September 23, 2019

My Choice to Be Jerk #1

This is one of the most vulnerable posts I've ever written.

That is saying quite a bit, considering I've shared about my constant battles with weight gain/loss, depression, anxiety, my bipolar diagnosis, sex, setting and failing at goals, and even photos in my underwear after I had my skin removal surgery.

Spence died today.

And I'm going to write about my choice between being Jerk #1 or Jerk #2 in the situation. I hope that it will help others make the choice as well.

There is so much I want to write about, but to do so, I have to start at the beginning.

Who is Spence?

I grew up in a very small town (two-square-miles-with-only-one-traffic-light small) and everybody knew everybody. From the day I was born until I was 15-1/2, I grew up in a small neighborhood of about five square blocks with roughly 10 houses per street. When I say everybody knew everybody, I'm not exaggerating.

I was very lucky to have several kids in my neighborhood that were the same age (give or take a year or so) and we all grew up together. In fact, there was a girl my age (Sarah) that lived just two houses away from me--and she was even born just three days before me! We were completely inseparable all through our childhood, and we were even college roommates later on.

We even celebrated our birthdays together. Remember when you could have birthday parties at McDonald's and they would give you this cake? I loved eating the sugar pieces on top! haha

There was a small group of kids on my block that remained very close as we grew up (including my brother, Nathan): brothers Brian and Mike, who lived next door to me, as well as their younger sister Stephanie; Shannon, a "latch key kid" who lived across the street; Sarah and her brother, Joe, who lived a couple of houses down; brothers Lance and Spence, who lived behind me; Chris and Matt, who spent time at their grandma's house frequently; and a few other kids who came and went.

Standing at the bus stop before school:

(I have no idea who is on the far left of this photo below, hahaha). Left to right: Unknown, Lance, Nathan, Sarah, me, and Spence and Joe in front.

Brian, Shannon, Sarah, Lance, and I were all the same age--isn't that crazy for such a small town? Mike, Nathan, and Joe were the same age as well, a couple of years younger. Stephanie and Spence were much younger (in relative terms)--about five years younger than I was. But our "core" group consisted of myself, Nathan, Sarah, Joe, Lance, and Spence.

Sarah's mom, Sue, Lance's mom, Wendy, and my mom (also Sue) were close friends considering they had children of the same age and were going through the same stages of life together. So, our three families would get together quite often.

I remember a tradition that we had every Christmas--we would do a book exchange and meet at Pizza Hut or Chuck E. Cheese's for dinner. It was kind of a secret Santa thing--we'd draw names and buy a book for each other (our parents chose them, of course! haha)

Below... Clockwise starting with me in the blue pants with a mullet cut: Nathan, Spence, Lance, Sarah, and Joe. We were at Chuck E Cheese's for our Christmas book exchange.

I hate to word it this way, but Spence was kind of the oddball of the group. Sarah, Lance, and I were the same age; Nathan and Joe were the same age; but Spence was a few years younger, and when you're only seven or eight years old, that's quite a difference. So, I'm ashamed to admit that I was never close with Spence. I remember playing with him when everybody was very young, but once I was about 10 or so, things started changing and everyone was moving on with separate interests.

We still hung out during the summers playing sandlot baseball, but I don't remember Spence ever being a part of that. I don't know if he wasn't interested or if I just didn't notice him, but my memories of spending time with Spence end at around 10 years old.

Lance, Sarah, and I were close--in fact, Sarah was my maid-of-honor and Lance was the best man at Jerry's and my wedding! We've known each other for about 37 years, and most of the memories I have from my childhood involve the crew I grew up with.

It's no secret that my very favorite place I've ever visited is Portland, Oregon. Before I ever visited Portland, however, Spence actually moved there! He lived there for about eight years before he got sick.

Each time I went out there, I felt a nagging feeling like I should get in touch with him to just have coffee or something; but I felt it would be awkward because we were never close friends. Spence and I were acquaintances, and hadn't spoken in probably over a decade.

So, I didn't get in touch with him. Ever. I still kept in touch with Lance, and I still saw Wendy now and then, but not Spence. At Christmastime, I have always invited my childhood crew over for board games and laughs and sharing memories. Rather than deliberately invite Spence myself, I would just mention to Lance that he's welcome to bring Spence. He came once or twice, but even then, I felt awkward about what to talk about.

