BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Not for the squeamish ...

OK, so this is yet another dollar store acquisition … and, frankly, I looked at this on a couple of shopping trips before it got into the cart, and it lingered quite a while in the to-be-read piles before making it into my shoulder bag. That caveat out of the way, Lt. Col. Mark Weber's Tell My Sons: A Father's Last Letters is quite the poignant read … as well as being one of those rare books whose title/subtitle combination pretty much lets you know what you need to about the book. Before getting into the content, there's a few things I want to hit up front here … first of all [spoiler alert!], the book is about the author losing his battle to cancer, etc., and this is an extended note to his sons (one who was 16 at the time of his death, and twins who were 11) … part of me thought this might be a bit “voyeuristic” – sort of like sneaking a look into somebody's diary – but, fortunately, it doesn't come across that way, although there is little “playing to a wider public” in it. Another interesting thing is that it has a (brief) Foreword by Robin Williams, who Weber had met on a USO tour (although it probably should be noted that this was penned a dozen years before the comic's suicide) … which reads like a longer version of the quotes assembled at the front of the book – and this is one of the few examples of a group of quotes like that adding something – there are a dozen from an impressive list of politicians, military men, other authors, etc., including Donald Rumsfeld and General Petraeus. The book initially came out from a small Edina, MN press (where Weber lived) on December 24, 2012, and what's amazing is that the book got picked up and (I'm assuming) rushed into print by Random House's Ballantine Books with a July 4, 2013 release date. One has to guess from the initial publication date that this was somewhat intended as a “Christmas present” for his family, but he managed to live to see the major publisher release, dying just over a week later.

Aside from a structure of chapters (which I'll get into in a bit), the book's in sections which are dated, from June 2010 through November 2012 (plus an Epilogue which is undated, but more specifically discussing his family) … he mentions in the Preface (addressing his kids) that he “started writing it long before any of you were born”, which, obviously, can't be the case chronologically, but he adds later “I started writing a journal, and I kept it brutally honest”, which does sound like the tenor of the book, so perhaps the intent had been there from an early age, and the execution only happening as he began grappling with the disease.

As far as the chapters' “themes”, they're based on lines pulled from Douglas MacArthur's “famous 1962 speech to the cadets of West Point” (Weber, in the Preface, claims to have committed the entire 2,000+ word address to memory, and recited it at “countless” events). I had a brief thought of typing up those here, but as the book is more of a journal than an organized set of reflections, the themes the quotes suggest for the chapters are not particularly substantive, but if you're interested, they can be found via the “look inside” feature on the book's Amazon page (the Contents listing coming after the Forward and Preface).

The Introduction starts with the assignment to command in Afghanistan of General David Petraeus, who was putting together a new team, and he wanted Weber to take on the role of Military Assistant to the incoming Afghan Minister of the Interior. Weber had previous served in Iraq, acting as a US assistant to General Babakir Zibari, the Iraqi chief of defense, in which posting he'd learned Kurdish and how to act like a local … and Petraeus wanted that same skill set. Weber's wife, Kristen, and the various generals in his chain of command had signed off on this, and:
The only remaining hurdle was self-imposed. Though already medically cleared to deploy, I wanted a more thorough look. Three years ago, I had been diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer, and this was no ordinary ulcer. Twice I had experienced a massive hemorrhage in my small intestine, and the first one nearly killed me.
He was writing this in June 2010, and he had been hospitalized in 2007 and 2009 and he didn't want to be in “some remote corner of Afghanistan” if there was likely to be another episode. The new doctor scheduled an endoscopy, and the results were bad, as it showed a fist-sized lesion in Weber's duodenum which was about 10x the size of the ulcer from the previous year, plus blood tests indicating that he was highly anemic, with iron scores that typically are in the 100-300 range coming in at 2. Weber still thought this was something that could be fixed fairly easily, but the doctor then sent him for a CT scan. This came back showing a mass that involved “the duodenum, pancreas, associated ducts, and the surrounding lymph nodes” and extended to about 75% of the liver, where there were 15 identifiable tumors. Needless to say, he wasn't going to be making that deployment.

