My phone lights up. Millions of pixels brighten in sync telling me that my dad is calling. I swipe right, of course. These moments always bring the corners of my mouth up, my dimples digging deeper into my cheeks.
“What’s up Ole Man?”
“Hey Ole Big!”
As I walked to my car after class on a warm October afternoon, I giddily listened to him recount a conversation he had with one of his favorite people. But the words “stage-four pancreatic cancer” and “metastasized to his liver” sent my heart to the pavement. It hit the ground like a ball of lead, gravity reminding me that it’s easier to let the corners of my mouth sag than to keep driving my dimple marks up into my cheeks. I hurt for my dad. At the time, I didn’t know R.J. that well because I had only had a few short conversations with him, but he and my dad clicked. After our first year at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the tournament where professional golf collides with the business world, we all knew their friendship would last.
I don’t remember much from summer school. I spent countless hours studying for “The Biology of Cancer” in the oppressive humidity of Memphis in June, just to get an A, a little boost for my GPA. What I do remember is that metastasis is not good. It starts in the DNA: one small mutation causing more. The cells won’t stop growing and dividing and growing and dividing and growing and dividing. The signals and pathways that regulate cell division fail. Something about GSK, SNAIL, and B-catenin, causes cellular interactions to break down. The bad cells reach the blood vessels and transport themselves to other organs. Metastasis.
My dad keeps me updated. He tells me when he hears from R.J., and how he’s doing. He sends me articles and videos about him. R.J. is an astonishing man. He is the reigning Prince of Pebble Beach: 32 years and counting.
Not long ago, I got an email from my dad with a link to an article on Golf.com. I didn’t have enough time to read the entire article walking from one class to another; in fact, it took me all day to get through it. When I finally sat at my desk after a long day of class and practice, I finished the article with warm beads of salt water rolling down my cheeks. I called my dad and we reminisced about the days we’ve gotten to spend with R.J. and how we’re so lucky to know him. The article lead up to the AT&T, where we first met R.J. A day I will never forget.
It’s Thursday, February 6, 2014. Mom and I arrived around one a.m., but I leapt out of bed this morning to watch the sunrise over the eighteenth green. The dew makes the green fairway sparkle as it stretches its welcoming arm down the left side of my panoramic view. Just beyond the blemish-less grass under my nose is the Pacific Ocean with its salt-water smell and mysterious rocks. The waves approach and recede with steady consistency, foaming peaks and soft crashes until the salty water is pushed too close to the reinforced wall protecting eighteen green. The white water explodes like a firecracker illuminating the green. I’ve dreamt of this day for months. Countless hours were spent watching you tube videos and googling pictures of the course. I’ve obsessed over these waves, the precipitous cliffs, each blade of grass which has grown up out of a divot dug by the best in the game, and the tree. Standing solitary, it gets to watch this scene everyday. My first day in heaven had finally arrived.
After breakfast, the driver pulls up to a massive tent and I nervously walk around the back of the car to grab the clubs. Dad runs inside for a diet coke, and I go to take a picture for my caddie nametag. Walking through the tent my eyes don’t blink, for fear of missing the glimpse of someone famous. Once I’m “official,” I haul the bag up the hill toward the practice tee, grab a bucket of Pro V1’s and find my Ole Man a spot. As he starts stretching and hitting wedges, a man walks up and says, “You must be Maddie.”
I’m confused and flustered by the number of friends my dad has already made, but I confidently answer, “Yes!”
“I’m R.J.” His eyes were as clear blue and effervescent as the foaming crests of the waves. His smile radiated a gentle enthusiasm, a warm welcome to golfer’s paradise.
“Hey R.J.!” my dad chimes in. My mom comes over to meet him too. I was excited and nervous to meet the long time friend of my future college golf coach and head pro at my home course.
“How ya doing this morning Bill?”
“Better than I deserve. This place is crazy.”
“Yeah it sure is cool. Good luck out there today. I’ll be watching for you on the leaderboard.”
“Haha we’ll see how it goes.”
A member of the class of 1978, he earned his degree in anthropology and sociology. He was a star athlete at Rhodes, but before 1984 it was called Southwestern. Leading the football team to its all-time best record of 9-1-1, he was named the Most Valuable Player in ’77. He finished that season as the top NCAA Division III receiver for a running back. He was also named an All College Athletic Conference tailback in ‘77 and ‘78, rewarded the Scholar-Athlete Award in ’77, and was selected to the All College Athletic Conference baseball team in ’77 and ’78. His success on and off the field is a testament to his competitive spirit and leadership. He reminds me of my dad.
My dad and I talk about golf and life almost every day. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Golf is our life. Golf is a microcosm of life. Golf is life. The golf community is unique and small. Once you make a connection, you have an endless string of more connections – a spider’s handiwork at your fingertips. Golfers tend to stay involved in the game. It’s an addiction.
