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Shining on / July 16, 2014
I never had the occasion to meet Heather Anne Tucker, the Bluestone 15-year-old who passed away this week, even though her battles with brain cancer, waged very openly and bravely, became a prominent part of life in the community and a recurring story in the pages of this newspaper. One couldn’t help but to feel for this beautiful young girl and her family as they confronted her terrible odds of survival. Yet while I may not know Heather or the Tuckers personally, I’ve kept up with their story from afar. There’s a reason for this: the disease that claimed Heather Anne’s life took my father, too.

Glioblastoma Multiforme. I don’t even have to look up the spelling. A few years ago, I was browsing through the entertainment section of a magazine when up popped a review of a new TV show, a medical drama with a title I’ve long since forgotten. It was all very fluffy reading, except I was struck by the recap of the pilot episode: a brain surgeon is tormented by the challenge of operating on what he called the “White Whale” of cancers — the same Stage 4 tumor that afflicted Heather Anne, my father, the late Cathy Ramsey (wife of Buffalo Junction contractor Herbert Ramsey) and untold others. I have no idea if the TV show was any good, but the line was perfect: glioblastoma, an implacable, indestructible horror beyond even the fevered imaginings of author Herman Melville.

In writing, there’s a tendency to reach for the metaphorical, to assign human qualities to the things we fear most. The flames that licked the side of the house. The storm that swept through the outskirts of town. That sort of thing. I lived through this disease, so I like to think now that I know a little better. My father was a strong man, physically and mentally; he was a health and fitness nut. All of this proved of no consequence once the disease set in. As Dad would later describe it, he knew something was wrong when he began experiencing what sounded very much to me like an out-of-body sensation: painless, but frightening — the feeling of being in one place when in fact he was in another. When the diagnosis came back from the hospital, my father reacted in his usual manner: with single-minded determination. I will beat this, he told me more than once. Do not be upset on my behalf. Events proved otherwise. I often think back to the night I drove home from the hospital in Richmond, his exhortations ringing fresh in my mind and the tears rolling down my face, as I think about the coldness, the impersonality, of the cancer he faced. Human attributes, good and bad, are inapt to describe its progression.

The survival rate with Glioblastoma Multiforme is shockingly low — in the low single digits, a level of mortality approached by few other forms of cancer (pancreatic cancer comes to mind). My father lived with the tumor through the fall and part of the winter before we finally laid him to rest eleven years ago, at the all-too-young age of 67. Heather Anne made it a year. The greatest difference, of course, is not so much the survival spans, but rather the anguish of seeing a mere child of 15 succumb to the disease. One can only stand defenseless, uncomprehending, at the pain that Heather Anne’s family must be suffering. You wish you could do or say something that could help. In all the ways that would matter most, you cannot. Despite the wonders of modern medicine, this also is sadly true of the medical researchers and professionals who have attempted to overcome this most phantasmagoric of cancers. Our powerlessness is enough to bring despair to the most hopeful-minded.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”: Psalm 23:4, the Bible passage that Heather Anne kept close to heart, according to her family. May their faith serve the Tuckers well in the days to come. Pondering these words, I’m reminded of another facet of Heather’s story, one I also witnessed with my father: incredible bravery in the face of insuperable odds. Perhaps everyone wonders from time to time how we might react to the sure knowledge that our lives are soon to come to the end — especially if the news were delivered as a death sentence, which a diagnosis of Stage 4 brain cancer nearly always is. Yet here in our midst was a young girl, who by any ordinary definition of justice should have had a long life ahead of her, reminding us through her actions and her grace that the time comes for us all and we have a choice: to shrink in the face of inevitable defeat, or transcend it. Heather Anne chose the latter; through her actions and advocacy, most recently as co-chair for the Clarksville Relay for Life, and in her very public determination to live her days to the fullest for as long as her body and soul could stand, she reminded us of our obligation not to mourn but strive to help others suffering their own misfortunes. By choosing courage over despair, she did her part to chase away the shadows, through the illuminating brilliance of personal example.

She will be missed.

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