How Often the Train Goes By

For the last however many years it’s been since I first saw The Blues Brothers, it’s held a secure place in my top 5 favorite movies, boasting the honor of being included on my “You-need-to-drop-everything-you’re-doing-right-now-and-familiarize-yourself-with-this-[movie/album/book/what have you]-if-you-have-not-already-done-so-in-order-to-fully-understand-what-in-means-to-be-part-of-functioning-society” list as well. (If you haven’t seen it, go rectify that situation right now before you finish reading this. I’ll wait. No, seriously, go do it.)  I mean, any occasion when Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown are all on the soundtrack for (and appear in) a film, more vehicles were destroyed in the filming process than in any motion picture up until then, and you have Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, how could you go wrong?
It’s a quality film, is what I’m getting at.


Anyway, I’ve watched it enough times by now to be able to recite back to you large chunks of the film on command, and a few weeks ago I was bored and had homework to do, so naturally instead of doing that I popped The Blues Brothers into the ol’ DVD player.  It was the obvious choice.


“How often does the train go by?”

“So often you won’t even notice it.”

Ah, one of my favorite lines. Funny because it sounds ridiculous as an answer to that question, but as the scene goes on it’s clearly a valid response. The train goes by so often that it becomes part of the soundtrack and you really don’t notice it. It’s consistent enough that your brain tunes it out and it just becomes part of the background, which is really true of a lot of things when you think about it. Pretty much anything that happens on a regular basis becomes so natural you don’t notice it. And as regrettable as it is to say, the same can be said of cancer.


If you’ve existed on earth for any appreciable amount of time, and if you’re reading this it’s safe to say you’ve been here at least enough years to learn how to read (so, what, like 5?), chances are you know a staggering number of people who have had cancer. I think the numbers on it are something like 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men over an 80 year life span will get some form of it, though that data is a little skewed because it occurs most often in people over 60. But, hey, everyone still knows tons of people over 60 and age isn’t important, what’s important is THAT’S A WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE.  So many that whenever you hear yet another person you know gets sidelined by the disease, it’s almost not a surprise. Sure, you never expect it to happen to anyone, but after hearing about so many people affected by the disease it becomes another element of the background noise unless it’s someone you see every day. Far from an ideal response, and one that I can admit to have had, but that’s how things go some times. The key word in that sentence, though, is “some.”


I don’t know if I’ve just matured a bit, if it’s a result of being part of an organization actively involved in the brouhaha between mankind and the scourge that is cancer, or the fact that as years go by the issue becomes more demographically relevant, but this year in particular the whole cancer situation has shifted out of the background of my day to day and reared it’s dissonant face much more frequently. Allow me to elaborate.


About a month ago, we of the Illini 4000 had what can best be described as a pow-wow during one of our meetings to refocus and discuss what we’re here to do. All this talk of tubes of metal propelled by rubber circles and the various accoutrements required to do that effectively has a way of overshadowing the whole “let’s put an end to this cancer business” aspect of what we do. And when you have a room full of 25-ish college students going around a room, pretty much all of whom have had a close relative or friend or themselves go up against the disease, it’s hard to look at it as a background issue. I mean, it brought us all here to spend large amounts of time combating it, so it obviously has some strong influence.


To summarize my turn in the circle, part of why I’m doing this is to put some things into perspective. When you go from one coast of the United States to the other and physically do all the moving yourself, I imagine it becomes clear there’s a lot of the country you would never know existed if you didn’t bike through it. And I have a feeling that kind of experience gives you an idea of where you fit in the whole scheme of things a little bit better. I might have said it better in the meeting because it sounds stupid written out here, but whatever. Anyway, as for this cancer thing, the other reason I’m part of I4K, the case I always come back to is my mom’s cousin Tina. To condense a long story into a short one, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer when I was in eighth grade, and from the get-go it sounded like the doctors knew it was going to be a rough battle. But what struck me as amazing was that you never would have guessed that was the case based on how anyone in the family reacted. My mom has an enormous and very close extended family, and not a single one for a second doubted that Tina would make it through the whole ordeal, if for no other reason than she was too stubborn and full of “piss and vinegar” to give up. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and it wasn’t a battle she ended up winning. But it wasn’t until recently I really appreciated the attitude that everyone in the family had. Regardless of the odds, failure wasn’t considered an option no matter what anyone said. I don’t think I fully appreciated how difficult of an attitude this is to maintain until this year, and maybe that’s an age thing.


But so that’s what initially pushed me to get involved in the organization. Granted, Tina is not the only person I know to have battled cancer, but she was the closest of the ones I’ve known to lose that battle so she’s been at the front of my mind throughout the process.

What I didn’t mention at the meeting, mainly because I didn’t have time to sort it out in my head yet, was that five days prior, one of the guys I ran track with in high school was diagnosed with leukemia. While admittedly I didn’t know Kyle super well in school (he’s a year younger than I am, I didn’t meet him until the end of my junior year, and it was a big enough school you didn’t always run into people during the day) he was “one of the guys” when it came to track, and a upstanding guy at that. I haven’t seen him a whole lot since graduation, but I follow him on twitter and facebook and whatnot so I’ve kept up with him that way. And one day he said he was sick and going to the doctor the following day, and three days later he was in the hospital. Life, as they say, comes at you fast.


