On October 27, 1967, I was twelve years old, living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I was at a Halloween costume party dressed as a ghost. I was also waiting on a phone call.
My Dad and Mom were at the hospital. Mom was giving birth to her fourth child—her fourth son, and my third brother.
Four years separate each of us. I’m the oldest, followed my Mason, then Will, and on the 27th of October, Wade Robert Gillham, named after Dad’s best friend, Robert Ketch.
Two and a half years ago, Wade was diagnosed with a liver cancer called, Cholangiocarcinoma. Technically, it is cancer of the bile duct. When the call came, I was at my computer with a search engine open. I guessed, c-h-o-l-a-n-, and Google discerned right away what I needed.
The first return of Cholangiocarcinoma rendered a bleak probability. I searched further, read some more, quickly dug deeper looking for the sliver of hope that would reveal a silver lining to the dark cloud, but within ninety seconds realized we were in a mess.
With much of his life before him a moment earlier, Wade now had a life span of 2-4 years unless the cancer was resected, i.e. cut out. In his case, cut out meant a liver transplant. If a successful transplant occurred, his life span would approximately double.
Once he gathered his wits, Wade said, “I need eleven years” (the time necessary for his youngest, Ben, to graduate high school).
I won’t deliver a blow-by-blow of the last twenty-eight months. It’s long and sordid, filled with unspeakable horrors, courage, heartbreak, heroism, ungracious places, overcoming, and a world no one can imagine who hasn’t stepped into the trauma of abdominal cancer.
Chemotherapy is poison.
Radiation is targeted destruction.
The organ transplant world is a miasma of tenuous hope, high stakes, manipulation, money, backroom deals, and meaningless lists.
Cancer! My, my, my.
I do not have sufficient words to describe my sister-in-law. Hero, maybe. But that falls so, so short of Deb. Diminutive in stature, Will calls her “Tiny Boss.” Not in a bad way at all. Spectacular is more indicative of her management of this incredible predicament. Among her litany of brilliant moves, she somehow, someway, discovered that you can locate your own organ to transplant, and if the donor agrees, their organ can be designated for you.
Deb went to work. Her Facebook post on Sunday evening rendered a liver on Monday morning. It took days for the hospital to do what they needed to do, but the day of surgery finally arrived. There was no guarantee at all that Wade would even survive the procedure, let alone accept the organ.
Wade was one of the people the doctors open up, look around, close back up, and send the organ to someone else in dire need. This was about six months before the end—and the end was now inevitable. It is natural to look for silver linings behind storm clouds. But there was no silver lining this time.
There is sadness, and then there is deep sadness. Deep sadness doesn’t necessarily mean you have lost hope, forsaken your joy, or given up on God. It simply means, in this instance, your earthly aspirations and desires are rendered moot. Walking your daughter down the aisle, seeing your son graduate, enjoying a grandchild, making love again, tasting that food or that wine, hearing that song, and a thousand other things become irrelevant. For Wade and the family, life had an asterisk: cancer*.
You can buff and shine these disappointments all you want with high-minded spirituality, bravado, cliché, or resolution, but these disappointments won’t polish. No. These realities test your meddle, exact their price, and deplete your soul. Will said in his eulogy, “Death should be ashamed.” Well stated, Brother.
However sad this may be doesn’t mean hope is lost. It is just sad. Nothing more—and being sad is okay. Jesus knew sadness. The disciples who have preceded us knew sadness. Sadness is temporary. Hope is eternal.
One thing in life is certain: All of us will succumb to death, but only those without eternal hope should consider death final.
I miss Wade. But, I’m not sad Wade is gone. He was in a horrid mess and an awful situation—and because he was, we were. It would not be accurate to say I’m sad he is gone. It is more accurate to say I’m relieved that he is released.
The twelve years separating me from Wade loomed large in our younger days. Adding to that distance was the death of my second brother, Mason. He died when he was twelve and I was sixteen. Had the family dynamic worked like it normally works, Mason would have bridged the eight years between Will and me and the twelve years between Wade and me.
When you are young, twelve years means you are separated by a generation. When I went to college, Wade was starting first grade. He had little appreciation for Credence Clearwater Revival, The Guess Who, or the Doobie Brothers, and to me, U2 was a Cold War-era spy plane. But as you get older and life gets heavier, twelve years compress and the span of years lessens. This happened with my brother.
