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Excerpt: 'The Gifts of Jimmy V' Chapter One

Excerpt: 'The Gifts of Jimmy V' Preface

The V Foundation for Cancer Research

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Chapter Two: Good-Bye
By Bob Valvano
from "The Gifts of Jimmy V"

(Editor's note: is running three excerpts from ESPN Radio host Bob Valvano's The Gifts of Jimmy V published by Triumph Books. Here is the second chapter.)

I just sat and looked at him. My brother. My hero, my idol, my friend. He was the man who had played with me when I was a little kid, protected me and looked after me in my adolescence, helped me in my career, made me laugh longer and harder than anyone I had ever known, and given me enough magical, one-of-a-kind experiences to last more than a lifetime. I loved him as much as it's possible for a brother to love a brother.

And I wished with all my heart that he would die.

We were in the Duke University Hospital Oncology Unit. Jim's wife, Pam, their three daughters, Nicole, Jamie, and Lee Ann, and my mother, Angela, were all there. My brother Nick had gone back to his hotel room to shower and was due back any moment. My wife, Darlene, and my three-year-old son, Nicholas, were also due to arrive shortly. I had arrived back in North Carolina myself only a short while earlier, after a chaotic couple of days.

I had left for home the day before, having spent a few days visiting Jim in the hospital. I took Amtrak back to Washington from Raleigh, using the long train ride to settle my mind and jangled emotions. Jim, who just eight weeks earlier had given that emotional speech at the ESPYs in New York, had deteriorated steadily from that point on. In truth, he was not in very good shape even then. Those who saw him earlier in the day in New York didn't believe that he could even make it up on the stage that night, much less move everyone the way he did with his lively, funny, spirited speech.

As I look back on it now, it's easy for me to see that I was in complete denial during those eight weeks. I knew he was very sick and that the prospects were bleak. But I kept looking for some kind of rally, some improvement that, while it might be temporary, would nevertheless be a bright spot for all of us. I envisioned "the end" as something down the road, something that, to be sure, would have to be dealt with, but not till some far-off point in the future.

If that sounds vague, it should. That's what denial is like. Specifics are rarely good, so you just avoid them. I knew Jim might die from this cancer (might!), but wherever we were, I thought we weren't there yet.

So, after a couple days' visit, I said good-bye, got on my train, and headed back to D.C. I had no more than reached Union Station when I found out that Pam had called my wife, telling her that there wasn't much time left, and if I wanted to see Jim again, I should turn right around and go back to North Carolina. I headed right to National Airport and took the next flight to Raleigh.

I was incredulous. I knew Jim was bad, but the day before he had said to me, "You come back soon, now." I promised I would, thinking it would be in a couple of weeks, and even daring to hope I might see some improvement then. It had been an odd visit, to say the least. Jim had been going through various stages of illness that ranged from disconcerting to downright terrifying. He slept through terrible spasms in his limbs, almost like an epileptic seizure -- violent shakes that we were helpless to stop or control. Fellow coach Mike Krzyzewski came in for his daily visit during one of these times, and I could see the shock on his face.

That's the thing about cancer. No matter how bad you think it is, it always has another sinister surprise in store. Each time we resigned ourselves to the new parameters of Jim's life, his disease would change the rules on us and make new, more disgusting and repulsive demands. Then all of us, led by Jim himself, would try to figure out how to adjust to the new set of circumstances.

Jim fought the cancer just as he coached, always looking for a new way to get the job done. Always battling. Late in his illness he couldn't see clearly out of one eye, a problem that blurred and doubled his vision. No problem. He didn't complain. He just sat there with one eye closed tight, looking like Popeye, but laughing with me while we watched Whose Line Is It, Anyway? on TV. Jim's enthusiasm for that show quickly rubbed off on me, and it's still one of my favorites.

Still, that last visit had easily been the most disturbing one yet. His speech had become so slurred that it was difficult to understand anything he said, and much of the time he was basically incoherent. In fact, with the exception of encouraging me to return soon, he had not had a moment of lucidity in my presence the entire day -- with two notable exceptions.

The first was an incident his daughters and I still laugh about. We had been keeping our normal bedside vigil, watching Jim drift in and out of consciousness and occasionally mutter something incomprehensible. Suddenly and without warning, he shot straight up in his bed, pointed to his daughters, and said "Out!" as clear as can be. Apparently the one thing able to call him back to full alert was impending bedpan duties, which had to be performed by someone. He was determined it wasn't going to be his daughters.

