By Bill Beausay
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A few months ago he was a high school football coach. Now Charlie Cristo is a cancer patient, battling not only an aggressive disease but also years of bitterness and disappointment. Then anonymous letters start arriving from a source known only as The Sender. Lift your spirits. Work the process. Help one another. The short, wise counsel in the letters challenged Charlie Cristo to fight the disease ravaging his body and the anger threatening his soul. What will you do with The Sender’s advice?
Copyright © 2016 by Kevin Elko and Bill Beausay
Published by Worthy Inspired, an imprint of Worthy Publishing Group, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., One Franklin Park, 6100 Tower Circle, Suite 210, Franklin, TN 37067.
WORTHY is a registered trademark of Worthy Media, Inc.
HELPING PEOPLE EXPERIENCE THE HEART OF GOD
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Elko, Kevin, 1958- author. | Beausay, William, 1957- author.
Title: The sender : when the right words make all the difference / Kevin Elko and Bill Beausay.
Description: Franklin, TN : Worthy Inspired, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016001191 | ISBN 9781617957321 (hardcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Cancer--Patients--Fiction. | Life change events--Fiction. | Football coaches--Fiction. | Letter writing--Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Christian / General. | GSAFD: Christian fiction. | Epistolary fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3605.L427 S46 2016 | DDC 813/.6--dc23
LC record available at
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ISBN: 978-1-61795-807-6 (special edition)
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Cover Design: David Carlson / Studio Gearbox
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THERE’S NO SELF-PITY with cancer . . .
Charlie winced, rolled over and looked out the window. It was gray and gloomy.
Or is it “There’s no self-pity in football”? he wondered, trying to get his mind off the pain. He’d read that somewhere and couldn’t remember. He squinted into the fog outside his window, trying to recall. His head was just as hazy as it was outside—the drugs did that to him. His arm ached from the needles. The docs had suggested installing a port-a-cath, but he’d resisted. It sounded terminal to him. It was time for it, though. His throat was raw. The hospital bedsheets caught, then tugged and twisted his bad leg. His body twitched back hard.
“God, that hurt!” He cursed, gritting and wincing again.
Everything hurt during chemo: bone pain, nausea, and that constant headache. This was way worse than he had feared. His spirit grew dark. The only thing he felt like doing was crying. But that was not allowed. Then, the unthinkable words drifted through his brain fog—“God, please let me die.” Ache upon ache.
The cancer had been diagnosed just two months back but Charlie’s outlook on life was already pretty bleak. He’d been unhappy, discontented, for a long time. He’d lost touch with joy, was wrapped up in worry. Gotta make more money. Who will pay the bills? Pay for college for the girls? Will I be there to dance at their weddings? Everybody seems to be going about their lives at full speed. What about me? He’d been plagued by thoughts like this for some time. The cancer just inflamed all his old anxieties.
But now his body was dwindling too. He could see that in the mirror.
From time to time, his patience would snap and he’d explode at somebody. Anybody would do, as long as he got it out. He had to get his mind off this killing pain and fatigue; his screwed-up balance; meat-red sore throat; fever; the dryness, metal taste and ulcers in his mouth; baldness . . . and the constant allover ache. And this was only phase one of three. Daily body massages eased the throbbing, but the relief only lasted so long. The nurses kept a close watch on his meds, but most of the time he just wanted another hit.
The cancer support group wasn’t helping much. “You’ll get better!” they’d say, pouring forth heaping ladles of chicken-soup encouragement.
Oh my God, please . . . wipe those smiles off your faces, he’d think, his voice echoing angrily inside his head. Just shut up; you have no clue. You lie here for a month and then see if you’re so chirpy. Their sunny bull crap was more than he could take most days.
Charlie talked to himself a lot.
His mind drifted again. He felt empty, angry, pained, driven, hopeless. Emotional and spiritual agony blackened every moment. He was limp from exhaustion. Vince Lombardi’s words drifted into his thoughts, something Lombardi was quoted as saying shortly before he succumbed to cancer: Fatigue makes cowards of us all.
Charlie chafed, grimaced, and clenched his teeth in defiance, but he’d spent all the energy he could muster. He was just too tired to fight. Maybe he was a coward. Or maybe he was just tired of being tired and beaten up over and over again.
And then, just when his mind-set couldn’t get worse, it did.
His thoughts hopscotched around with little purpose or control. He drifted more deeply into his positively messed-up situation: his aimless and frustrating career, money problems, his new job now hanging by a thread, a wife who’d emotionally checked out, and now cancer. Cancer. The word evoked so much. He could see it clearly within him: dark and ghoulish; gray-black sludge in his bones, caustic yellow-jelly pus leaching into his aching joints, dark bruises on his skin, bones sticking out all over, the feeling of being eaten alive from the inside by a dark, smelly, fiery demon.
He was angry, resentful, and hated everything. And it was all compounded by unyielding exhaustion.
His psyche raced round and round in silent desperation. Then that fat, obnoxious nursing assistant came in. The one with bad breath and the tattoos that made her look cheap. She was good with those needles though. No pain. He never gave her enough credit for that. How could she have wrecked herself with all that ink? Disgusting, he thought.
