Tuesday, March 4th, was a pretty big day for NBC Chicago and the Ward Room blog. That evening, NBC and the University of Chicago hosted a forum for the Republican candidates for governor, one of the last big events before the critical Illinois primary. NBC staffers and reporters fanned out to cover the event, and the Ward Room posted multiple reports from the event and afterwards.
Turns out, March 4th was a pretty big day for me, too. That was the day I discovered I had cancer.
I was supposed to be helping out at the forum, moderating an online discussion of the issues and reaction. But that afternoon some unexpected abdominal pain gave way to an emergency room visit and, as they say, nothing’s been the same ever since.
Once you find out you have cancer, one of the biggest challenges you face is having to figure out what to do with your remaining days, especially if you don't know how many you might have left.
Since my doctors called my cancer incurable from the start, old assumptions and expectations about the future were suddenly hollow. One day, I knew what I was doing and why. The next, I had to question who I was and what I wanted to do with my life all over again.
Sometimes, finding the answer to those questions involves facing up to what you have might have lost. Shouldering an aggressive chemotherapy schedule and the need to see more doctors than should fit in any one lifetime meant I would lose one of the best jobs available in Chicago political journalism. I had only been writing and reporting for Ward Room for about six months, but I already knew I found a home to do the kind of work I felt I needed to do.
Suddenly, however, even writing was too much for any given day, no matter how much I wished it weren’t so. And so I had to leave.
In my late teens and early twenties, I was known for sitting in the corner at parties, a beer in one hand and a political text in the other, complaining about America and the problems I thought it had. For years afterward, I saw such behavior as simply a phase where I was just being a egotistical jerk trying to impress girls. Or myself.
But later I realized that it was how I coped with the ways my country was failing to live up to the ideals I believed it represented. I wanted the values my country espoused to make a difference, and every instance where it failed felt like a personal affront. It was a convoluted from of patriotism, wanting America to always succeed where it mattered most, and being pissed when it didn’t.
After 50 years of living in Chicago, I now realize I feel the same way about the city I call home. Day after day, I continue to be overwhelmed with the promise and opportunity this magnificent city holds, and feel it like a punch in the gut when it’s leaders fail its citizens, the city or its future.
And, the truth is, every day seems to bring new stories about how Chicago and the politicians who run it let its citizens down. Whether its closing public schools and laying off teachers, shuttering mental health clinics, watching our children get slaughtered from gun violence, neglecting poor and minority neighborhoods, sending corrupt politicians to jail or simply allowing the powerful and connected in this town line their pockets at taxpayer expense, you have to have a pretty strong stomach to watch this city’s citizens get the short end of the stick over and over and not feel that punch.
The truth is, cancer or no, my own gut tells me I’m supposed to do something with my remaining days than lay on the couch and watch old Law and Order reruns. And throughout my previous stint at Ward Room, NBC Chicago and my editors have been steadfast in their commitment to me, the work I get to do and the responsibilities of journalism, no matter where a story may lead.
How many people get to say that in their career?
And so, feeling a bit stronger these days and needing to relieve the trouble in my gut, I’m once again taking the opportunity offered to me by Ward Room and getting back into the Chicago journalism game, knowing that the chance to make even the tiniest bit of a difference is worth every effort.
After all, what else am I going to do with my time?