We walked the streets of Paris together, stood on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and stared across the Atlantic from which Normandy was invaded. We rode Trail 401 in Crested Butte, the same trail mentioned in the phenomenal obituary Will penned. We enjoyed similar wines and he patiently taught me to guide a radio-controlled car. We talked technology, and business, and we fly fished a bit.
We fished for Steelhead on the Deschutes in Oregon, stayed in a cheap cabin, and ate cholesterol at the only restaurant anywhere close. There was a pool table in the back room occupied by two folks who were pretty rough around the edges. We put our money on the table and waited our turn. They proposed instead to play teams—and put more money, green money, on the table.
It was one of those (rare) games when neither Wade or I could miss. Everything went in, including those guy’s money—in our pockets. After another win, I felt the air in the room negatively electrify on the back of my neck. As Wade and I stood along the wall waiting, I said, “You know. We ought to call it a night. These guys could toss us in the river and no one would know.” We didn’t catch any fish the next day. Neither did we know how to catch a Steelhead, but we whipped the water considerably with our fly lines, and we had gas money for the ride to Portland.
When brother Will lived in New York City, the three of us used to rendezvous up there. There are lots of memories from those trips—like the time the bouncer at White Horse Tavern got mad because I didn’t tip his girlfriend/waitress enough for our sorry dinner and her sorrier service.
We were several blocks down the street before she reported to her boyfriend the financial message I delivered—a single George under the edge of my cold plate. Enraged and indignant, the bouncer chased down the street after us. It was three against one—but he was one, big, doggone son-of-a-gun who took up the whole sidewalk.
He was cursing and storming and sweating, and threw his beer on us. He threatened to do vile things, until I explained to him that we would own him and the White Horse Tavern if he so much as bumped us. He cursed some more, and stormed some more, his long blond hair sticking to his red face. But, he went back to his job. It was close. Do you know how mad Mom would have been if all three of us died together… in New York City?
The owner fired the bouncer—or said he did. He gave us a free meal voucher, but it was our last day in The City and we didn’t use it. Maybe the voucher is still good. I don’t know. When you see Will, ask him if he knows where it is.
But each trip, and each day of our trip, we rode our bikes in The City—and that bears some elaboration.
Will was working for the publisher, Viking Penguin. A few days before we flew, Wade and I disassembled our mountain bikes, packed them in bike boxes, shipped them to Will’s apartment, and then flew up for our visit. The first night was devoted to putting our bikes together. The next day, we rode everywhere—and just the other day, as the three of us went around the block together, Will and I walking, Wade riding in a wheelchair, we reminisced about those trips.
The highlight of each trip began at Columbus Circle about 10:00 PM. This is before The City closed Times Square to traffic. As we sat under the seventy-foot-tall statue of Columbus, we agreed on the moment, put our referee’s whistles in our mouths (they were our “horns”), and headed down Broadway toward the lights of Times Square.
We weaved in and out, but rode primarily in the third lane. The first lane had stopped cars and open doors. The second lane had buses—and we were much faster than a bus. The fourth lane had left-turning cars. But the third lane!
The third lane was filled with cabs and through traffic.
Drafting NYC cabs, whistling to keep them from merging into us, holding onto their doors at stop lights, yelling at limo drivers…. The rush was otherworldly. Intoxicating even. Probably stupid, but we were young.
Would I do that again? Would I ride the third lane through Times Square if they opened it to traffic? In a New-York minute!
Our adventure concluded near NYU, usually at Washington Square Park. From there, we went in search of food and drink. I’m smiling as I write—and I’m missing my youngest brother.
Even though I used to, I couldn’t ride Trail 401 now. In my younger days, on a ride with Wade, I tumbled at the top of 401 and broke my hand. I reset it myself and rode down with only my back brake and my left elbow. It was an adventure, to say the least. Today, I could hike 401. But riding 401 with Wade is a memory, a good one.
I bought a suit recently. With a dignified flourish, the salesman held the prospective garment up and said, “Sir, this suit is a gentleman’s cut.” It took a moment for me to comprehend. The suit was cut for an old guy, but it looks really nice and didn’t have to be altered much at all.
Wade too was getting older—older by the day. Before cancer crippled him, he was running and coaching lacrosse. But cancer closed the span of years between him and me, and Will and me.
