The Gift of Living
Not every present comes wrapped in a box.
From the December 24, 2008 Philadelphia Weekly.
As Rocky Tharpe sits on the sofa, petting his two-year old dachshund Bindi, he says he's no longer worried about getting a nicer car or bigger television.
"Material stuff?" he says with a pause. "It's just so not important. It's just bullshit. It used to be important to me too. Now I don't give a crap."
Rocky and I are sitting in his ex-wife's living room watching his 16-year-old daughter jam through the Wii version of AFI's "Miss Murder" on Guitar Hero.
The home is ensconced in holiday cheer - wooden Santas sitting on the windowsill, five stockings dangling over the fireplace, green place mats with red trim on the nearby kitchen table, and a giant, perfectly symmetrical Christmas tree twinkling in the corner.
His ex's new husband walks in and out of the room, congenially offering us beer or wine each time he passes by.
"We've taken an unusual situation and made it work," Rocky explains.
He was friends with his ex, Jill Longshaw, before they dated, married and had a daughter together 16 years ago. Now, more than 10 years after they divorced, their friendship has grown even stronger.
Mostly it's because of their daughter, Feighanne Tharpe. But they spend even more time together now because Rocky's been battling lung cancer since September 2007. He refuses to slow down despite the medication, the chemotherapy, the pain, the diminishing alternatives for treatment and the doctor's orders not to drive.
Because he's so determined to spend time with Feighanne, Jill often shuttles Rocky around.
"The way we look at it," Jill says, "he's really been heroic."
Sixteen months ago, Rocky, who happens to be my stepbrother, was having a bad day at his Vortex Fitness Equipment office. The stress of trying to sell expensive, disabled-friendly workout equipment made his back ache. At least, he thought that's what it was.
Rocky, 43, hopped into his Jeep to go home early. As he drove, the pain became increasingly intense. It moved from his back to his abdomen, and to his back again. He doubled over while driving.
He pulled into a local clinic where they diagnosed him with pneumonia. Still ailing two weeks later, he went back to the clinic. This time, they X-rayed his chest.
"They saw a shadow on my lung," Rocky remembers.
A few weeks later, in October 2007, doctors removed one of his lungs. It was riddled with cancer.
Since then, cancer cells have appeared on his brain, spinal cord, liver and, most recently, on his other lung.
"I've got one good lung left and it's got spots on it," he reports, his voice faint from the cocktail of meds.
It seems like they're getting to a point where there are no other options," Rocky says of his doctors.
But he's still fighting. He's searching for experimental treatments, like one he found at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A doctor there is treating cancer patients with infusions of vitamin C.
"If this doesn't work, I'll try another one," Rocky states defiantly.
His old friends have surprised him with support, chauffeuring him to hospitals and helping with chores around his home - a few miles from Feighanne and Jill's. One friend brought a cherry picker truck over to help fix the outdoor Christmas lights.
"That's what you get for treating people right in high school," Rocky says with laugh.
The loyalty - and the fragility of life - have had an enormous impact on him.
"I look at everything differently," Rocky says. "I think about how much more important my friends and my dog are than my financial obligations and money stuff."
But above everything else, it's all about Feighanne now.
"I always told her, 'If you need to ask me about any of this, ask me,'" Rocky says. "If I see you holding back, I'll force conversation."
"It didn't really hit me for a while," Feighanne responds. "Not until I saw you in the hospital."
She smiles and laughs uncomfortably.
As if the world couldn't get any messier, Feighanne's stepfather, Jim Longshaw, recently took a job in Nebraska. His employer in Delaware dissolved his position during a series of banking mergers and Jim was out of work for four months. He finally found a job in Omaha.
Now, the family may have to move to the Midwest. Rocky thought about going with them.
"I considered that," he says, "but it's just not realistic."
"When can we get Feigh over to decorate the Christmas tree?" Rocky asks Jill.
Jill lists Rocky's appointments for the week - blood work one day, chemo the next, a meeting with someone from Social Security the following day.
"How about Thursday?" she asks as she packs pulled pork, a roll, provolone and a slice of homemade cake into a plastic bag.
"You act like my momma," Rocky mocks, though Jill seems to ignore him.
He plods over to his daughter as I prepare to drive him home for the evening.
"All right, Pumpkin," he says, kissing the top of Feighanne's head. "I love you."
She beams in silence.
"Tell your Dad you love him," Jill snaps.
"I love you too, Dad," Feighanne singsongs.