A guy I went to school with. A guy I ran with every day in the springtime. A guy going to college while still working a job, and the kind of guy who waits for summer to go to Warped Tour as much for the mosh pits as for the bands. And within two days he went from feeling under the weather to in the hospital.


I don’t know if it’s because he’s the same age as me.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m just that much more aware of things now. But that hit me. Hard. So, over spring break and some of the other guys I run track with went into the city to pay him a visit in the city, at Comer Children’s Hospital in the University of Chicago medical complex.

Hey look! A Picture! Not of the exact hospital he was in, but same complex.

And he was still the same, sarcastic Kyle he’s always been, flirting with nurses, giving one of the guys a hard time about who he was dating, and swearing at the machines randomly beeping behind him.  Cancer has obviously cropped up as a roadblock for him (to make an egregious understatement), but I can guarantee you if there’s a way for him to be at Warped Tour with an IV drip in tow, he’ll be there.  It was a nice visit, and hopefully I’ll be able to see him before we leave in May (hopefully he’ll be out of the hospital and back at home by then), but the thing is that after chatting with him for a few hours,  the other guys and I got to leave. We’re back at school, dodging snow and soaking up sun, but Kyle’s in a room on the sixth floor of a hospital in Chicago. Cancer returns to our background, but it’s the only ground Kyle has right now, and no part of that is fair.


Again, maybe part of the reason I find myself thinking about Kyle and his cancer now is because he’s my age and a friend of mine,  maybe it’s because I’m older now and can appreciate how terrible of a situation it is, more so than when I was younger. But then I remember that freshman year, one of the girls in my grade, in the same band as me, who took piano lessons from the same teacher I did when were little, and who I was in class with in elementary school and junior high, was also diagnosed with leukemia (around the same time her father passed away from stomach cancer). Someone I saw every day, someone the same age as me. It should have hit closer to home, but I don’t remember being unsettled by it. Maybe it was because she had to leave school so I didn’t see her every day any more, maybe it was because I was busy with other things, or maybe it was because I was young and stupid, I don’t know. But it light of everything I know, it bothers me that I don’t remember feeling affected by it. I let her slip into the background. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Eventually Faith was able to beat the cancer into remission, but in the meantime her younger brother was diagnosed with leukemia, the third member of her family to be diagnosed with cancer in just a few years. Later, her’s came back. It’s not fair to have cancer, and it’s a travesty to have it hit one family so hard.


About a week or so ago, Faith went into surgery for an infection in her spine.


And this morning I learned that she’s passed away.


When I read it this morning I felt like a semi hit me in the stomach. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, but it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing quite the same as learning someone you grew up with, someone who’s still a kid, lost their life, when they did nothing to deserve it.


There’s more I want to say about that, but I can’t think of how to say it. Sometimes the electricity in your brain doesn’t move your mouth or fingers in the right way to make it presentable to others, but there’s a certain power of being at a loss for words that says more than you could ever hope to.


But it’s things like this that change the focus of day to day life. They make it clear as to what actually matters, and what doesn’t. It makes you feel guilty for complaining about a class or school work or waking up early because we’re lucky to be able to do any of those things at all. And as easy as it is for cancer, or any disease, or anything that stands in the way of people living their lives to fall into the background, it’s the last thing that should. And I’m not sure what the best way to fix that is, but I suppose what we’re doing in the Illini 4000 can only help.


I realize this is really long, and I offer bonus points to anyone who’s made it to the end of this blog-novella (the word post doesn’t quite seem applicable any more).  They’re worth less than sea-shells, but they’re yours now, and I suppose if you present me with them at some time I’ll give you a handshake or play you a song or some such thing.


Anyway, so even though you stop noticing them after around number three, I went back and counted the number of trains that go by Elwood’s apartment in that Blues Brother’s scene.


There are 11. And each one of them, whether you notice it or not, is going somewhere.  Somewhere important to whoever is on that train.


Comments (2)
  • Julie Wooley says:

    I love your statement about being at a loss for words, “… but there’s a certain power of being at a loss for words that says more than you could ever hope to.” These past few weeks have been trying for the OHS community. Kyle was diagnosed, we lost Faith, and then a sibling of OHS Panthers Nate and Tessa Vojtik’s, Chloe passed away at the far too young age of nine. That’s three too many people to have their lives changed or taken by cancer. I applaud what you are doing Ben. I hope your trip makes you continue to appreciate what matters in life, as we all should. I enjoyed reading this entire post and it made me realize that the things I complain about on a daily basis are trivial in the grand scheme of things. Thanks for helping me with that. I hope to scrape some money together to donate to your cause before you leave, but unfortunately I must scrape together the money to pay my property taxes first. I know you understand. I love you Ben and sure do miss seeing you at school and having you only two blocks away. Yet another thing on the list of things I shouldn’t have taken for granted.

  • Grace Deetjen says:

    Can I use this quote? It’s pretty much amazing.

    “Sometimes the electricity in your brain doesn’t move your mouth or fingers in the right way to make it presentable to others, but there’s a certain power of being at a loss for words that says more than you could ever hope to.”

    Amazing blog post – I’m reading it two years later, but I’d still like to cash in my bonus points for a handshake sometime.

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