Bob McKinney

You never know when a relic from the past might provide unexpected insight.

I recently received in the mail a handwritten note (something of a relic itself), with an enclosure, from a cousin in Florida. His father and mine were brothers.

In his note my cousin told me he had found the enclosed with some old pictures that belonged to his dad and said, "I have no idea how I ended up with this."

It was a typed letter from my mother to my dad's sister, written more than 40 years ago. (My mother, whose fast handwriting could sometimes be hard to decipher, typed many letters on her IBM Selectric typewriter).

I know why my cousin ended up with this letter from my mother. My father and his siblings (three brothers and one sister), and sometimes their mother, would pass letters around. If one of them wrote one that contained information that would be of interest or newsworthy to one of the others, or to all, the recipient would simply mail it to another sibling, and that sibling might continue and mail it to another.  

I'm confident that's how my cousin came into possession of this. My aunt, the original addressee, certainly was not going to make an expensive long distance call to update her brother with news, but she decided she could spring for a stamp (which at the time cost 13 cents) to keep him in the loop.

My uncle read the letter, then stored it away somewhere. His son, while packing up his father’s possessions after he died, ended up with this letter from my mother. I am fully confident in this theory.

It was the content of the letter from my mother that most interested me. Some background is in order.

In 1975 my father was diagnosed with throat cancer — cancer on his vocal cords. I was in high school at the time. He and my mother traveled from our home in south Arkansas to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston, Texas, where he went through several months of radiation treatment.

Interestingly, one of his brothers (another of the five siblings), who lived in West Texas, received an identical diagnosis only a few weeks prior to my dad, and went to Houston for treatment at the same time.

As I recall, they each, with their respective wives, rented apartments in a complex owned by the clinic for short-term patients. Since their treatments were not debilitating, my dad and uncle both got jobs at the apartment complex on the maintenance crew.

The summary ending to this episode is, after radiation treatments, both went into remission and went home to resume their lives.

Within a couple of years, my uncle's cancer came back. He had a total laryngectomy, in which his voice box was removed. After that, he had a permanent trachea and had to learn esophageal speech.

I saw him a handful of times after that, and it was remarkable how well he did with it. His new way of speaking resembled his former voice, although it was extremely breathy, and he had to take numerous small breaths in order to speak.

My dad continued having checkups, and in the fall of 1978, his cancer also returned. He was scheduled for a laryngectomy that November. By this time I was in college.

That's where the letter from my mother to my aunt comes in. She tells my aunt in the letter the date of the surgery and when they will be going to Houston.

She had obviously talked to my aunt by phone a couple of days before writing the letter, as she apologizes "for the way I must have sounded." She goes on to say she had told my dad he was going to have to let her have a day "to fall apart," and apparently that is what she had done the day she and my aunt talked.

She then says she is now fine. She says my dad’s attitude is great, so she knew she was going to be OK too. She says he had told my mother he would do whatever was necessary to learn to speak again, and would depend on his brother, who had already been through the procedure, to help him with that.

What struck me in this letter was my mother telling my aunt how she needed to "fall apart" and had spent the day in bed. I can't adequately express how unlike my mother this would have been.

In my mind, she always represented the height of strength, courage and optimism and I would have been shocked had I known at the time that she had spent a day in bed — falling apart, no less. She just wasn't the fall-apart type.

But with the knowledge that comes from years, I now know this was a healthy exercise for her. She didn't know what the future held, and she was scared, so she needed some time to process.

She didn't do it for days or weeks. She did it for one day. She then got out of bed and moved on with life and whatever came next. I know her faith sustained her.

The postscript to this story is the best part. My dad had the surgery as scheduled, and when the surgeon got to his voice box, he discovered he could retain a portion of one vocal cord that was not affected by the cancer.

He had only a partial laryngectomy and did not have to learn esophageal speech.  His voice was raspy for the rest of his life, but he could talk naturally and clearly until the day he died nearly 30 years later.

I am grateful to my cousin for passing along this treasure, for the stroll down memory lane and the opportunity to learn a little more about someone I’ll always hold dear.

Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected].

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