Planning the family vacation is always tricky business. When I am in charge, it seems to unfold like Clark Griswold taking the family to Wally World. My tendencies are to either a) obsess over every detail, or b) totally abstain from planning altogether, opting rather to provide a runnning“commentary” once the trip has commenced. In hindsight, neither extreme is very effective. While the best laid plans often go awry, sometimes, the sweetest vacations are the ones that you can’t possibly plan; they just happen.
The events that landed me as the “Surprise Guest” on a national talk show are as peculiar as the name our driver answered to. You know you have arrived in Hollywood when your chauffer’s name is ‘September’.
Montel Williams and I were in the same Company at the Naval Academy. Prior to his talk show career, Montel travelled to inner city schools around the country as a motivational speaker. In 1987, his visit to a Harrisburg area school received news coverage I read about the next day; his mantra, “Mountain, get out of my way!” While I didn’t immediately appreciate how this emotional charge to inner city youth could impact me, I would later be grateful it stuck in the back of my head.
In September 1994, I was diagnosed with Stage III B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In May the following year, after eight months of chemotherapy, I was hospitalized with pneumocystis, an often fatal strain of pneumonia. Scans showed that the tumor that had been shrinking was now growing again. My diagnosis was changed to Persistent Hodgkin’s Disease.
The thought of leaving my children fatherless, and my bride a widow, had never strayed far from my mind since diagnosis. Suddenly, however, it was thrust front and center into my daily thinking. Lying in my hospital bed, I had resigned to acceptance. For 8 months I had put up a good fight and clearly understood a cancer that grows during chemotherapy was not a good sign. It was time to write ‘thank you’ notes to some people who had helped me along the way. Montel was one of those people. “Mountain, get out of my way!”, that mantra imploring inner city youth, had become a tremendous rallying cry for me.
My note was short. I congratulated him on his success, and thanked him for his inspiring message that bolstered me in the early months of me getting sober in 1988, as well as throughout my dance with cancer. I mailed the letter, and got on with the business of figuring out what my next step was.
Shortly after this setback, I met with the lymphoma specialists at Johns Hopkins Hospital. With my bride on one side, and my mother on the other, I was informed my only real chance of survival was with a Bone Marrow Transplant. I was told, “Even if the transplant is successful, your chances of surviving beyond two years are about 15%.”
The procedure was scheduled at the end of August. I would return to Hopkins every three weeks in the interim for scans to ensure the tumor was not growing out of control. After the third set of scans, Johns Hopkins called. “The good news is the cancer is not growing; in fact, we are not even sure it is there anymore. We want to delay the transplant until we figure out what’s going on!”
As I had prepared emotionally for this procedure, which was my “only chance of survival”, I viewed this delay with mixed emotions. It would be another 2 ½ months of waiting before the cancer was declared in remission.
Two weeks after the call from Hopkins, I was home alone when the telephone rang: A timid, female voice said, “I’m calling for Pat McBride.”
“First of all – how are you doing?” I thought this was a curious question for a stranger to be asking.
“Okay.” I answered, “Who’s this?”
“My name is (Sally Somebody) from Leeza Gibbons”.
My first thought; “What’s a Leeza Gibbons? Is this a store?” I’m not a big shopper when I’m healthy, and even less so during the previous 11 months.
“We’re doing a special show on Montel Williams.” She continued,
“He is getting ready to release his book, ‘Mountain, Get out of My Way!’ His ‘people’ sent us a copy of the letter you sent him in May – that’s why I asked how you are doing.”
“Oh!” I said with a spark of enthusiasm, my interest now peaked at hearing Montel’s name. (At this point, I still didn’t know what a ’Leeza Gibbons’ was.)
“I’m calling to see if we could fly you and your family out to be a guest on the show.”
That’s when it hit me – we’re not talking about a local Harrisburg show are we?
“Do you mean New York?” After all – I could drive there.
“Are you serious?” I blurted.
“Yes. We’d like to fly you and your family out to L.A. We’ll put you up for two nights at the Hilton, provide transportation, and tickets for your family to go to Universal Studio theme park. Everything is paid for.”
I was flabbergasted. We hadn’t been able to take a vacation in a year. What a cool trip for the kids! I grabbed a pen and looked for a piece of paper to write this down.
Leigh would never believe me!
Then I heard the garage door go up. Anybody who knows me – knows Leigh must have thick skin and a pretty good sense of humor. But after 11 months of mounting debt while ‘living’ off her income as a part-time pre-school teacher and a summer camp director, I even knew enough to tread carefully at the end of a hot August day. Leigh walked in the house, sweaty and tired. I said to the woman on the phone, “Hold on – here’s my bride!”
“Some TV show wants to fly us to Hollywood so I can talk about Montel!”, I said, jabbing the phone in Leigh’s direction.
“Quit screwing with me.”
“I’m serious!” I said, “Talk to her!” I watched with a big cheesy smile on my face.
Leigh took the phone and rolled her eyes. I could tell she had about one nerve left after another day with Hampden Township’s finest youth.
“This is Leigh.” I could hear the woman’s muffled voice. Frozen, with wide-eyes and mouth agape, I stared at Leigh as she listened. Certainly she knew what a “Leeza Gibbons” was.
“Are you serious? Is this a joke? My husband has a history of pulling pranks like this!” She listened some more.
Four days later we were on our way to Hollywood! While we had become accustomed to the generosity of friends, family and strangers; this was a particularly bizarre twist in our dance with cancer. Going on TV to talk about Montel just can’t be planned.
During the week I had been scheduled for a bone marrow transplant, I was, instead, in Hollywood doing a talk show. From Leeza’s ‘teaser’ at the top of the program, to my emotion filled words, to the tearful hug from Montel – the experience was simply surreal. Chris, 10, and Caity, 9, who had watched me navigate, sometimes gracelessly, through the ups and downs of chemotherapy, were now watching me hug Montel with loud audience applause. Who would have thought a simple thank you note could have unfolded this way?
I’m not sure what the kids remember most from this surprise vacation;
perhaps it was the backstage visits, or the rides at Universal Studios, or playing tank commander through the limo’s moon-roof. For Leigh – she had two days with no Hampden Township summer campers. It was the finest vacation we would never plan.