Fathers are often bad at good-byes. Some find them awkward. Some find them silly. Some just figure, in their work-focused way, that there will always be time for one later.
Mark Weber was an exception. He had a long chance to say good-bye. He was a career soldier, a lieutenant colonel in the Minnesota National Guard, awarded the Bronze Star for heroism. In 2010, he was on his way to a high-level position in Afghanistan, under personal request from Gen. David Petraeus.
He stopped to get a physical.
And everything changed.
Tests showed, astoundingly, that 75% of Mark’s liver, the surrounding lymph nodes and intestines were strewn with cancer. Although he’d felt fine, he was only 38, and he had been running several miles a day, the doctors shook their heads.
“They said, ‘We don’t even know how you’re processing food right now,'” he told me.
Afghanistan was out. So were any other long-range plans. Experts gave him four months to live.
He had three sons and a loving wife.
So he did not accept that.
Story to tell
I first got to know Mark through an e-mail. Then another. Then another. He became a long-distance correspondent, and eventually he sent me a manuscript for a book he was writing and self-publishing called “Tell My Sons.” He asked if I would offer suggestions.
This happens quite a bit to people in this business. Sometimes you have the time, sometimes you don’t. I think because Mark didn’t, I had to.
The book was a series of life lessons inside letters, wrapped around the story of Mark’s 23-year military career and his battle against cancer. He told his sons about courage. He told them about faith. He told them to have an appetite for adventure, to be humble in success, to be serious but not too serious, to find joy and inspiration in life.
I gave Mark my thoughts and admiration for his words. He published the book himself, paying out of his own pocket, and sold the copies when he went around to high schools and other places, sharing his inspiration.
People gobbled it up. Mark had a direct and honest way about him, as defined as his sharp nose and cheekbones, which grew more pronounced as he grew thinner, the disease eating whatever it could.
Still, the book and its message gave him purpose. He was beating the odds just by living. Getting treatment, yes. Suffering terribly, yes.
A few months back, he wrote to say he wanted to come to Detroit.
I didn’t realize it was to say good-bye.
We had lunch together less than two weeks ago, and we laughed and told stories. Mark’s little book had found a big publisher – Random House – and it was releasing it that day, and we toasted his perseverance. We vowed to visit again in two months.
“Deal?” I asked.
“Deal,” he said.
But getting older has its drawbacks; you see too much death. I’d seen enough to know by his jaundiced skin that his time was short, no matter what we planned.
“Does the thought that you could die at any time make it harder or easier?” I asked him that day.
“It makes it more familiar,” he said. “And you know what happens when things become more familiar? You learn how to cope with them.”
We hung out all afternoon. We hugged at the end. I could feel his bony frame through his clothing.
Two days later, he went on “The View.” He spoke with Barbara Walters, who called him “a hero.” His family was on stage with him, and his 12-year-old son Noah said Dad had taught the kids to take responsibility for things, because “that’s the way a young boy becomes a man.”
His father nodded proudly.
Seven days later, as news arrived that his book had landed on the extended New York Times best-seller list, Mark Weber died. Three years after experts said he would. He was 41.
Some fathers are bad at good-byes. Some are blessed to set it up just right. Mark’s three sons, Matt, Noah and Joshua, have been well-prepared for their dad’s departure. They have a bounty of memories to keep him inside them, and a book full of lessons to emulate him in life.
But today is Father’s Day. And whichever side of the equation you are on – child or parent – it might be good to pretend this was your good-bye moment, and say the things you might be waiting to say now instead of later.
Because time is fickle, but it wins in the end. Even against the bravest of soldiers.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.