Left to right: Joe, Nathan, Lance, me, Sarah, and Spence

In November of 2017, my mom called me with news that shocked me to my core: Spence had multiple tumors in and around his brain and they were going to do a biopsy to see if it was malignant. A couple of weeks went by, and the results showed that it was, in fact, cancer. Stage IV glioblastomas, fast growing tumors in the brain. Inoperable.

Spence was only 30 years old! He was perfectly healthy until he showed only two symptoms--the first was phantosmia (smelling things that aren't there). He mentioned it casually to his parents because it was an odd occurrence, but he wasn't alarmed. Shortly after that, he had an epileptic seizure. Coincidentally, Joe was there with him in Portland when it happened and he went with Spence to the emergency room.

And that was that.

Spence decided to move home to be with his family and to undergo chemotherapy and radiation to hopefully prolong his life. When I heard the news, I was very torn. I wanted to reach out to him, but I didn't want to look like I was just doing it because he had cancer. So, I had to choose:

Jerk #1: Do I reach out after all these years and tell him I'd like to be part of his life again, help however I could, or just generally be a friend? It would be obvious to him that I was doing it because he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "Oh, I have cancer and NOW you want to be my friend again? Thanks, that's so nice of you."

Jerk #2: Do I just ignore it and not reach out, so that I am not one of "those" people who shows up when something bad happens?

I could be a jerk for reaching out to him in this horrible situation, or I could be a jerk for NOT reaching out to him in this horrible situation.

At the end of the day, regardless of what he would think, I decided that if I was going to be a jerk, I wanted to be the one who reached out. I would tell him that I care, that I'm sorry we haven't kept in touch all these years, and I know the timing is very shady, but it's what prompted me to reconnect. If he wanted nothing to do with me, I would totally understand and respect that.

But Spence was so kind! He talked to me like we've been old pals for years and didn't show any negative feelings about the timing of my message. It was November, so I immediately started planning the annual get-together at my house for Christmas, and I was sure to deliberately invite Spence. (To be honest, I'd read up on glioblastomas and I thought that 2017 may be his last Christmas.)

Spence came, and so did Mike, Nathan, Chris, Lance, and Sarah. Since Spence and I shared a love of Portland, we chatted about that. It felt like getting to know him for the first time. And I'm so glad that I did.

Below... Guys, left to right: Mike, Spence, Lance, Nathan, and Chris; in front is me, of course, and Sarah.

That New Year's Eve, Spence had a party at his mom's house. Sarah was in town from Phoenix and a few of the other "neighborhood kids" were there. I also met some of the kids that were Spencer's age and had lived in our neighborhood (I didn't know them because they were so much younger than I was). Hearing their names, I knew the families--like I said, everybody knows everybody. It was cool to get to hear about our neighborhood from another perspective.

Spence did chemotherapy and radiation, which seemed to be working well to keep him from going downhill. The tumors seemed to stop growing so quickly, and before I knew it, it was Christmastime again. And we were blessed to have another neighborhood get together with Spence. Lance, Nathan, Sarah, Shannon, and Mike also came. Here is my favorite picture from that night. That's Spence lying across our laps. (Shannon, me, Mike, Lance, and Nathan sitting on the couch)

This year, Spence's health took a turn for the worse. He started having more and more seizures. Eventually, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do to prevent the growth of the tumors. Spence chose to go home in hospice care to keep him comfortable while the cancer progressed.

I knew I wanted to go see him at least one more time. When my friend Sarah (a different Sarah) died from melanoma in 2014, I didn't go see her once the cancer had really taken its toll. I visited her in the hospital when she was still in fairly good health with hopes of recovery. She even mentioned wanting to try to go for a run with me when she was better.

I don't remember how much longer it was before she passed away, but I do regret not going to see her one more time. And I didn't want to regret not going to see Spence. I also wasn't sure if he was feeling lonely, bored, or wanted visitors. I asked several times, and each time he told me that yeah, someday would be good; but from what Lance and his mom said, it sounded like he wasn't up for visitors for a while.

And then one evening in late July, I got a random text from Spence, inviting me to go visit him. I went that Sunday with my mom, and I brought him a couple of gifts--just a Red Wings mug and some cozy socks. It was so hard to think of what to chat about. His mind was foggy, so I just tried to make small talk. Mostly, I chatted with his parents (who are seriously two of the most fantastic people on this planet).

