Act 5

Our longtime Trail Mix friend Sean Holton determinedly took a break from brain cancer yesterday to post this response to Facebook well-wishers:

“Thanks to all who have left so many encouraging messages of support on my wall during the past couple of weeks. Your support has meant the world to me as I shrivel up in a state of near nothingness each afternoon watching cooking shows and storing my bodily waste in pickle jars and waiting for these damn Mormons to finish my blood transfusion so I can watch Ice Station Zebra one more time — (with apologies to Howard Hughes).”

While he wrote, I told him I know it’s sad but you’re making me laugh. And that’s exactly why we love him. It was more than two years ago, in his first month of this epic battle, he wrote the following piece for his blog. It’s as though he was preparing us all those many months ago:

Sean Holton
by Sean Holton
Same Time Tomorrow
(How Sean Holton Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Have Brain Cancer Instead)

August 24, 2009

I’ve been thinking lately about why the idea of the individual case of terminal cancer commands such enduring dramatic interest in our society. There are plenty of other life-ending cards people are dealt that are just as horrible and way more tragic in the end. People can be struck dead in a random instant in all kinds of ways — by lightning, in a car or airplane crash, in a shooting or fire, in an accidental fall from a great height. There are other incurable diseases that are equally or more debilitating over the long haul – those who suffer from multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis come right to mind. People have heart attacks and die on the sidewalk all the time. They get hit by buses. Or they suffer from mental illnesses that lead to suicide or fatal substance abuse. Or they waste away with Alzheimer’s disease. And let’s not even get ourselves started on the tragedy of the individual deaths that pour forth from wars, genocides and natural disasters.

Right now, I’d rather be dealing with my terminal but potentially manageable brain cancer than to be in any of the situations I just listed. In that twisted sense, I feel lucky.

So what is it about terminal cancer, then, that seems to set it apart and get people so wound up, so personally invested, time after time? How is it that there is this ready-made narrative that people seem to know by heart and are able to latch onto so instinctively?

I think it’s because people naturally respond to drama, and lots of cancer cases have all the classic elements that make for the best drama. At the core of the cancer drama is that it is viewed paradoxically as “incurable” but at the same time is known to be ”beatable.” There is sadness, yet it is mixed with hope. From that essential conflict, you can just cue up the basic, five-act narrative structure that has been a bankable formula for packing cinema multiplexes and theater houses since Shakespeare made it so popular in Elizabethan England, and going back even further than that to when it was perfected by the ancient Greeks.

Act One unfolds by introducing us to both the too-young-to-die protagonist and the evil villain that is the devastating diagnosis. Then Act Two carries things forward by bringing in more complexity and texture, more medical details, the rallying of doctors, family and friends, the wearing of yellow bracelets and bandanas or the shaving of heads in solidarity. In Act Three, we get the marshalling of all available scientific resources to confront the dark force as we approach the climax of the uphill battle against all odds to “beat” the “unbeatable” disease. But dramatic tension is preserved because the final outcome is still unknown (this is crucial).

Acts Four and Five take us through either the heroic recovery of the protagonist or his tragic death and the resulting fallout from either outcome. And either ending does make for a good story in a strictly dramaturgical sense. So that’s that.

Now let’s look at the other examples I mentioned of how death commonly expresses itself in individual human stories and consider how they fail on the level of sustainable drama:

1. Sudden accidental death of any kind. Failing: The play is over before it can begin.

2. Wasting incurable, diseases of all sorts. Failing: The outcome is known from the start, there’s not a lot of action to follow and the movie runs too long.

3. Mental illness, substance abuse and suicide. Failing: Too dark. People don’t like talking about it, and they just turn away. Nobody’s going to buy tickets for that.

4. Alzheimer’s and old age: See #2 and #3.

5. Wars and natural disasters. Failing: These make good action movies, but individual human lives are mere props here. (See Joe Stalin: “An individual death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”)

I don’t go into all of this to be blithe about the nature of my specific illness, nor to minimize the real human pain that cancer doles out to its individual victims and their loved ones. But all of those other manifestations of individual death and disability I mentioned deal out equally intense human pain at all of the very same levels.

I saw a slice of this myself when I was coming out of my fog in the intensive care unit after the surgery to remove my tumor. Whole families would file past my door and down the hall, wide-eyed and wondering what they would find when they stepped past a curtain into their loved-one’s room — a loved one who most likely had suffered a sudden, unexpected heart attack or been mortally wounded in a common accident or shooting. And often I would see those families going back the other direction a few minutes later in tears, adults and kids devastated and crying, holding up each other for support as they walked away. Chances are, I thought, there is to be no further drama in those sad stories. The outcomes have already been written. No one will be shaving their heads in solidarity with those people. They’ll just be going to a funeral in the next day or two and scattering some ashes or shoveling dirt on a grave.