Chapter 1 starts off with a description of the radical surgery that the team at the Mayo Clinic recommended … called the “Whipple-plus” procedure … which removes all of the affected tissue, and in Weber's case, about 60% of his liver as well. He offers up a bunch of military metaphors (including a spin on Patton's famous speech about making the other guy die for his country, the cancer in this case being the enemy force), and then gets into describing the difficult discussions with his family. This leads into a retrospective of his parents, grandparents, and his early years, including his entering into the military lifestyle via JROTC in freshman year of high school. He was a very good cadet, but a so-so student, and the counselors suggested that he wasn't “college material”, so joining the military was an easy choice, and he goes into some stories from his basic training.

Chapter 2 is dated August 2010 and begins with a long recall of his waking up in the hospital after the surgery thinking he's in a spaceship, due to the amount of equipment around him, and the painkillers he's on. He also develops some complications …
The fistula has allowed most of my abdominal cavity, from my ribs to my hip, to fill with bile and pancreatic fluids. … I look like a cut-open deer carcass … {the} entire wound has to heal from the inside out – no stitches … The muscle looks like ground hamburger, and it is bathed in a constant yellow ooze of digestive fluids that will require bandage changes every few hours or so – for the next fourteen weeks.
The rest of this is more military framing of his medical challenges, musings about fatherhood, reminiscences of how he was raised, bringing up specific events he shared with his boys (including a massive snow fort they built in November 2009 – when there was the 5th largest snowfall ever recorded in Minnesota – the fort being impressive enough to even make it on the local news), and a few more stories from the hospital (like when Kristen came with towels and soap to give him his first shower in nearly a month – on their 16th wedding anniversary), including his naming his wounds: “Buford was the open wound. Bullah was the drainage field inside my abdomen and the associated incision at my hip.”.

Chapter 3 is dated September-November 2010, which starts with his finally getting to leave the hospital. As anyone who's gone through major surgery would guess, his systems were all a mess, he'd lost about 20% of his body mass, he could barely sleep, his body temperature swung from sweating to freezing, digestion was an adventure along the entire cobbled-together alimentary tract, and the bandages filling his still-open wound “could never contain the volume of leaky digestive juices for more than an hour”. Because of the effects of the pain meds he was on (“stoned, constipated, thick-headed”) he opted to stop cold turkey, trading off functionality for having to deal with the pain.
But then on November 2, 2010, a CT scan revealed the remaining cancer had rapidly progressed and was now inoperable. The treatment options were essentially nonexistent.
His oncologist gave him four or five months to live. He was moved from Mayo to the Piper Cancer Institute, and he started to plan for his funeral. However, at Piper they ran him through a new bank of tests and found out that he didn't actually have pancreatic cancer, but something called GIST – a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, which, while without a cure, at least had treatments available. The rest of the chapter has Weber recalling parts of his early family life, challenges in grade school, some dumb things he did as a kid that he then parallels with some experiences early in his military career, writing of nearly cutting off his leg as a teen with a big pro power saw, then his many successes in ROTC before failing out of Ranger School, and finally a long-ish contemplation of how failure reflects on leadership, leading up to his getting two prestigious awards (one given to just 13 out of 37,000 eligible officers) back-to-back.

Chapter 4 is dated January 2011, and starts with his daily oral chemo for GIST – which seemed to be working well. This part is primarily about his relationship with Kristen, along with all the biographical info the kids might want to eventually know, from how they met, the chaos of their early relationship (including the wedding, when the bridesmaids got into a serious car crash on the way in their dresses, and how he had to be on a plane back to the army the next morning), how the military lifestyle took a lot of adjustments for both of them, craziness on transfers (where they opted to drive cross-country to make some additional money, and on one trip her falling asleep at the wheel and wrecking their truck), their fertility problems, a brief separation, and his leaving the army so they could be close to her dad as he dealt with his own cancer issues up in Minnesota.