Later that day, I looked for some old home videos of the neighborhood kids that would make Spence smile. We texted for a little while, and I felt happy about it. He seemed to be doing good.

That night, Spence had multiple seizures and had to be heavily medicated to stop them. Over the next six weeks or so after I saw him, he was in and out of it, sleeping most of the time. The texts that we'd shared (we mostly talked about our favorite junk foods! haha) were the last contact I had with him. I asked Lance last week how Spence was doing, and he said that he was pretty much the same, which was all they could hope for at that time.

I went grocery shopping on Friday and I bought the ingredients to make some lemon lentil soup to take to them (Noah has an appointment on Wednesday just around the corner from their house, and I figured I'd stop by and bring them the soup).

And then this morning, my mom called me to say that Wendy called her and said Spence had passed away in his sleep at around 8:00 this morning.

I knew it was coming--for 22 months--and Spence and I weren't very close friends. Still, I cried. I cried for his mom, because the literal worst thing in the world would be to lose a child. I cried because Spence was so young and hadn't experienced so many things that healthy people experience as they age. And I cried because of how dumb it was that I didn't get in touch with him a decade ago. Or at least called him when I was in Portland.

But I am grateful that I chose to be Jerk #1. I'm not sure how I'd feel right now if I'd made the other choice, but I'm sure I wouldn't feel good about it.


  1. What a heartfelt post and a genuine choice to be a good friend... it's never too late <3

  2. Sad about your friend, but think of him pain-free. I suppose everyone says that. Isn't it great that he enjoyed some get-togethers with the old gang.
    Take it easy on yourself

  3. Katie, don't beat yourself up. You didn't know what to do. Uncertainty is a natural human emotion. And you reached out finally. What if you didn't reach out at all? That would be far worse. Also, you learned so much from this. What's done is done. Thank you for sharing - you are teaching us all.

  4. Katie, that was most UN-asholey thing you could do! You are an amazing friend and a warm, loving human. Spence was blessed to have you in his life. ❤️

    1. I completely agree. Thanks for being so vulnerable and sharing this with us. You have given me the courage to reach out to people too.

  5. This is a beautifully written post and I'm sending you so much love! But please don't think of yourself as an asshole! We're all human and honestly, look at the connection you made over the past 2 years! That is a beautiful thing in and of itself right there. I'm very sorry for this loss and will think many healing thoughts for his family as well. You certainly are one amazing friend!

  6. I can relate to this so much: This year, I made a similar choice to be a kind of "jerk." My friend's wife had been battling cancer for nearly three years and this year her health started declining quickly. I wasn't a very good friend to him or to her in the years they've been together--especially after they got married. But this year, realizing how much of a "jerk" I was, I wanted to amend my ways and be there for them in any way I could.

    She died in June, but I am still continuing my promise to be a good friend. While it may have been horrible circumstances that brought our friendship together again, it is still a friendship.

  7. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. Thank you for sharing this post. It makes me think because there are friends I've lost touch with that I should reach out to.

  8. I'm so sorry, Katie. That's just heartbreaking. You will never regret reaching out to him and being there for him and his parents.

  9. So sorry for your loss :( So sad to be taken so young.

  10. Jerk #1 is much harder to do than Jerk #2. Let go of what didn't happen 10 yrs ago. You made up for it, really!

  11. You are amazing girl <3 You did the right thing! xoxo So sorry for everyone's loss. Praying that God comforts everyone and brings peace to their minds and hearts during this difficult time.

  12. 22 months is a wonderful blessing to make such a positive impact on someone's life. To know that you cared enough to reach out must have made Spence feel so touched. Take time to care for yourself as you process this loss <3

  13. Thank you for sharing this, and for being vulnerable on your blog, which is wonderfully brave and so appreciated. I'm so sorry for the loss of Spence, cancer is such a rotten thing!

  14. Def hit me in the feels with this post. Thank you for sharing. Praying for his family and your close knit group of friends.

  15. I'm so sorry for your loss. To add to what everyone else has said, contrary to what you believe you are NOT a jerk.

    A jerk would be the person who wouldn't ever reflect back on it. They wouldn't think about reaching out in any way, shape or form. They would just simply say "sucks to be him".

    That was not you. You're a good person, and I'm so glad you got the chance to spend time with him before he passed on. Thankfully now he's out of pain. RIP.


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