in a column about another subject entirely, I wrote a phrase that was picked up by Reader's Digest and has wound up in publications all over the world. People found something in it that resonated with them and I have been flattered and honored by that.

"You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present."

Now I know what it means.

It's never too late to reconnect with family 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 3:32pm]
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