People ask me how I can remain so positive and upbeat about my situation in the face of such uncertainty. Part of the reason is that I don’t see my cancer diagnosis as a drama. I don’t conceive of it as an uphill battle against all odds to beat something that is unbeatable. As a 49-year-old man who already has experienced a lot to be grateful for and who has no immediate dependents, I’m not really interested in that kind of story right now anyway.

Right now I see my diagnosis as something else entirely. It is a gift that will give me the opportunity to learn more than I thought I would ever know about the mysterious line between life and death.

In the meantime, it will teach me to love the people I love even more, and to hold them more closely than ever. It will bring me incredible amounts of life-giving strength from the support of friends, past acquaintances and even total strangers. Many people don’t ever get that chance. They either just live, or they just die, and they never get to see what’s in between. But my diagnosis puts the idea of death in slow motion. It lets me pick up death in my hand and turn it over again and again to study it in its every small detail. I can hold it up to the sunlight each precious day that I remain alive and see it illuminated from any angle I choose.

It is as if Death has softly perched itself on my shoulder in the form of a wild and rare bird. In this form it will neither kill me immediately nor has it yet chosen to kill me slowly and inevitably – as it routinely does to so many people in its so many other, more fearsome forms. Instead, it will allow me to hold it for a while and to look it calmly in the eye. It may even talk to me. After that, of course, the Death Bird may decide to burrow itself into my head and build another nest to lay a second egg-shaped tumor in my brain — and so kill me in that fashion. Or it may just fly away from me as unexpectedly as it landed, never to visit again until the time comes for it to return to me years or even decades from now; not as a bird, but in another of its myriad forms.

I hope the bird does fly away one day, and I think there is a pretty good chance it might. I guess then I will be able to say I have “beaten” cancer. But I will not gloat, because I will not have beaten Death. No one ever does.

More of Sean’s writings:

Sean Holton spent 25 years as an award-winning newspaper journalist. His widely-recognized work as a reporter, writer and editor focused on land development, public policy, politics and governmental issues, including nine years as a Washington DC correspondent and bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, and as Associate Managing Editor based in Orlando. Sean holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science from Rockhurst University.

The digital image “Bird of Death” is by the artist Judith Barath, more of whose work can be found at:

45 thoughts on “Act 5”

  1. I am going to commission Dick Cheney and Harry Whittington to Orlando to track down the Bird of Death and well, you know what.

    Sean, thanks for checking in yesterday, and also for the reminder that it is time to watch old Howard’s fave movie, “Ice Station Zebra”. And I do hope the nurses are not letting your nails grow super-long and yellow…the stuff saved in the jars? Hey! It can be a long way to the water closet! Thumbs up. My mom told me fish was brain food. I hope you are eating fish three times a day, my friend.

  2. Dex, thanks, will be sure Sean reads this and all mixers comments. He loves hearing from you guys. Wish you could see the grin on his face when reading them.

  3. I just recently recovered from a pituitary tumor and even though it was begin, it was pretty rough. I can’t really imagine how bad his brain tumor is but I’d bet it must be rough too. :sad: Hope he gets better.

  4. When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide
    Where I stop and I turn and then I go for a ride
    ‘Til I get to the bottom and I see you again

  5. Robert Wagner says to Natalie Wood: Would you like to shower on the boat?
    Natalie says: No, I think I’ll just wash up on shore.

    —Gilbert Gottfried

  6. Hmm…. Well said LARD, but I can’t believe Ice Station Zebra was the one movie thats getting replayed…lol I am going to have to watch it, just to share with you!

    Take care my friend. Think sweet thoughts, dream sweet dreams, and make sure you let those memories float through your day.

    Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
    Happy trails to you, keep smilin’ until then.
    Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
    Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
    Happy trails to you, ’till we meet again.

  7. Between here and facebook, Sean is holding one whale of a house party. Amazing what happens when you open up free booze and a great night club act.

  8. Hey Sean…. my rascally Irish friend… remember, we always have the Celtics. I wonder if there’s basketball in heaven… if so, I bet JesusJehovahKrishna has a hell of a dunk. Make sure to give Kaley and Chopper a kiss from me.

  9. Good to hear from Sean again. He’s been in my thoughts a lot these last few weeks. It sure makes all the whining I hear at work all night seem pretty meaningless when I read his words.

  10. Lard, I’m in no shape to go bowling today. So maybe you, and I and Sturg can make it a virtual trip to the alley while we all get drunk in situ.