On Friday, February 12, 2016 at the AT&T, we were warming up on the range at Spyglass Hill. Phil Mickelson was a couple spots away. I stood behind my dad, praying that he wouldn’t embarrass us (his golf game is not the same one he had in college). There’s always light conversation on the practice tee, especially when I was there. I was one of two female caddies that year, and the youngest by at least fifteen years. Sporting brightly speckled leggings with a coordinated shirt and vest, I always got compliments and comments impressed that I too was a golfer, following in my dad’s footsteps as a collegiate player to be. I’m always proud to be my dad’s golf companion. Somehow my dad struck up a conversation with Bones (Phil’s caddie), and come to find out, they played against each other in college. The golf world is small.
My dad always says that golf is the best sport.
“Think about it. Soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, you spend years playing and travelling, but after the last game your senior year of high school, the odds are you’ll never play again. But golf. Golf only begins when you graduate from high school. Even if you don’t play in college, you can play every day for the rest of your life. It’s a gift.”
I think he’s right. But golf isn’t just a sport you play on the weekends. It’s a life journey of learning how to “manage what you can manage and deal with the rest” because you can only control the present swing. You can’t change the bogey on the last hole and you can’t start the next hole with a birdie putt. You have to hit every shot. You have to be there. You have to know the distance, feel the grass, watch the wind, and let go. He always says the key to success in this game is to “trust it.”
That’s what life’s all about. Learning to go with the flow, accept what you can’t change, and trusting yourself. In the article, R.J. said “I want to show [my sons] that no matter how big the challenge, you meet it head on. You never stop battling. You never stop living . . . Why would anyone feel sorry for me? . . . Look at the love these boys have for me, and me for them. I've spent the last 32 years in the greatest place in the world, doing what I love. I've had a helluva life."
The pancreas is a glandular organ behind the stomach. It’s an endocrine gland that produces crucial hormones including insulin, and it aids in digestion and the absorption of nutrients. The enzymes it secretes help break down carbs, proteins, and lipids.
To put it simply, the similarities between R.J. and my dad are weird. From tough Memphis neighborhoods, they excelled in collegiate athletics, and their drive to win has elevated them to the summit of their industries. They fight relentlessly.
I don’t know why there is pain and suffering in the world; maybe it was original sin. I believe that God has a reason for everything, but sometimes you can’t see it in the big picture. I struggle with the reason for R.J.’s cancer, though.
The statistics aren’t good. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., and it boasts the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. 91% of pancreatic cancer patients will die within five years of diagnosis – only 9% will survive more than five years. 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. Surgical removal of the tumor is possible in less than 20% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer because of late detection and metastasis.
Thursday March 30, 2017: R.J., Tucker, and JT walked through my front door. I’ve never seen anything like the way Tucker and JT look at their dad. Merciless, undying love. They would do anything for him. Tucker stopped working as a caddie at Pebble Beach to be his dad’s full time caretaker. He hasn’t missed a doctor’s appointment. JT and his family left their New Jersey home to spend over a month with his dad after the diagnosis.
Over dinner we talked about R.J.’s health. The chemo he’s getting now is less frequent but just as brutal. Every Monday he goes in for treatment, and comes out feeling sick. Tucker said, “I’ve learned so much about him through this. I’ve always known him, but seeing him go through this has let me really know him. I know what he’s thinking. It’s amazing.” R.J. agreed. Suffering doesn’t only impact the sufferer. Out of suffering comes understanding and real, unapologetic relationships.
That was one of the best nights of my life. It felt like we had known each other our entire lives, these are the connections golf makes.
Friday March 31, 2017: The weather is perfect. It’s one of those Memphis spring days when the sun is out and you don’t even notice the temperature. The cool wind licks your pale, bare arms as the sun kisses your cheeks. The dogwoods are blooming and the grass is turning green again, the signs of God’s grace and renewal.
This is the beginning of a miracle.
I reached the green in two! I smashed my drive and got really lucky on my second shot, but I have a chance at birdie on the longest par four. R.J. pulls me down like the gravity on my ball as it reaches the edge of the cup and drops, “Maddie look at those dogwoods aren’t they beautiful?”
“They really are. They’re my favorite.”
As we walk up to the tee box, R.J. says, “My CBC for white blood cells came back low. Those are the cells that help you fight infection, so that means that I don’t have to get chemo on Monday because I have to have surgery Wednesday. My doctor doesn’t want the chemo to make my CBC lower. I have two splints in my liver. They go down here and in through here (pointing down his throat and into his right side).”
What do I say?
Saturday April 1st: R.J. loved the dessert I made Thursday night, so I made another batch for him to take back to California. Another hug goodbye from his thin frame, and I hopped back in my car. I put my sunglasses on because it was a warm, sunny, Memphis spring day, and pulled away from the airport. Before I turned out of sight I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t see through the tears. I didn’t want this to be the last time. I didn’t want that to be our goodbye forever. I wanted more time.
I'm not afraid to talk about these things.
I get texts every few days now.
He’s ok. In pain but good spirits.
Dad and I went for a long walk
A tough week but we r fighting it.
Hospital. Dads ok now tho. Be here a few days.
Been rough chemo weeks since Memphis. Ran tests today. Blood clots all over. And some infections. So treatable. He should be good in a few days.
Dads ok. Goin to watch the warriors soon!
Going ok out here. Dad and I are having a chill weekend together.
I’ll never stop praying.