Meet Jerry Brooks, and sheer feeling of freedom

We met under somewhat unexpected circumstances. He was sitting at a nearby restaurant table, writing. The unexpected was in seeing a man using a fine writing instrument. Beside him was an inkbottle next to a notebook full of calligraphy-like writing.

There should be nothing strange about seeing someone using a fountain pen, though they are used less today than a few decades ago. I use one daily and have a collection of Viscontis, Montegrappas, and S.T.Duponts. It was unusual, however, to see it in Lyons, Colorado. “Yes, it can happen everywhere, but not here,” I argued in my head.

Grażyna whispered, “Go and talk to him. He is someone you can relate to.”

Forever expressive. Jerry in his story element.
Meeting Jerry was like meeting one of the admirable people you always wanted to meet, or at least shake their hand or take a selfie with.

Jerry was a leader. And being a leader, he was a rebel.

There is no excuse for being a decider. There is no excuse when you opt for honesty, authenticity, and affirmation for another human beings’ choices.

Jerry shares a story of fourth grade when his mother looked at his report card one day when he came home from school. She noticed an “unsatisfactory” grade. “I had flunked singing in music class,” he proudly recalls. My mother wondered, “How can he get an unsatisfactory in music?”

She walked over to the school, which was just one block and a half from their home, and she sat with Mrs. Huston and wanted to know what the problem was. “No, he can sing alright,” she was told. “He can sing as well as the other children.

Not understanding what she was told, Jerry’s mother eventually got this:  “Well, he can sing all right, but he doesn’t always sing the right words.”

“But that’s not why he got the unsatisfactory, is it?”

Jerry’s flunking the class was because he was trying to teach the other children to sing his words.

“That’s my boy,” Florence said and held her head high.

A leader was born.

Jerry shares another well-preserved memory from 75 years ago of taking a brown paper sack with two lunches in it and riding on his pre-World War II tricycle to the Conoco gas station his father owned. There they would enjoy lunch  together. It was just a few blocks away, and two different paths were open to him. In his hand-written journals, which Jerry entitled Aphorically Speaking, he writes, that “one was via the sidewalk with its smooth surface, straight lines and irritable neighbors. The other path was a diagonal cut across two vacant lots along a narrow, crooked path my dad called the ‘bee way.’”

For Jerry, a four-year-old lad, the bee way was the preferred option. It was natural and represented a “sheer feeling of freedom,” he says. It was shorter, for one. Yes, perhaps it was wrought with small dangers for a small boy, narrow and difficult to negotiate on the tricycle. Bees liked it, too. The flower varieties were abundant, different daily as seasons played a transforming role. It seemed neighborhood dogs, snakes, cats and rabbits also preferred the bee way.

Risk taking was slowly becoming evident to small Jerry, marking his life with obvious choices. Enjoying freedom, even for a short journey to see his dad, was symbolic of who he was becoming.

Jerry’s dad knew. His boy would always have the same reply when asked if it was the sidewalk, or …

Over the next decades, Jerry says, “my first thought was to search for an alternate route and when none existed, create one.”

Grażyna is watching Jerry signing a stump
for our chickens.
There he was sitting in the Pizza Bar, one of his favorite eateries, which he calls Pizza Barn (it includes humans and all other animals meeting together), and making contemporaneous notes about happenings in his life, observing moments of which would impact him daily, but also sharing his stories.

It was obvious that in his sharing, the stories became richer as new people entered into them through their reactions.

Talking as one rebel to another we agreed that freedom of choice is foundational to who we are. This just might be a value represented by the leaders we can become.


Thirteen years on

Time flies and a detailed memory fades. It was on June 21, 2004 when a procedure at the Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, put a stop to a developing life challenge with prostate cancer. This exact date was noted on a receipt copy of what I put into a valuables envelope before being wheeled out and delivered into the hands of two physicians who administered the implantation of small radio-active seeds around the prostate and known as brachytherapy.

Until a few days ago, I didn’t consider writing about my experience. It was my experience, and a private one, at that. Who would want to read about it. A little nudge from a friend, going through a very serious trauma of her life, pushed me to share my story.

Dianna, a friend from our university days in the 1970-71, made me do it! So, I brought out a file from 2003-4 with dates and facts of a serious life challenge I once traversed through. She continues to receive my digital hugs and love.

Strasbourg happiness. Onlookers were joining in. September 11, 2012

What follows is a story of a human who does not give up on life, a story of being surrounded by people who care, love and know what to do.

Th early Monday morning of June 21, 2004 became quite memorable for years. Today, I recall a few details of that procedure, and how I was primed by to amazing doctors, Jonathan White, urologist, and Frank Sullivan, oncologist. The experience made me aware then, and continues to this day as a valuable lesson about fragility of life, and choices expressed in the Shakespearean famed phrase, To be, or not to be...

The whole ordeal with my cancer situation was laced with moments of bewilderment, awe, and joy. Most of the joy was expressed in my own thoughts and conversations I had with God, and my loved-ones. There were exchanges of what to do, how to arrange the immediacy of days to come, and basically changing my lifestyle, creating a slower pace of life.