The second moment will stay with me forever.

That last night, before getting on the train back to D.C., Jamie and I spent the night at the hospital so Pam could get some much-needed rest. Jim was gesturing and trying desperately to talk, but by now he was so hopelessly indecipherable that it broke my heart. Suddenly I remembered that when my father-in-law had Alzheimer's disease, until the very late stages he always responded positively to music, especially old, familiar tunes.

But a man's life is measured not only by a span of years. There is also its impact on the lives of others. By this measure, Jim Valvano lived not 47 years, or one hundred years, or one thousand; he continues to live in those who knew him.
Bob Valvano
When I was four years old, Jim and I shared a bedroom in our home in Seaford, Long Island. I'm sure this must have just thrilled him, being 15 years old. But it was a three-bedroom house, and Nick, our oldest brother, got his own room. C'est la vie. Jim, as far as I can remember, was pretty good-natured about it. What I specifically recall is that he was always singing. Not in the choir, or in the school glee club, but in our bedroom, in the shower, around the house, in the car, everywhere, all the time. Sing, sing, sing. Benny Goodman would have loved him. And he wasn't timid about it, either. None of this humming a tune under his breath. He sang loudly, robustly, with gusto and enthusiasm, and didn't care who heard him. He took Thoreau's adage, "The woods would be silent if only the best birds sang," very much to heart. There was no danger of the woods being silent when Jim was around. Jim decided to teach his four-year-old kid brother two songs, both Sinatra hits. One was "Would You Like to Swing on a Star?" and the other was "High Hopes."

On that impossibly sad April night at Duke University Hospital I decided to sing those songs to my brother. I launched into the first one. With dawning awareness, Jim struggled to sit up in bed as a lucid, happy smile came across his face. In a clear voice, he started to sing too. Loudly. Then Jamie joined in, and even though we were unsure of some of the words, Jim kept us going. I hadn't sung it much since I was four, and couldn't remember all the animals mentioned, but that was no problem for Jim. "High Hopes" was next, and though we were all a bit fuzzy on those words, what we lacked in precision we more than made up for in volume and enthusiasm. My brother, Jamie's dad, was back, albeit briefly.

That's the last time I feel I really saw Jimmy.

Now I was back in that hospital sickroom after my quick turnaround, and I myself felt like I was going to be sick. We had spent the better part of the day watching Jim stare blankly at the ceiling, breathing laboriously. I noticed that the monitor, which had been attached to the oxygen mask, had been removed from the room. Not a good sign. Over the days and weeks we had watched the numbers on that monitor carefully, having been warned that if they dropped below a certain level, we should call the desk immediately. The monitor's absence told me all I needed to know about what the numbers would have been and how dire the situation really was.

It was hard to look at Jim's wide-eyed, blank stare. I was no longer in denial. I knew where we were. And so after days of grotesque spasms, labored breathing, incoherence, and that blank stare, all of which followed months and months of excruciating, scream-triggering pain, I knew it was close to being over, and I wanted out. For Jim, for his family, and for me. Definitely for me. So I looked at this man whom I loved so much, and in my helplessness and desperation, all I could think was . . .


Please. I know you are not coming back, so please go. I even talked to him and said that. I knew he couldn't respond, and wasn't sure he could understand, but I put my mouth close to his ear and whispered, "It's OK, Jim. You can go. We'll take care of Pam and the girls . . . they'll be fine. You can let go now . . . it's OK. I love you. . . .

I was wracked with all the sadness that anyone watching suffering endures, but added to that was the thought that all I could do for my brother, this man who had done so much for me, had helped me in so many ways large and small, was to wish for his death.

I was distracted for a moment by a commotion in the small visitor's room down the hall. My wife and son had arrived, and as the youngest grandchild, there was much fussing over Nicholas. My mother went up the hall to see him, as did his three cousins. Pam stayed with Jim, and after greeting my beautiful son, I came back into the room with Darlene. Soon Nicole would return as well. Just the four of us sat around the bed as I stared at his battered and beleaguered figure for the last time. He was 47 years old, but after the ravages of the disease had taken their toll he looked to be about a hundred.

But a man's life is measured not only by a span of years. There is also its impact on the lives of others. By this measure, Jim Valvano lived not 47 years, or one hundred years, or one thousand; he continues to live in those who knew him.

Copyright 2001 by Bob Valvano. Excerpted from "The Gifts of Jimmy V" by permission of Triumph Books. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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