    Lard, you personify Grace; I’m tremendously proud of you. You have permission to let that go to your head. :)

  11. The trail offers an important lesson: It’s really consciousness that connects us; the computers, eyes & fingers are just the tools we use.
    Without consciousness, none of those tools would have manifested.
    So, whatever anyone else believes, I believe consciousness is eternal & love never dies.

    Now somebody light a firecracker & scare away that damned bird awhile longer.

    The scenarios in Lard’s piece reminded me of a book called Death, A Life.

    “Death thanks a great many people, objects, and things that have given unselfishly…”
    “Malaria, it’s always a pleasure to work with you…”
    “Long Scarves Worn in Open-Top Automobiles, I had my doubts, but you had a point.”
    “Not forgetting Zeppelins Filled with Hydrogen…Three-Day-Old Shellfish…and Kaiser Wilhelm II.”

  12. Sean… I just had a thought. I bet in heaven you get to watch the 7th game of the World Series… you get to pick the teams… and you get to pick who wins.

    Just think about it… you’ll finally get to see the Kansas City Royals win the World Series!

  13. Now Sean has me listening to the whole Book of Mormon sound track, but I won’t post Hasa Diga Eebowai. “I believe” is a good enough reason to think those Mormons are taking good care of him.


  14. Renee
    We’ve already seen the Royals win the World Series, although Cardinal fans would say “stole the World Series” But for Royals fans “those were the days”
    In the modern era where the royals are little more than a developement team for the likes of Boston or the Yankees we are just happy to see them kick the Yankees asses.

    Lardass , ya old bastid, Not much I can say. I hope they haven’t taken the Jamesons away from you, that would be pure hell, So pour a shot, never mind that it is morning, Jamesons for breakfast, you’ve earned it.


  15. Good news in Columbia’s newspaper, The State, this morning. The lead story by Noelle Phillips reports that the City denied State requests for support in rounding up the Occupy Columbia protesters. Wouldn’t even loan ’em a paddy wagon.

    Good for the City of Columbia, South Carolina!

  16. I agree with Flatus, Sean is indeed the personification of Grace. But I want to be included in the virtual in situ drinking and will even bring my own Jamesons. And about those Mormons– I’ll bring my Anglican nurses down and get it done, Sean. :)

  17. “Flatus, what do you think about this mess.”Jack@0948

    It’s totally devastating news for so many people who trusted the fiduciaries they gave their funds to. Indeed, because of intertwined bundling, Stinky may be affected along with the others.

    If I was in charge of the investigation, I’d petition for an order lifting every individual’s passport with a hint of involvement. I’d also ask for the cuffing of Corzine and the other people who are likely suspects or who should have known.

    It’s a damned shame that harakiri isn’t a part of our culture.

  18. Failure Is Good

    It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a complete turkey! It’s the supercommittee!

    By next Wednesday, the so-called supercommittee, a bipartisan group of legislators, is supposed to reach an agreement on how to reduce future deficits. Barring an evil miracle — I’ll explain the evil part later — the committee will fail to meet that deadline.

    If this news surprises you, you haven’t been paying attention. If it depresses you, cheer up: In this case, failure is good.

  19. A Decade of Missed Chances Bedevils U.S. Prospects: Ezra Klein

    Two months ago, the U.S. marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sadly, we commemorated a tragedy without celebrating much triumph. The post-9/11 moment was an unheralded instance of national — even global — unity. The Bush administration could have used it for almost anything. And, to be fair, it did. The nation burned trillions of dollars in two wars and a budget-busting round of tax cuts. The president told us to go shopping, and the Federal Reserve held interest rates at extraordinarily low levels. The result? Deficits and a credit bubble. That was missed opportunity No. 1.

  20. Jack… that’s exactly what Sean said to me about his beloved Royals… they are now just a training ground for the Yankees and Red Sox.

    Well, we are about to leave for the city. Just want to tell everyone to have a great weekend.

    patd… I’m thinking about you.

  21. “Stick Together” Obama Tells Black Misleadership Class At White House Conference
    Wed, 11/16/2011 – 13:00 — Bruce A. Dixon

    Last week, with exactly a year to go before the 2012 election, President Obama summoned a few hundred carefully selected African Americans to the White House. They were preachers and entertainers, politicians and promoters and business people – the kinds of folks we call “leaders: in the black community, whether or not they have or ever will lead us anyplace we really need to go. This was, after all, what the White House called its African American Leadership Conference. It was clearly a campaign event, and just as clearly an attempt on the president’s part to back down a little from the utter contempt he displayed last month toward the suffering of the black unemployed and dispossessed at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting, telling them to “stop whinin’… stop cryin’ and complainin’..”

