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Hogan announcement forces personal reflections in all of us

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, standing with his family, announces that he has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer.

The words "cancer," "very advanced and very aggressive" scare the mightiest of men and women. Gov. Larry Hogan's announcement late Monday afternoon was the second such announcement from an accomplished middle-aged man within the last week, the other coming to me in an email from a friend. But it was also the second declaration of resolve and determination within the last week — the second time I heard courage and even humor from a man faced with the greatest challenge of his life.

And it was the second time in a week that I found myself groping around for words of encouragement and comfort for a man who had just received some bad news from an oncologist.

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Unlike my friend — whose name I will not mention — the governor does not get to keep his medical condition private. It's a matter of public concern, and impossible to keep a secret, anyway.

What a turn of fortunes this is: The man who was still unknown to a lot of Marylanders just a year ago, a Republican who upset his Democratic opponent last November in one of the bluest of blue states, now finds himself in the fight of his life and pulled away from the work he was elected to do. One minute, it seems, Hogan is helping to restore peace to riot-scarred Baltimore, or he's riding a super-fast train during a trade mission to Japan; the next minute, he's talking about preparing for chemo.

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But that's how it happens sometimes.

My friend and I had been corresponding by email, making plans, when he suddenly reported the shocking news of cancer that would require surgery — and soon, if he wants to live. His world was turned upside down with one visit to a doctor. "My moods are alternating wildly — between despair and bravery," he said in an email last week.

What do I say? I say have courage. I say keep faith. I say I'm here for you. Nothing original, but certainly things I'd want to hear if the roles were reversed.

Though cancer is all around us, and we've been hearing about it for decades — from personal experiences or the experiences of others and of celebrities — news of it affecting someone we know, even from a distance, is still jarring. Researchers and doctors have fought back beautifully over the years; survival rates for some forms of cancer have been on the rise. In Maryland, we live near some of the greatest medical institutions in the world, and we have a health care system that, despite shortcomings, ranks with the best in the nation. And yet those words ("cancer," "very advanced and very aggressive") scare the mightiest of men and women.

"This weekend ... my family celebrated Father's Day," Hogan said. "For me, even though I had some really tough news to deliver to them, it was a special and heartfelt time to be with family."

And now we're getting to it — the thing that matters most, the thing that, held up to the light, renders a political battle into a trivial game and dashes to dust something that seemed so urgent the day before yesterday. Nothing suddenly seems more important than living a full and healthy life — long enough to see sons and daughters become men and women, long enough to cradle grandchildren.

Today's column was supposed to be about Baltimore and Maryland politics, complete with quips and judgments about some public officials, their words and deeds, Hogan included. There has certainly been a flood of interesting and distressing news to pick apart and examine.

But then the governor made his Monday announcement, and the subject of this particular work-in-progress seemed instantly insignificant. It made me stop and think about all the yelling and screaming we go through in this super-partisan, representative democracy, fighting over issues that come and go, quibbling and sniping and getting all worked up over things we'll hardly remember in a few years.

Certainly the work of government and the press goes ultimately toward some public good — or at least we like to believe that — but, God almighty, there's a lot of sound and fury along the way. That's the noise of life. The music comes in smaller doses — a friend's familiar and consoling voice, a child's giggly laughter, the crackle of a winter fire, the crash of summer surf. You know what I mean. It's all the stuff we talk over or miss while we're texting, the things we'll one day strain to remember if we don't appreciate them now. The trick is keeping all things in balance, friends and family first, without having an oncologist forcing you to.

Please excuse this very awkward attempt at reflection. My friend's sudden emails about his cancer and Larry Hogan's announcement about his lymphoma got me here. I'm sure I'm not alone in these thoughts, just as I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing these men faith and courage.

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Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He also hosts "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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