Exceptional People in a One-Horse Town, Part V
Sixth in a series, capturing the essence of exceptional people I have had the honor, pleasure, and privelege of knowing in my hometown. If you are lucky, you have known some similar people yourself.
I can't remember when I first met Earl. It may have been when he brought one of his boys, now grown men, to the clinic. But, I did not get to know Earl until he started taking care of my pool. For you see, Earl owns and operates the local swimming pool company, a family affair. For years I enjoyed, or at least told myself that I enjoyed, caring for our pool. I would get home from work, grab a cigar and a beer, and head out to the back yard to skim, vacuum, empty the leaf baskets, backwash the filter, etc. The funny thing is, I hardly ever got in the pool. I just maintained it. Many cigars and beers later, after my kids were grown and gone, I had even less reason to be out by the pool. I found myself getting way behind in the pool chores and ended up with a green mess. It was so bad that one of my partners suggested that I get some aquatic plants and fish and convert it into a fish pond. My bride nixed that plan.
Then I had bright idea. Why not hire the pool company to get the mess straightened out and them resume the upkeep myself? I called, Earl & boys promptly came, and did such a stellar job getting the pool back up to a pristine condition that I inquired about how much regular service would cost. The answer was very reasonable, probably in the ballpark of what I was paying for cigars and beer. We made a handshake deal on the spot.
Over the years I have gotten to know Earl and his family, good folk all. The family is the backbone of a local volunteer fire department. The boys, in addition to keeping up the pool service with Earl, are members of the Sheriff's Department. On the side they use their backhoe, installing septic tanks. That is one hard-working clan.
Somehow I found out that Earl was a cancer survivor. He surely did not tell me, for such is not in his nature. He did not complain or dwell on it, even though things were not going so well for him. He repeatedly went back and forth to Duke University Medical Center for therapy and surgery. I only found out about this because sometimes the boys would come to clean the pool without Earl, and when I inquired about Earl, they would simply reply, "He's back up at Duke again".
When I, myself, became a cancer survivor, the bond between Earl and me was strengthened. He would inquire about how I was doing. Thankfully, I could, and still can, answer that I am doing fine. I would do the same. Now that we were fraternity brothers in a fraternity no one wants to join, Earl felt comfortable in opening up to me. He never complained. But, he was not ignorant of his situation. Time and again he would experience setbacks, get another round of therapy, and would rally, although never "cured". Although his was a stormy path, he never said, "Why me?". He would get out of Duke and be back at the job the next day. One day when he really looked washed out and was out back tending to the pool, I asked him why he did not stay home and get rested. He answered, "I have to keep on living". Man, does Earl love life, and he has kept on living. Between his stays at Duke and his work, Earl travels. He loves to go to the beach and the mountains. He and his wife took an Alaskan cruise a year or so ago. He loves riding his motorcycle and attending biker events with his wife.
At the time of last fall's local Relay for Life, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, Earl was once again hospitalized at Duke. He had been honored for his inspiration to others at the Kickoff Banquet for the Relay. There was no way he was going to miss the event. He insisted on being discharged, even if only for a day, to participate. He was suffering from nausea and lack of appetite, requiring medication. He was weak. But he was smiling his famous smile. At the time for the Survivor's Lap, I told Earl that I would go get him a wheelchair. "No Way," he said, "I'm going to walk that lap, but I may have to lean on your arm." So off we went, walking together, side by side, two brothers in the bond. Earl made it around the track without assistance. People who had gathered along the fence would, upon seeing Earl, applaud loudly, whistle, shout, and call his name. For such is Earl's inspiration to all the survivors, families, friends and supporters gathered together that glorious day.
In the months since the Relay, Earl's condition has deteriorated. Treatments no longer have a beneficial effect. He was in constant pain. He had stopped doing the things he loved to do. A couple of months ago he was enrolled with Hospice. He has proved that "Hospice is not about dying, it's about living". With adequate pain management Earl has resumed his traveling ways. He has been back to his mountains. He has taken several trips to the beach. He even managed to attend this year's Biker Week at Myrtle Beach.
He continues to inspire. Go, Earl, Go!