Jonathan Gravenor – Former CTV correspondent
I don’t care if you live or die, I really don’t. It’s a hell of a thing hearing it from someone you barely know, but imagine hearing that from someone you love.
On February the 24th, 2012, I was diagnosed with late stage throat cancer. That night, I went home and sat at a table with my daughter and my wife, trying to swallow the fear while telling them about the procedures ahead. That’s when my daughter pushed her chair away from the table and said, “I don’t care if you live or die.” There was a lot of anger and yelling through closed doors, and that night as I tried to sleep, it kept me awake, and I kept thinking: “Why can’t she see what I have given her, what I have done for her?”
I was a broadcast journalist – at one time I was a TV news anchor with a big show. I became a network reporter. I became a foreign correspondent; we traveled around the world. We went from the cold prairie provinces to the warmth of Sydney, Australia, so I could cover Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. I couldn’t understand how she couldn’t see what I gave her, but as I lay there, in the arrogance of my beliefs, I began to see the truth, and the truth was … I couldn’t remember the last time I had hugged her and made her feel safe, the last time I had told her how proud I was of her, or the last time I had said “I love you.”
And suddenly I realized that the cancer was a lot deeper than my throat. A few weeks later I was in hospital to undergo what doctors call a radical neck dissection: they took a scalpel and cut me from the back of the right ear to below my Adam’s apple – twelve inches long. They had to take out a golf ball-size tumor. And as I lay in recovery, praying to a God that I did not believe in, “Please be gone,” the surgeon came in and told me that it wasn’t, and that I had to undergo a lot of weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.
So, in this time that I knew I needed to be close to people because I was more scared than ever, I decided to go to chemotherapy and radiation alone and deny my daughter and my wife the chance to hear me say, “I am so scared, please come with me.” I was dying to be close but pushing them away and dying anyways. I’d go to radiation each day, and I couldn’t come home just to face the four walls closing in around me, so I started to go to downtown areas so I could get lost in the sea of humanity and hope that that distraction would take me away from the rampant thoughts inside of my head that my demise was just around the corner.
It’s said, “When you’re ready to learn, the teacher will appear,” but I did not know that that teacher would be a homeless bum. I remember the first day I saw him, scruffy, sitting on a piece of cardboard on a busy intersection corner with his little dog sitting by him, and a big sign that said “Help.” And when I first saw him, the first thing I thought was “How dare you? You should be up with a job. How dare you? You’re not more of a victim than me. Look at me, I’ve got cancer, I could die. I’ve been with little kids in chemo. They’re victims, not you.”
Over the next few days, I observed him as I would walk back and forth, trying to get lost, and I never saw him reach out and actually overtly beg to anyone or be overly aggressive, he just seemed kind, offering hellos and greetings to people. One day, walking down the road, heading for home, I was on the same side of the road as him. Normally, I would cross to the other side so I didn’t have to confront him, or, I guess, maybe confront my prejudice, but today I said, “No, I’m going to go right by him.”
And as I started to walk by him, that little dog stood up, and stood in front of me and then sat down and looked at me with a friendly face. I reached down and I patted it, and then I turned to him. Without thinking, I opened up and was friendly, and I said, “What’s his name?” He laughed at me and said, “Well, he’s a she, and her name’s Molly. She doesn’t normally stop people unless they need something. What do you need?” Yeah, I wish I was that kind in my thoughts …
The first thing I thought: “Nice scam. Pull on the heart strings, make me feel.” Instead, I said to him, “She must’ve known I needed a friendly dog to pet today,” and I walked away. And I was confused; I was confused about a lot of stuff.
The next day after radiation, I knew I wanted to go back and either make amends or do something or figure something out. I wanted to give him something, but not money because we know what happens when you give a beggar money: they’re going to spend it on drugs or alcohol. I stopped and picked up a sandwich and a coffee, some little biscuits for Molly, and as I got close, he waved and said, “You’ve come back to see Molly, I see.” I was about to hand him the food and stuff, but he stuck out his hand to shake mine. And as he did, he started a conversation with me as if we had been mates for a long time.
I sat with him and offered up the sandwich, and he said, “I’m not going to have this unless we share.” The Spanish poet Quevedo once wrote: “There are no sorrows when we break bread.” And there weren’t any sorrows that day. We sat and talked like two old buddies, and for a moment I forgot that I was sick. After a bit, he reached into his bag and pulled out a little pill bottle, and his hands were shaking – he couldn’t open it – so I offered to. He handed it to me, and I looked, and there was his name, Douglas, and Largactil was the medication, which is used by people with schizophrenia – which I thought meant he must be a psychotic serial killer … What it is, it’s an internal jail, people get very little government help, we ignore them, we stigmatize them, and so I turned to him and said, “Is this why you’re begging?”
And he looked at me and he said: “What? No, I’m here raising money to help the needy,” and he pointed at the sign. And there below the big “Help” – I hadn’t even looked – were the groups that he was raising money for. And suddenly, I realized it was not him that was disabled, it was me. For the judgment that I have had with him blinded me to the truth of this man’s gracious intent. I saw him often after that.