Dying Lions fan getting his wish to attend game

What’s the best part of waking up on Thanksgiving? The morning doorbell? Your kids making noise in the kitchen? The smell of turkey, already wafting?

For the last few months, the best part of waking up for Chris Liwak, 56, has been finding a morning Detroit Free Press and filling out a form to win Lions tickets. Day after day. Newspaper after newspaper. He did this task from a wheelchair in a health care facility.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” he told his sister, Debbie Williams, one morning, “if I actually won?”

He didn’t. But it didn’t stop him. Day after day. Newspaper after newspaper. Over 100 entries. Always the same. Name, address, e-mail and phone. He didn’t put his own phone. He put Debbie’s. He was worried if the lucky call came, he might be too confused to comprehend it.

“The contest was really a motivator,” she admitted. “You don’t have a lot of dreams when you know you’re not going to get better.”

Chris Liwak has lung cancer. He’s not going to get better. He knows this. He apparently has accepted it. This summer, after 55 relatively healthy years of life, working mostly in the printing industry, he noticed he was losing weight. And, as skinny as Liwak was, he didn’t have any weight to lose.

He went to the doctor, where tests revealed a sizable tumor in his left lung. As a smoker, this was not a total shock. Still, he was given the usual litany of options. And a depressing prognosis. He didn’t have long to live.

“They told him chemotherapy might give him an extra month,” Williams said. “One of the doctors said the best thing to do might be to go home and enjoy your life.”

That, ultimately, is the path he chose. Go home. Enjoy your life.

He’s about to enjoy it a little more.

A loyal fan rewarded

For the first time in his life, Chris Liwak will attend a Lions game. No, he didn’t win the contest. But sometimes you win when you don’t win. The Free Press learned of his situation, the Lions were informed, and they generously made four tickets available for the Thanksgiving matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles (12:30 p.m., Fox). Then they added sweatshirts. And a football autographed by Matthew Stafford. And several personal phone calls to make sure Chris and his guests will be tended to.

“When we told him,” Williams said, “he got this huge grin on his face. We call it ‘The Chris Smile.’”

The Chris Smile. Why not? After all, he has been watching the Lions since he was a kid. Every autumn. Every Sunday. It was a tradition when he was a healthy teenager, and his friends from Dearborn Fordson High School would come around to watch with him.

It was tradition when he was a young father, raising two children with his wife in a Dearborn home not far from where he grew up.

It was a tradition five years ago, after his wife passed away.

And it was a tradition this year, after his own bad health news was delivered.

“No matter what,” Williams said. “He watched the games.”

This is how it works around here. You stick with your team, good or bad. This season, clearly a disappointment for the Lions, has heard the howls of angry fans swearing they will never watch this franchise again.

But for every fist-pounding, exit-chasing screamer, there are many more Michiganders who quietly endure. They watch and sigh, but they always watch. Because, as Williams said, “We love Detroit. We are always going to be for Detroit.”

In her brother’s case, right to the end.

A day to remember

Chris Liwak doesn’t know how much time he has left. His sister said he is declining each week. He can’t get out of his wheelchair. He has no use of his left lung. He’s easily confused and is in hospice through Heartland Health Care Center in Livonia. It’s there that friends and family come to see him, and it’s there that Williams helped him fill out the daily Free Press contest form, hoping for a little luck.

It has been a hard year on their family. First, their mother, RoseMarie, became ill. So Chris, laid off several years ago, took it upon himself to be her caregiver. He tended to her needs as she once tended to his.

Then, Chris got his bad news in June.

Now it seems that the mother might outlive the son.

This is not how you want to enter Thanksgiving.

But we don’t get to pick our fates, any more than we can pick our odds of winning a ticket giveaway. Still, even in the stormiest skies, small light beams through.

So when Chris was told a photographer was coming to take his picture, the folks at Heartland declared it “Lions Day” and dressed up in uniforms. And his most trusted nurse, Timi, will get to accompany him to the game. So will his sister, and one of Chris’ buddies from the old neighborhood.

They will be among the masses down at Ford Field, continuing a Thanksgiving tradition of football and feast. You might not be able to single them out visually, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be the only ones who tried 100 times to win tickets and never succeeded.

“Chris asked me today, ‘Do you think I should stop sending the forms in?’” Williams said, laughing. “I told him, yes, I think we’ve gotten more than we could ask for. Why not send them in someone else’s name?”

Sometimes you win even when you don’t win. And sometimes, in a bad year, you can still get a good day. After VIP treatment at the game, Chris and his sister will reunite with their mother at Debbie’s house for a meal, and when their third sibling, Clifford, joins them, the whole family will be together again, difficult as it has been.

“This just shows that there are good people in the world,” Debbie said. “I know we won’t have Thanksgiving next year with Chris … ”

Her voice choked up.

“ … but it’ll be easier, you know? Because we’ll be able to think about how special this one was.”

What’s the best part of waking up on Thanksgiving? Maybe that you get to wake up. Embrace it, be grateful, and go from there.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his new book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Books-A-Million at Southfield Road and 13 Mile in Beverly Hills, at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Huron Village in Ann Arbor and at noon Dec. 3 at Chapters in Windsor’s Devonshire Mall.

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