Those were the two words my wife Suzanne said when I answered the phone on Wednesday afternoon at 5:18 pm.
Since I was out of town, she had called me about an hour earlier to let me know that our eighteen-year-old nephew Connor was nearing the end of his journey. In that earlier call, she had given me the priceless gift of putting me on speaker so that I could say to him through tears, “I love you. I have since the day you were born.” His answer—the last words he ever spoke to me—was, “I got it.”
As much as I dwell on the hurt of Wednesday’s telephone conversations right now, I absolutely resolve to remember the “hell of a fight” (his mother’s words) that Connor waged to postpone those phone calls as long as possible.
About two years ago, we learned that Ewing sarcoma was the cause of a persistent pain in Connor’s hip, from which the sinister intruder had spread to a shoulder and ribs. Since then, trips to Winston-Salem, scans, tests, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments have become Connor’s new normal.
He was a trooper through thousands of miles of travel and hours of treatment.
The insidious disease took so much from him—his hair, his body mass, his stamina, his junior year of high school—but it didn’t take his courage or resolve.
And so we were able to cry—joyfully—when he rang the bell in that hospital hallway in January 2018, signifying that he had made it to the end of chemotherapy. We cried again in October 2018 when he was crowned Abingdon High School’s homecoming king after being introduced by the stadium announcer as “cancer survivor, Connor Bartz!”
One week later, we cried yet again when we learned that Ewing sarcoma was back. And it was angry.
For the rest of my life, I will refuse to spell that horrible c-word with its vowels. I will spell it cncr, because it is dirty and ugly, like a four-letter word. It takes and takes until there is nothing left to give. In the words of the psalmist, “I hate it with perfect hatred.”
Again, it took—this time, from Connor’s senior year and from his remaining strength and stamina. And again, he gave—as his mom Shea says, “a hell of a fight.”
Round two was fought in Cincinnati, and though the setting was different, his courage was the same. He took on the grind of thousands of miles, hours, scans, needles and treatments, and he gave it all he had.
I emphasize that. In the end, I refuse to say that cncr took Connor’s life. Last Monday, he made the very difficult and courageous decision to discontinue treatment. He came home to face the final round with a horrible disease on his own terms, in his own bed.
He was surrounded by love, as he had been his whole life. In fact, if love alone could cure cncr, it never would’ve had a chance against him. You’ve never seen two more devoted parents or two more devoted sisters than Connor’s.
I’m grateful that his very last awareness was that he was cherished.
Even under the weight of this present grief, we can look beyond how he died to celebrate with a smile how he lived!
He was an artist, by talent, by training, and by temperament. He loved music, and he lived to perform.
Always a percussionist, he marched through life to his own cadence. A great love of his life was marching in the Abingdon High School band, and he would’ve loved the opportunity to march in front of the band as drum major. He dreamed of marching through his young adult summers in a DCI drum corps.
He began playing piano only in the past few years, but he had a real gift for it. His long slender fingers seemed to navigate the keys instinctively. He played with nuance and passion, and no one had to tell him to rehearse because he seemed to have a perfectionist streak and wanted to rehearse until he got it right.
A highlight of his sister Elise’s wedding this summer was Connor’s playing the song to which Elise and their dad Chandler walked down the aisle at the beginning of the service. It was beautiful. The kid simply made beauty on a piano.
Music was a very natural expression of his innate passion.
He was passionate about politics. One of the great injustices of Connor’s life is that he never got to vote in a presidential election. What a shame it is that many don’t even vote, because it would have meant a lot to him.
William Sloane Coffin wrote a book entitled, The Heart Is a Little to the Left. Connor’s was a lot to the left. He was a fan and supporter of Bernie Sanders and was more than a little frustrated with Howard Schultz over the past few weeks because he feared he might siphon votes away from the Democratic presidential nominee.
I believe his political convictions emerged from his natural protective streak, which always seemed visible in his love for his younger sister Abby. He cared deeply for the ones on the margins—the poorest, the most oppressed, the ones least assured of justice, and perhaps most passionately for LGBTQ persons.
He was an idealist. That doesn’t mean he was ideal. He was a teen, and before that he was a child. He complained. He critiqued. He pushed people’s buttons. He was flawed in all the ways that people are flawed. That’s just part of being human.
Nonetheless, he was an idealist, and in his ideal world there would be justice for all, respect for all, and loving affirmation of all. In the ideal world, everyone would practice their musical instruments to perfection. In the ideal world, there would be no terminal illnesses.
But here in the real world, in the closing rounds of the fight for his life, Connor found comfort in a description of an ideal world to come. His favorite image from scripture over the past few days was from Revelation 21:3-4, in which the voice from heaven’s throne says, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Eternal God of heaven, please hold Connor now that we cannot.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the past couple of days. When Connor was younger, he was fascinated by the HMS Titanic. His parents took him to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and I believe he even had a Titanic theme birthday party a few years ago.
Do you know what fascinates us about the Titanic? We remember it because the voyage ended before it should have. The story is tragic because it ended too soon.
That’s what strikes me most right now about my nephew Connor. He will be forever eighteen in our memories. We will grieve all the things that he never got to do. We will always have the sense that his story among us simply ended too soon.
Too soon indeed.
Connor, I will always be proud and grateful to have been your uncle.
I will always cherish our parting hug on Saturday night.
I will always be thankful that I got that one last chance on Wednesday to tell you on the telephone what I will simply say again here:
I love you. I have since the day you were born.
And I always will.