To Be Great

During a recent visit, my friend pulled out his tablet and challenged me to a game of checkers. Like most of our games, it was preceded by a good bit of smack-talk. Unlike most, I actually had a shot at winning this one because it didn’t involve a controller or hand-eye coordination. Truthfully, I didn’t want to win.

My nemesis made early blunders. He missed jumps and backed himself into corners where my only move was to jump him. I had to work very hard to lose a couple of games and not make it obvious because he would have called me out on that. Honestly, he was lousy at checkers. But in life, he was one of the greatest.

I met “The Greatest” once. Being from Louisville, I grew up watching Muhammed Ali box and was a high school freshman when he visited his alma mater. His title was self-proclaimed and debatable but with 37 heavyweight knock-outs, very few people would dispute his claim.

Literally hundreds throughout history have laid claim to the moniker, “the Great.” We study Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, and Peter. But have you ever heard of Akbar, Hanno, or Conrad the Great? Likely not because their time in history wasn’t enduring and many of their empires don’t exist any longer. These great ones claimed the title through military power, tactical success, or family lineage. That’s not true greatness – just intimidation.

So who is great? How does one achieve greatness?

I would argue greatness for people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, the Apostle Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie. The list could go on. But what do they have in common? In a nutshell; each overcame tremendous obstacles put in front of them, never shied away from challenge, disregarded personal pain, and fought for the betterment of others.

It has become common for a family dealing with childhood cancer to create a name to rally support: Praying for Annie, Jacob’s Army, Smiley for Kylie. While we were in treatment, I heard about a local kid whose group name was Robert the Great. At the time, it made me chuckle… “the great.” Kind of arrogant, isn’t it?

When I first met him, I thought he was a little doughy and goofy, but he came off as a very sweet kid – the rare kind of preteen who could engage with adults. Soon I found myself wanting to see him again because there was something that drew you to him. He held a presence, an indescribable joy, a warmth. He was magnetic.

Diagnosed with what should be the most treatable form of childhood cancer, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, at just 6 years old, Robert’s childhood was consumed by cancer. In the eight years since his diagnosis, Robert endured 800 rounds of chemotherapy, 65 spinal taps, and countless surgeries trying to beat his cancer – all of which left his body a mess. Most of us will never experience that kind of medical regimen and few could handle it. Robert’s daily baseline for pain would be intolerable for most adults. Yet this boy was cheerful nearly all the time.

Asked about his cancer recently, he said with a smile, “I don’t know much about it, but I know it won’t go away.”

He then proceeded to whip me at Mario Bros.

12313625_485611461611671_9206189549399270638_nRobert and I became friends. I was fortunate to spend time with him in life and to be able to make a few visits with him as his health declined. I watched him be so intentional in his thanks to his mother, father, and caregivers. He expressed gratitude in little things, but he spoke slowly and carefully and I believe he was thanking them for their years of loving care. While most fourteen-year-olds won’t show the slightest affection to their mother I watched Robert engineer a special birthday celebration for his mom from his hospital bed just days before he died. I also heard him say, “I love you” to people as they left his side.

I don’t know at what point he knew his life was coming to an end, but I realized that the knowledge didn’t really change the way he lived. He wasn’t kinder in his last hours – because he already lived a kind life. He didn’t become more loving –  because he always expressed love readily. When he learned he would soon die, he didn’t change… he just kept being Robert. We’re all terminal. Robert the Great somehow knew to live that way.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The boy who is going to make a great man must not make up his mind merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses and defeats.”

Those words haunt me. They are so true and never more embodied than in my friend, Robert. He climbed every obstacle in front of him – more than you and I will see in our lifetimes. Yet he will never grow to become that man. Damn cancer.

Robert was great. And with his loss, this world is a little less so.


Rest well, my friend. You’ve earned it.

18 thoughts on “To Be Great

  1. I am proud to share my namesake with this fine young man, Mark.
    The world surely is less great for his loss.

  2. Anyone can claim to be great, but it is when others acknowledge the fact – that you truly are. I am sure there are many people who loved Robert who acknowledged his greatness. What a wonderful tribute!

  3. I gave him that name, and I appreciate your perspective. Thanks Mark…well.said.
    Robert the meh. (Dad)

  4. Thank you Mark, a million thoughts swirl through my my mind yet my heart says thank you! Thank you for sharing Robert! Childhood Cancer strikes the nicest, kindest, most courageous! They don’t become this way after diagnosis, they are this way always! These kids teach every day how to live a worthwhile life yet they rarely get to grow up & old! In my work life I knew many kids/teens like Robert! Whose kindness in the face of all their hardships inspired. No two were alike, yet each one appreciates living & loving! Thinking of Robert’s Family & all who loved him

  5. I read this three times and agreed with his naming each time. some people are put on this earth who realize the beauty of every day and it spreads to all around him. anyone who met Robert the great received this loving gift from him, this is clear. how lucky the world was to have had him around, and may his love continue to follow in his path on this earth.

  6. Each and every time I see that another kid has passed away from this effing disease my heart breaks a little more, but it’s testimonials like this that keeps my heart from shattering completely.

    I can only say thank you for your tribute to another great kid gone far too soon.

  7. So sad that this monster continues stealing these great kids from us. I pray there will be a cure in my lifetime.

  8. 65 spinal taps and 800 rounds of chemo. That seems impossible to me. A thousand obstacles indeed. I will never forget his story. A beautiful tribute for your friend.

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s