by Ken Harnisch

His name was Bill Shea
And he was a big, garrulous guy
With two children and a wife;
A gnarly smile, a lazy eye,
A sense of humor, and

Cancer of the what
He never said, mostly
Because no one asked.
These were the medieval 70’s
After all, and it was thought
That if you got too close
You’d catch the disease
And in those days, so it
Seemed, everybody died.

I think the shunning
Bothered Big Billy the most;
The cancer, after all, was
Something he lived with;
Something he took on the
Subway to work, invisible
To the guy holding onto
The pole next to him on
The BMT, but weighing tons
In Billy’s estimation.

Didn’t handle it well, Big
Bill. Didn’t show the courage
They always show on TV documentaries;
The stoicism, the optimism, the determination
To beat his enemy
Which I was always told was
The hallmark of the best
Of the afflicted.

“I got cancer,” he’d snarl.
“Want some?”

And how do you answer even
That rhetorical question without recoil?
Without shunning the angry young man even more
Than before? How can you sympathize with
Someone who hated sympathy and for sure
The reason you extended it.

Could be because, when Big Billy looked in your eyes ,
All he saw was “better you than me, pal.”

Can’t say he was wrong, either.

But I don’t really know. It wasn’t
A conversation we had before he died.

The nurses loved my spirit, my optimism,
My attitude. “One day at a time” and
“It’s a process” and singing Christmas Carols
To the guy transporting me down to the OR
in the basement.

Wondering while looking up at the eggshell
Ceiling if it was better to linger with cancer
And tie up the loose ends of life
Than go swiftly and painfully with a heart attack.

Watching people I cared about hurting, too
And realizing we were all suffering. But selfish enough
To know none of them wanted to trade places
With me in a bed raised at the head to a standard
Thirty degree angle.

But that was the only Big Billy in me
And now, filled with exciting toxins
That seemed to have killed most of
Whatever malignancy was hell-bent
On killing me, I go on.

A little more vulnerable, trusting no
Twinge to be a slap-away annoyance ever again.
Still profane, and funny, and opinionated.

Hating the fact I have to walk, for now, with a cane
Like the old man I suddenly am.

But Billy Boy, at least I’m walking, and for that,
If you were alive, I’d hug you big time.
You taught me not to be afraid, and not to be angry,
Either, and whatever comes now, I’m thinking,
It’s all on me from this point on.


Author's Note: To those who asked, this is a true story. And to your other question: so far, so good.

Posted on 06/11/2014
Copyright © 2021 Ken Harnisch

Member Comments on this Poem
Posted by Chris Sorrenti on 06/11/14 at 10:09 AM

Excellent story telling, Ken, though I'm afraid this sounds so well told that it's real, which I hope is not the case.

Posted by Chris Sorrenti on 06/11/14 at 10:12 AM

I think Maureen Glaude would have really liked this also, for as you may recall, she battled and beat Cancer for nine years with the help of those exciting toxins.

Posted by Clara Mae Gregory on 06/11/14 at 12:23 PM

*****STELLAR***** We know a few *cancer survivors*....I pray that you will also be one, Ken.[the writing is so excellent,I too, feel this comes from reality...]

Posted by Kristina Woodhill on 06/11/14 at 04:12 PM

Yes, fine story telling, Ken, and a solid exploration of this disease and how it affects us, both the haves and the have-nots. I'm rooting for you, as I'm sure Billy is. Thanks for this.

Posted by Maria Massarella on 06/14/14 at 01:09 PM

You are a master in the art of story telling and weaving in to the scenario glimpses of personal experience...or at least this is how your words have spoken to me. lovelight*hugs

Posted by George Hoerner on 06/15/14 at 12:29 AM

Great write Ken. I've known a few people with cancer but none recently. The few I knew didn't make it, mostly from smoking.

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