When people saw the three of us together, they often commented, “Wow. You guys are brothers.” And we do look a lot alike. I’m just more handsome. Ha.
Terminal cancer requisitioned all but the essentials from our souls and left the three of us discussing the same pages of life. The twelve years became inconsequential, and to an older brother reaching back to his younger siblings, that is important.
Near the end, on a day when Will and I were both in Austin visiting the family, we went for our customary walk around the neighborhood. Will was goofing off with Wade’s wheelchair—which only meant his younger brother would follow suit and goof off when he got in the chair. Never mind that he would be dead within days. Life remained, the camera was rolling, and life is to be engaged. Period.
As we rolled down the drive and into the street, Wade acted as if he did an endo from his chair and landed head-first in the street. It was all an act—all staged for the video Will was making with his phone to show Wade’s kids. It was hilarious, a thumbing of our noses at pain as we enjoyed one of our last laughs together.
Wade didn’t have the strength to stand back up on his own. Will was having a bad day with his hip, so was relying on his cane for support. He and I began trying to help Wade get up and into his chair that was sitting sort of cockeyed by the curb. And then, an unsuspecting woman who was leaving the neighborhood came upon us.
To someone not in on the joke, it looked tragic: an empty wheelchair, a horribly emaciated body head-down on the street, two men trying to help the third, one leaning upon a cane, the other old. Poor woman. She stopped mid-street and was so flustered she couldn’t find the button to let her window down. Her mouth was opening and closing, but she uttered no sound. Her eyes so wide her eyebrows disappeared into her hair. She was gasping as she looked at us, then down to locate her buttons, and back to us, and back down, fumbling, scrambling, gaping. Eventually she found the button for her rear window, lowered it partially, leaned backward across the console, and with a horrified face asked if we needed help.
We thanked her and waved her along. The dear woman. She’s probably in therapy, scarred for life.
This is my final memory with Wade. Apart from traumatizing the neighborhood lady, it is not a remarkable reminiscence. Mostly, this final memory demonstrates an attitude. Suffering is to be respected, and hardship can be an amazing mentor, but cancer must not define you.
Suffering didn’t define my brother. His life defined him, and in the end, he lived to the last moment.
Like brother Mason, brother Wade is released. “Released from the chains that bound him / To tread streets we’ve never trod. / He’s running, laughing, walking, / Touching, seeing, talking, / He’s holding hands with God!” Those are words penned by Mom after Mason died. Once again, they are applicable.
Wade is with Mason, on the other side of the divide. Will and I are here, two of four on this side. One day, he and I shall be released.
Until then, we live. Period.
We hold onto each other. We lean into our remaining family. We look to our heavenly Father for confidence, peace, and mercy. In this, there is consolation, and in time, there will be renewed hope built upon our shared love and God’s faithfulness.
There are takeaways from my brother’s life and death. His memorial service was comprised of the traditional elements in a funeral service. But the reception afterward was more akin to a marriage celebration than a funeral. I like that, and I intend to follow his lead.
I’m also reminded that life is fragile and short. Yes, I anticipate joining my brothers in heaven, but for now, I am here and intend to engage each day with renewed determination to live with gusto, grit, determination, and courage. Since I can’t take anything from here with me there, it is my intended purpose to expend all I possess and steward in living to the fullest, enjoying God, enjoying you.
Living in this way is the best tribute I can give to Wade. Living in this way is the most strength I can offer to Deb. Living in this manner enables me to contribute to Wade’s kids: Cate (17), Will (14), and Ben (9). Living like this, I will bring all of who I am and what I know of Father God to you who are alongside me in life.
Here's to my brother, the youngest, who lived, loved, and gave us his all. Wade Robert Gillham was born October 27, 1967 while I was at a Halloween party. He departed this life and fully engaged eternity on December 27, 2016 while I was in Mississippi for Christmas—again, waiting on a call.
Wade temporarily left important people behind in order to go on ahead of us who follow. There, in heaven’s grandstand, like those who preceded him, he cheers for us with spiritual awareness that is now perfectly clear to him. His legacy helps shows us the way to live here while assured of our place there.
And, here’s to those of us who remain—until we too are released. Running, laughing, walking, touching, seeing, talking. Yes, holding the hand of God by faith until we grasp reality as brothers Mason and Wade do.
Until then. See you soon, Brother.