Today when I turned on the news I saw that Luciano Pavarotti died this morning. Now I am not a big opera fan - but what caught my eye was that he had pancreatic cancer. Ironically, 13 years ago Sept 17th I lost one of my greatest mentors in life to pancreatic cancer. Jon Houseward was one of the best men I have ever known and I never realized how much of an impact he would have on my life. House, as we called him , and I met my freshman year in high school as I tried out for the track team. He was the head coach for the team and my first impression of him was this very tall guy, with no hair and a wonderful smile. He knew just how to push me, knowing just what to say and when to say it.
At track meets he would be found running around the track, end to end cheering on his runners. If the weather was bad he was always in his full yellow slicker, you could spot him and his clipboard anywhere. No matter how a runner did, he was the first one at the finish line with his arm wrapped around you, ready for a hug, a smile or a shoulder to cry on. No matter if you were the best, or slightly less successful, he let you know it would be okay - get 'em next time.
Over the years House and I would talk about my dreams, how I wanted a track scholarship for college, what I wanted to do with my life. He was there every step of the way as I applied for colleges inquiring about their track programs. I had imagined a big 10 track meet where I would get to the finish line and look up to my parents and House beaming down on me. I could not have realized that my 17 year old world would be rocked to the core in- between my junior and senior year..just when it was supposed to be the time of my life.
House had begun to lose some weight, which was noticeable on an already skinny guy. We knew the beginning of May that he had some medical issues, but when they called us in for a meeting the middle of May 1994 and said that House would be gone for the rest of the school year we knew it was serious. When I first learned that it was cancer, I figured that of anyone I knew, House would be able to fight this. He was strong, physically, mentally and had a strong faith. He missed our regional meet that month so after words some of us snuck up to the hospital to visit and show off our medals. I think think part of me also wanted to just see him with my own eyes, to make sure he was okay.
It was just after that visit that I began to hear about alternate treatments and comfort care. House also share with us his life list. Things he wanted to do, like his kids birthdays that summer, an anniversary with his wife and being there until the end of the summer. Initially I thought this was all prompted by the cancer diagnosis, and he just wanted to make sure this year was the best. It took a while for me to realize that he knew this would be his last summer and wanted to share certain family moments one last time.
A sign was put outside of his house that had 4 choices that were updated each day: good day, not a good day, pray today and few min only. This let people know if it was a good day to stop by or if they should wait until later. That summer I wrote many letters to him that I never mailed, I drove by dozens of times and never stopped by... I was petrified. The updates that we were getting about his request to doctors for quality of life care, not quantity of life were difficult to hear but as time went on it was evident that our time with House was growing short.
Finally, word had gotten to me that he was not doing well and I should go to his house. I drove into town that day, and walked up to the door and his wife Barb answered and all she said was " he has been waiting for you." The entire hour I spent with him that day was so precious to me, and I knew it would be the last time we would talk face to face. The tall healthy man I knew was not there anymore, and for him to talk to me took incredible effort. I will never forget those moments with him.
Just over a week later, early on a Saturday morning, one of my friends called to let me know House was gone. We all met at Calvin College that day, just a group of us that loved House so much. That day I said I would never run track again, and I intended to not go back to the team. Most of the kids at school did not understand how you could feel such sorrow for a coach, or a teacher. But I spent most of the first part of my senior year heart broken, missing my mentor. I was fine with my decision until I got a letter at school one day, addressed to House, regarding a scouting trip he had set up for me in the spring. While he was at home, fighting for his life, he continued to make sure his girls were taken care of. He made sure that the stands were going to have scouts for me that spring when the season began so I could fulfill my dream of getting a track scholarship.
That year I ran faster than I have ever run, and I earned my scholarship. Not to a big 10 university but a great division 2 school non-the-less. I invited Barb to my graduation party, and she came, not for me, but because House would have been there.
To this day, I think about House each day. I have, for 13 years, had a picture of him, with 3 medals I won at the Houseward Invitational, and my track spikes with Coach House written on them, hanging in my hall. I have moved them from MI, to TX, to NC and now to WI. I will carry the spirit of him with me for the rest of my life. And I miss him.