Commentary: Celebrating life while battling cancer

A funeral seems an odd place for inspiration unless you’re lucky enough to encounter people who understand its function.

After all, funerals are for the living, not the dead. A life well and fully lived is a cause for celebration despite the aching pain of that sudden absence.

Such was the case at the services for Ed Dailey, a Fairfield County patriarch who passed away last week. As the people he knew in life gathered to praise Ed’s many accomplishments, it was a moment with his nephew that reminded me how fragile our lives really are.

A prognosis of six months to live

Patrick Connelly shared his son Dylan’s battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive set of cancerous, inoperable brain tumors that has led his neuro-oncology team to give him a prognosis of six months to live. A young, married father of three, Dylan had gone to the hospital with a headache — and never left.

Overnight, he had to learn to exist in that space between the mundane routine of family life and his impending departure from it. This sentence now hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the head of his family and friends.

As the community takes Dylan and his family into their arms, Patrick chronicles his son’s fight online in a determined effort to embrace the many worlds in which Dylan lives.

He details Dylan’s courage even as the cancer robs him of his ability to participate in the triathlons, mountain biking, and snowmobiling he loves. Sedentary life is painful for those used to being so gloriously alive inside their bodies, but Patrick focuses on Dylan’s perseverance in accepting this challenge.

Strangers lend their strength

Taking up the fight his white blood cells weren’t designed to win, a growing collection of strangers and friends coalesce through the medium of the Internet in order to lend their strength. Many write comments on the site acknowledging they don’t even know Dylan, but are touched by the valiant struggle his father describes.

People like me hang on every update, witnesses to the intermittent and sometimes unwelcome cruelty of hope that interrupts attempts to accept the inevitable.

Perhaps it is this battle in relative anonymity that invests Dylan with a kind of universality, an Everyman quality that underscores how any of us could have been asked to bear this burden.

Saving others

Pulitzer winner Roger Rosenblatt described this phenomenon in an Los Angeles Times article detailing a 1982 Air Florida plane crash into the Potomac River.

“The Man in The Water” describes how an anonymous victim of the crash kept passing the helicopter lifeline to other survivors in the frozen river, saving five from certain death. Every time the helicopter came back, he held out the line for a series of strangers he’d only met an hour before.

By the time the helicopter returned to finally pick him up, the man disappeared under the cracked ice and died.

This story gripped the nation because no one knew who the man was — it allowed us to hope we’d do the same in that icy water.

Noted mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it this way: The hero needs to be ready for the adventure when it appears. The man in the water, like Dylan, inspires us to fight when the crash occurs.

He is a fighter

More importantly, one doesn’t believe the man in the water ever lost his fight. He faced the forces of nature on his terms and changed the fates of those around him in his epic struggle. In the process, he represented the best we have to offer.

In much the same way, Dylan Connelly seems to be fighting a battle he’s destined to lose — until we consider how he’s fighting it. He is not a victim, nor is he merely a survivor: He is a fighter.

We celebrate his refusal to accept his prognosis without negotiating the terms. In doing so, he passes that lifeline along to someone else who might be struggling.

His strength and commitment inspire us to extend our reach.

The ravages of cancer affect everyone, which makes people like Dylan and Patrick all the more valuable when the weight of diagnosis is thrust upon us. They show us victory in the midst of certain defeat, courage in the face of helplessness.

If you wish to add your voice, your strength, to this fight, please visit: Celebrate his victory.

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