It all started with a chest pain in mid-December, 2003. I ended up on a hospital bed at the Washington Adventist Hospital (WAH). Having a few days to undergo tests and rest, a conclusion was that unless I slow down in my daily pursuits, I may end up with consequential grief and tears on the faces of family and friends.

The specific trigger moment that precipitated a hick-up on an EKG read-out became a reminder from a few decades back when I practiced how to do it my way, testing my authenticity and vulnerability, being at ease with my own life decisions, exercising courage, pushing the borders in life, rejecting conformity, and daring to be who I am. Not easy to do it, believe me. It is stressful to face being told what to do and live a life according to someone else.

In short, there was a meeting at work, someone pointed a finger at me, shook it, and said: “Ray, you shall do THAT!” I knew that I would not do what I was forcefully being fed with, satisfying a decision someone else was making for me. I could not do it, knowing that participation in a non-professional corporate charade was against my better judgment. Stress boiled up to its pinnacle in my body. It allowed me for a brief enduring moment to be polite and mum, until the meeting ended. I picked my toys from the office and went home.

The next morning my chest communicated a message: Ray, get yourself checked up. A couple of hours later, I drove myself to the hospital.

The heart-event was woven with a wise and patient words of Dr. Radhey S. Murarka, a consultant cardiologist at WAH. He simply said, You can go home now. My advice? Slow down or stress will kill you. Your heart is fine now, but I recommend a review of your lifestyle. It’s not worth fighting someone’s battles. May your own imagination pave the alley of your life’s journey. And rest a little.

He probably said more, but that’s all I remember today. Returning home, I was wondering, what does he know about me, my work, my lifestyle, apart from what I shared with him, but with rather skimpy details?

A couple of weeks later, in mid-January 2004, I found myself having a general health check-up at Loma Linda University’s Center for Health Promotion. Tests revealed a satisfactory wellness score. Two or three days later a phone rang one afternoon. It was the consulting physician from LLU, Dr. David Z. Hall. He reported on the PSA score, and suggest to double check the result locally. What I see suggests that you have a prostate cancer, I recall him saying. He recommend that I see a urologist locally and have another PSA test done.

What? Such was my first thought which raced though my head.

He was right. The LLU lab test revealed a 9.4 PSA reading. The LabCorp in Maryland showed a 7.3. A visit with Dr. White, subsequent biopsies (it showed a very significant spread of cancer), a half a dozen tests (x-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, etc) confirmed seriousness of my situation, and called for a review of options where to go.

In front of me I had the following - do nothing (this is not what crossed my mind), a surgery, a chemotherapy, a proton treatment at LLU, radiation (to start with at the Maryland ), or the brachytherapy. I don’t remember, but here may have been other possibilities to opt for.

For three months since my visit with Dr. White and Dr. Sullivan, primed me for what was to happen on June 21. A receding five-week radiation treatment at Maryland Regional Cancer Center, before the Holy Cross Hospital surgery left me somewhat fatigued and closer to an understanding what the Millennials refer to as a state of whatever.   

Frankly, my initial thoughts did not registered the news of having cancer as being at the edge of a cliff. I tried to fog the potential consequences of the situation with thoughts of … and this shall pass too. But rather quickly, together with Grazyna and Michal, as well as David Brillhart, my close friend, I began a rather serious review of what it is that needs to happen, what needs to be reformed, what changes are important to be ignited. It became obvious that there is no time to waste.

Soon after receiving the phone call from LLU, a memorable moment, one that etched itself in my memory was a visit with my boss, Dr. Jan Paulsen. I shared with him my predicament. His answer was in a question he asked: What are you planning to do about this dangerous situation? How can I help?

My answer was reflective of the was I often approach problem solving. I will take care of it, I recall saying. He replied: Good. Take as much time as you need. Your office work will be still here. Your colleagues will fill in.

We prayed. My family and friends prayed. The greatest treasure in this experience was to be surrounded by loving, caring people. Grazyna became a relentless pusher of quality nutrition (always organic!), drinking lots of water, and engaging in regular exercise. She laughs, as she reminds me about slowing down and considering to unwind my clock and speed! 

Sharing my situation with a few friends helped. At first I was invited to consider what they did, what worked for them. Mitch Tyner, a former colleague shared with me literature on prostate. Reinder Bruinsma, a colleague from the Netherlands wrote that “if caught in time, it appears that a very large percentage of those who have cancer fully recover.” He recommended a brachytherapy. Both Mitch and Reinder poured lots of hope into me. I will be forever grateful. Cancer survivors are a close knit fraternity, I discovered. Later, I did the same – be supportive of those who are going through such traumatic, serious health issues. Living in a post-treatment phase had its challenges, but they didn’t compare with the news of having a cancer issue to deal with.

The assurance of one’s faith and a life of hope made me aware that my life is more than my temporary pursuits. The cancer experience made me more aware of the people around me, especially those who are in situations which cause me to be responsive. My take away from the whole experience is this - living in and with an embrace of God is intertwined with gratitude of living one day at a time, and to the fullest. There is nothing more satisfying than being a purveyor of hope.

--> June 21 will always be an anniversary of becoming a cancer survivor. To life!