  22. Super Committee Appears Headed Towards No Deal
    By: Jon Walker

    If the Super Committee does fail to reach a deal by the deadline next Wednesday, that would be a victory for those hoping to defend Medicare and Social Security. This Super Committee is a big danger to our social safety net, and was designed to make it as easy as possible for Congress to cut Social Security.

    The failure of the Super Committee will not guarantee the protection of our social safety net. This is, by my count, at least President Obama’s fourth attempt to get a “grand bargain” to cut entitlements, so there is no reason to believe he will stop trying now. But the failure of the Super Committee would push any new attempts to get a bipartisan “grand bargain” into next year; and as the 2012 election gets closer, the possibility that both parties will agree on anything becomes even more remote.

  23. Tony
    The “super committee” is just political theater. It was set up to fail while looking like everyone was being “bipartisan”. So the Dems can go home and say look at those evil Republicans and the Republicans can do the same. A win win for politicians , a total loss for the nation.The super committee is the best reason to vote the bastards out I can think of. Any body whovoted for or supported the idea needs to be fired.


  24. I guess it’s not so bad Cain asking for Secret Service protection from the press. After all, Bush did the same thing for his whole eight years. Foxy idea.

  25. Flatus

    From where I’m standing, This whole mess strikes at the heart of the system.The whole system runs on trust. I don’t have a stock certificate I have the assurance of my brokerage that I own stock. They could be doing anything with my money and I wouldn’t know until, like, MF Global, it all comes tumbling down.
    Over at Barry Ritholtz’s blog some one in the comments section pointed out That MF Global is a restructured company from a 90’s bankruptcy, where the bankrupt company Did much the same thing. The CEO did go to jail but I’m beginning to think the rot went much deeper. I wonder if we need a rule like the gambling rule in baseball. If you work for one of these companies you are banned for life. It might seem unfair to some but it would put some serious skin in the game for everybody.


  26. Sean,

    Let me tell you that it is a pleasure to know you; that you have taught me some very important lessons of life: You have taught me that there is a soul..and it resides in only a few:

    You are in what I call the 20% club, there is only 20% of people on this planet that are very special…(about 22% on the planet where I come from)…. My sister Maria, Patsi, are both in it..they shared the same qualities that you’ve shown in your time here at the Trail, and in your writings.

    They always teach me that I need to try a little harder to be in that 20% of people that do matter, that does want the world to be a better place for us all…I have always tried to teach me son Tom to be in the 20% club..and have been showing him your letters, notes etc…he is very much impressed with the unselfishness that you go about living your life…and like his Aunt Maria…giving us example of how to care for one another until the very end of it all…

    Thanks for sharing….I still remember the information that you shared with us all at the Trail…about how some states became states by stealing them selves away from other states……it was not only informative…but Ive had some fun with it…..sharing it with others.

    I was able to share it once ( and it made me look good) during a breakfast meeting once.

    So I want you to remember the way that I came into the TrailMix Bar…..and introduced myself to you…..You said GRRRRR to me…..that is what you need to do when you get in front of those pearly gates……Grrrrr your way in there, don’t take any shit from The Gate keeper… about term limits huh?……Asta luego Compadre


  27. “…the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon is part of the military’s program to develop “prompt global strike” weapons that would allow the U.S. to strike targets anywhere in the world with conventional weapons in as little as an hour.”

    ~Brilliant!~ And when someone else gets their hands on this technology? It’s just one more way to go, but I’d prefer to bust a gut watching “Monty Python” or choke on a warm, chocolate chip cookie.

    ps – I ain’t hangin’ crepe yet.

  28. I’m left with no eloquent words when I think of what’s happening with Lard these days. I just want it to go away! I want his beautiful words and, yes, his grace, right back here on this Trail. If I can’t have that, I simply wish you comfort and peace, my friend. Gentle trails to you….

  29. Wow, I was reading Sean’s piece about Brain cancer and I was blown away by the writing! I couldn’t even begin to write so cogently. I was surprised by the content of his piece and how he put every piece together. Right then I thought he must be an experienced writer.

    Then I read his bio and it all made sense. GREAT GREAT STUFF! I am so often skimming as much as I can from the net but this one drew me in. Excellent !!! I friend of mine from college is living with Brain cancer. He named his tumor “Voldemort”. I shared Sean’s article on my facebook. It will be interesting to read what my friend Dante writes after reading it.

    I really need to take more time in being selective in what I read and FOCUS. Thanks for the article Craig and Sean!

Comments are closed.