My left leg bobbing involuntarily up and down, I tried distracting myself at the loading gate before boarding my red eye flight by concentrating my mental faculties on a dense book about the role of imperialism in the development of contemporary Latin America (in retrospect, a selection from my Calvin and Hobbes collection would have been more apropos). I don’t typically get so anxious before I fly, but this particular journey occurred during an anomalous cyclone of circumstances.
At that very moment, just before my flight, I was expecting my first child, who technically could have been born at any moment. In the middle of the week, in the middle of a brisk Los Angeles night, I was trekking across the continent to the warm, damp airs of Orlando to give a speech – something I once absolutely paranoid to do – to a major pharmaceutical company, on behalf of something I used to never really enjoy talking about: being a cancer survivor.
Also, to stiffen up that curious cocktail of atypical circumstances, a self-aggrandizing reality show star had recently decided to make air travel a little less expedient for many people by throwing out a ban disguised as an executive order that quickly smashed into a constitutional crisis of a wall. I was really hoping that in the case my baby boy decided to scrape his way into this wild world earlier than anticipated, there would be no delay in getting aboard the next flight and sliding into home in time to catch his debut into my reality.
Despite my anxiety, I hopped aboard, fell right asleep, and blinked my eyes open when the tires were thudding, then squeaking across the tarmac at Orlando International Airport. I slept straight through the flight. I hope I didn’t snore and keep the people around me away from slumberland. For what I truly believe was the first time in my life, a person was waiting for me at the end of the exit gate with my name scrawled across a sheet of paper. Sweet. He was a Colombian (my mom and wife are from there), so he and I connected fast and were soon-after-meeting talking about the difficulties he had coping with the fact that he still deeply loves his ex-wife but he lost her to religion. She was apparently more devoted to spending time in, around, and about her place of worship, to the point where she told him she didn’t have enough time to devote to him. One of the main rifts that caused their separation to ensue was based upon a hardship involving a failed childbirth and the inability to try another. I told him his story reminded me of the melancholic lyrics of a folkloric Vallenato song; a Colombian staple. He responded by telling me that the lyrics for his song were so sad, though, that they didn’t have any music that wanted to accompany them, and that the song kept playing on and on in his head, regardless. This was at around 6 in the morning.
I pulled into the Walt Disney Resort, bid farewell to my driving companion, and met a nice woman in the lobby who helped me get everything I needed ready to get into my room and catch some more zzz’s before my speech. By 4 P.M. that day, I was in front of 60 or so pharmaceutical salespeople, reps, execs, and other employees for the chemotherapy drug division of a big pharmaceutical company named Shire.
They wanted to hear about my experience as a young adult cancer survivor. They wanted to get a better idea of how to connect on a more interpersonal basis with teen and young adult cancer patients. Teen Cancer America has exclusively been working to help bring that age group into a brighter spotlight. One of the great friends I have at Teen Cancer America, Hilary Gan, connected me with some of the company’s patient advocates to give the speech I gave that day.
When I was first contacted by the endlessly thoughtful representatives from the company, Wendy Poage and Christie Cioffi, I told them a bit about my past and they wanted to know more. So I told them more, and they had some colleagues listen in the next time to hear what I had to say. They all agreed that my story was going to help shed some fresh light on the perspective that their customers face when they unfortunately have to become one of their customers.
Surreal is a good word to use to describe the experience leading up to my speech. I guess it seems like a good word to use to describe life with and after having cancer, too. It’s always a good thing, I suppose, to pull the discord in one’s life out from the shadows, stare it in the eye, understand it, accept it, and pull it apart until it’s not so burdensome that it’s constantly trying to pull you back into the shadows.
Giving the speech was cathartic for me in that way. I will elaborate more on its contents (my life before, during, and after cancer) in the following installment.
After delivering my speech, I walked around Disney’s Boardwalk – a collection of small stores, restaurants, and bars which hugs up against a Victorian-esque beach resort and the Epcot Center. I reflected upon the story I shared, the life I’ve lived, and the people who gave me that life.
Our mom and dad used to bring my brothers and sisters and I to Disneyland frequently; a direct result of my dad having a special admiration for all things Disney. Nostalgia was camping out in my brain that day, as I reflected upon my family; especially my father.
My father, Frank Charles Eck, was a soft-yet-outspoken man who sprinkled his innocent, gentle humor into any topic of conversation. He was an active listener, an enabler of great ideas, and a steadfast supporter of everything that I did. My brothers, sisters, wife, mother, and I sang and cried during his peaceful so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye to the world nearly one year ago. He did not know I would be in Florida that day, taking a leap away from fears that once held me back – some of which not even he was aware of – and carrying on his legacy of standing up in front of crowds and telling them a story they might find interesting.
As I watched the fireworks from Epcot Center from the comfort of my hotel balcony, I pondered, “Dad did not know that he was going to be the grandfather of a child born to his child that cancer tried to strike down and out. He would have loved him more than he loved horse racing, Disney, and the Sound of Music combined, times infinity.”
On February 26th, 2017, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, I showed cancer who is boss by welcoming Max Nicolas Eck into this wacky, wonderful world. I also added another milestone to my father’s proud Eck Family Legacy.
Vallenato means “born in the valley.” The sound of spirited vallenato music is now resonating throughout our home.