Chapter 5 is dated March-September 2011, this one starts with his post-surgery decision to go back to work (despite being “medically retired” with a generous pension) with the Minnesota National Guard. Weber felt he needed the structure, and he was able to work on key projects like developing a program for suicide prevention among soldiers. Unfortunately, he was having more health issues, with sepsis caused by bile backing up into the liver and then leaking into the body … they ended up doing a catheter and bag drainage system in his abdomen. Another CT scan also showed the cancer growing, requiring him to double the chemo dose. This is also when the idea of the book began … he'd been doing a journal on-line for 22 years, and this evidently is what was used to pull Tell My Sons together. This chapter also has a long reminiscence about when he was teaching, and the events that made him walk away from that, and another long story about his assignment in Saudi Arabia, and his later unexpected posting, right after making the rank of Captain, to a logistics position typically given to more senior offices.

Chapter 6 is dated October-December 2011 and he reports to his medical team that he's experiencing pain at a “9” when he'd previously rarely rated it more than a “5” … they tried to drain some abscess but weren't getting anything other than blood, and a few days later Weber took a knife and decided to work on himself: “That abscess burst open like something out of a scene from Alien.” He had one opinion about it, but that was being rejected by his doctor, yet:
The abscess scene above played out four more times over the next three months. My flesh would always heal; the intestinal tissue would not; the bile would collect in the muscular wall and start digesting the newly healed flesh; and within a few days of searing and unbelievable pain, it would burst.
The medical descriptions are followed by a section where he talks of his religious upbringing, and how his concepts of this had changed over the years. This dovetails into a longish look at his time in Saudi Arabia, with his encounters with western-leaning Saudis who had to duck the Mutawwa, the religious control group that did everything from blacken out exposed skin in magazines to have people beheaded. He goes into very interesting detail of some conversations regarding religion here. This eventually leads into a very long look at his time in Iraq (more than 10% of the book), which is fascinating, given his position within the structure of the Iraqi military … one quote he offers here is from his Iraqi counterparts: “Can't you make the coalition understand why we can't do it that way?”.

Chapter 7 is dated January 2012, starting with him in the hospital on Christmas Eve: “What was once only a bile leak now involved mashed food escaping from my intestine. The hole was getting bigger.”, and his increasing frustration with the medical staff's adherence to “protocol” rather than the specifics of his case. If you think that some of the stuff I've blockquoted here is gross, you're probably going to want to skip chunks of this chapter, as the “ick factor” starts getting pretty heavy in the discussions of his declining health. However, his career reminiscences here are great, with tales involving persons as high up the military food chain as the the Secretary of Defense, and the heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This then moves into a wry look at some of the absurdities that he encountered in Iraq, which segues (via Catch-22 references) to a story about trying to manage his bandages while attempting to get to one of his sons' swim meet (including a scene in a Target bathroom that really needs a cinematic realization). This then moves into a bit about one of the boys being in choir, and doing a special solo called “Tell My Father” … with much tears ensuing.

Chapter 7 is a collection of bits from different times, starting in November 2010, and ending up in November 2012 (a month before the book came out from the original small publisher). In mid-2012 he was still working, but in May, it was discovered that the big tumor on the remaining part of his liver had doubled in size, and he went into a new, more aggressive chemo, which made it impossible to work. By July he was taking a chemo trial that had been developed for kidney cancer, and being feted by the military in a ceremony on August 16. The November note, evidently closing out the initial publication, was directed to his sons.

There is an Epilogue following, which I'm guessing got pulled together for the Random House edition, and it is Weber specifically discussing the effects of his illness on his family members … along with addressing the question: “what is it like to die in slow motion?”.

Tell My Sons is not a “happy” read, but it is inspirational, and a very interesting look into the life of a wunderkind in American's military. As mentioned, I found this at the dollar store, but it is still in print, so could possibly be obtained through your favorite brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it at a bit off of cover price, but there are copies to be had from the new/used guys for about five bucks (including shipping). If you have an interest in cancer, the military, or strength in the face of adversity, you might very well get a lot out of this.

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Tags: book review
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