Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Courage. Extreme Courage. And Garry B., Beyond Category

I used to check out the tennis courts even on days when I wasn’t planning to play.  No telling when you might scare up a game.

One day I spotted a new guy, hitting against the ball machine on court two. We introduced ourselves and had a hit.  Garry B., the newcomer, was much younger and much the better player, but he was gracious about my many failures to return his shots.

“Let’s do it again sometime,” he lied when we had finished.  But we played again only when he and his partner could split up for a friendly game of doubles with me and my partner. I relished these sessions because there  was always lots of laughter when Garry was on the court.

Even on the day when he disclosed he was about to begin chemotherapy for lymphoma. He was joking about  hair loss, loss of sex drive and what the poisonous chemicals might do to his tennis game.  He knew that I had survived lung cancer and asked how, when I was declared cancer free five years after my initial surgery, I had celebrated. “I’m looking forward to that kind of party,” he said.

A fellow tennis player who, in a grim coincidence, had had the same diagnosis as Garry, at about the same time, did in fact have “that kind of party” five years later. But that kind of party wasn’t in the cards for Garry.

No one in his large circle of friends ever knew the kind of hell he went through fighting the disease the only way medical science knew how, with toxic brews designed to kill cancer cells.  “I just stay home on the bad days, so nobody has to see me that way,” he told me once.  Otherwise he went to work (he’s an intensive-care unit nurse), played tennis including as many tournaments as he had time for, and organized fun weekends for himself and his friends.  Motorcycle tours, trips to hot springs spas, trips to the casinos of Las Vegas, hikes in the desert, hikes in the mountains, swimming parties, dancing parties, movie parties, bicycling trips.

Lance Armstrong was still an American sports hero then, the man who conquered cancer — twice — to become the best bicycle racer in the world.  Garry raised money for the cyclist’s Livestrong Foundation and its campaign for cancer research. He was a regular entrant in Livestrong’s regional fund-raising tennis tournaments.  

Garry had once been a trainer-handler for show dogs.  Now he kept a pack of mongrel best friends of his own and cared for friends’ best friends when they needed a friendly paw.  His fun weekends included many outings planned especially for the canines. He specialized in finding new homes for needy dogs.  

One day he turned up at the tennis courts and declined an invitation to play singles with one of the better players in the club — which immediately raised eyebrows.  Was he not feeling well?  “Had a Pacemaker implant yesterday,” he said, so he settled for a  leisurely set of social doubles. Afterward, he remarked that, “I had a healthy heart when all this started, but the chemo messed  things up so I needed the Pacemaker.”  This was his intro to a series of Pacemaker jokes that left everyone laughing.

Time and chemo therapy marched on. Their toll was gradual.  Little by little, grudgingly, Garry acknowledged the diminution of his tennis prowess.  Little by little, grudgingly, he cut back on the physical demands of some of the fun weekends. One weekend, over beer at a brew pub , he let slip that “they” could no longer give him chemo therapy.  They’d run out of witches’ brews to infuse him with. Sit around and wait to die?  Not Garry.

Garry put his medical background to work overtime.  He discovered that someone, somewhere had developed a promising new chemical treatment for lymphoma and was pushing to get it approved by the FDA.  They needed guinea pigs to test it.  Garry pushed himself to the front of the line.

Soon he was driving 250 miles every other week to a hospital that had access to the experimental drug.  Shortly after this regimen had begun I took Brandi out for a run with Garry and his dogs.  I asked how long it had been since the first diagnosis.  “More than ten years,” he said. He told several humorous stories about his battles with “the insurance bureaucrats.”  He was on a first-name basis with virtually all of them — up to the vice-president level, at least. 

He still showed up at the tennis courts from time to time.  One day he told us about volunteering to be the guinea pig for yet another new, unapproved chemical mix.  The doctor said it was for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  “But mine is Hodgkins lymphoma,” Garry said. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?,” the doctor said.  “You’ve got both now.” Garry laughed and laughed, as if this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

I had coffee the other day with a mutual friend.  “Haven’t see Garry in quite a while,” I said.  “How’s he doing.?”

”He sold his house, threw a big farewell party for himself, and moved to Yuma,” the friend said.

Nobody at the party is quite sure why.  Some speculate that he went to enter a highly-regarded non-profit hospice there.

Knowing Garry, he might have discovered a tennis tournament for terminally-ill cancer patients.  Or, more likely,  he means to organize one.  Just one more fun weekend.


  1. What an inspirational and emotional post, Tom. I believe you and your friend are so lucky to have encountered such an incredibly gritty man. If only we were all so lucky to have a guy like Garry enter our lives.

  2. He will leave a far finer legacy, Ryan, than many far more famous men.