Snapping at the nursing staff was his trademark. His reputation as a difficult and angry patient had ballooned recently. The truth was he’d been snapping at people for years. He couldn’t remember when it started. All he knew was that his uncontrolled anger and attitude issues had gotten him canned—or simply not renewed—at coaching job after coaching job. It cost him a lot of friendships too. Through his own actions he’d become an empty, cussing, hurting mess. It was an appalling dilemma with no way out. He wanted to just collapse and cry, but he had already collapsed and the tears would not come. There was no bottom left. But there’s no self-pity in cancer.
His vision, attitude, and demeanor were completely septic; his hope was gone. The disease owned Charlie.
HE MUST’VE DOZED OFF during the pity party he wasn’t supposed to have. He awoke in a surprisingly pleasant post-nap mood. That was rare. What wasn’t rare was how low he could crash when Bing walked in.
Bing Macklemore was a round man with a fat face as red as a cherry. He was receiving therapy in a room down the hall. He had considerably more energy than Charlie and seemed to constantly seek attention. He was loud, obnoxious, and chatty. He chafed on Charlie. He was a professional gambler, winning a fortune playing poker online and telling anyone who would listen just how great he was. He gabbed constantly.
Always good for a few lies, Charlie thought as he watched that swollen, crimson moon face come toward him.
Bing was about Charlie’s age and used to play high school football, which he told anyone who would listen. Charlie could take him for a few minutes, but that was about it.
“These letters are pretty good, Coach,” Bing said, holding up several folded pieces of paper in his hand and moving toward Charlie’s bedside. Without being invited he took a seat.
“What letters?” Charlie asked.
Bing waved the papers and partially exposed one to give Charlie a peek.
“Oh, those,” Charlie said, vaguely recalling giving Bing the letters to make him get lost.
Charlie had been receiving them from the day he’d entered the hospital, but had only read the first one. Come to think of it now, that first one he read talked about self-pity. That’s where that strange repetitive thought was coming from. Hm.
The letters came almost every day. The nurses would throw them into an old shoebox. The box was filling with unopened envelopes. He assumed they were fan mail or “Let’s all feel sorry for poor ol’ Charlie” notes, so he’d handed a few to Bing, one to this nurse or that nurse.
“Why does this guy keep calling you Dog?” Bing asked.
“Dog? Excuse me?” Charlie sat up an inch, anger flaring in his eyes.
“Yeah, DOG!” Bing grinned, knowing a nerve when he’d hit one.
Charlie ignited. “What the—gimme that!”
Summoning all his energy, he lurched upward out of bed and snatched the letters from Bing’s puffed-up hand. One tore before Bing let go.
He glanced over it quickly. At the bottom of the page was written in big letters, “Size 9 ring when you win the championship, Dog.”
WHAAA? Who was this? “I’m fighting for my life and this person wants a ring when I win the championship?”
Equal parts seething and curious, Charlie immersed himself in the letter. Bing, seeing that he’d lost Charlie’s attention, rose and waddled toward the door.
“Let me know what you think, Dog,” he said over his shoulder.
Charlie never noticed him leave.
HE HELD THE LETTER for a moment, then dropped it at his side as his thoughts took off at a gallop. Getting to the big leagues of coaching is a waiting game, he thought for no particular reason. The equation is well known: being the right person with the right pedigree, the right connection, the right opportunity—and some luck. Charlie had opportunity after opportunity to go big-time, only to fumble on the one-yard line because he was not “the right person.” He had been told that so many times. He knew it. He was sick of it. He had no idea what it meant or how to fix it.
After years of fumbling himself down the coaching ladder, he’d landed a coaching job at Seminole Valley High School. Head coach of the one-time powerhouse Alabama football machine was good, but small-time. It wasn’t his dream job, but dream jobs are difficult to make real when all you seem to be able to do is make enemies. The fans were delirious with excitement, though, that such a “big star” would be there to coach their team.
Yeah, Charlie was a glory-days hero in Crimson Tide country. He was a quarterback phenom beloved by everyone. But fan love is fickle. Who you used to be doesn’t really matter. Fail to live up to today’s expectations and, like the Romans, they’ll have your head on a platter.
The initial excitement of Charlie Cristo running the team turned sour following the Bucks’ lethargic 1–2 start. The fans, administration, student body, and the press were looking for a platter. It seemed like it happened in a blink.
And now the cancer. His spirit slipped into blackness as he contemplated the reality of his situation.
In a moment of clarity, he realized his problems had started way before Seminole Valley High. He pressed his pounding head back into the pillow. He wanted another hit of morphine, but the nurses insisted not for another hour.
His memory drifted back to that really bad, sun-drenched afternoon in Tuscaloosa. The University of Tennessee Volunteers were in town and the Tide was rolling toward another national championship. It would be a clash of giants. Just get past the Vols. The Big Orange was always tough and Coach Bear Bryant warned his team about misjudging them. But they had Charlie, the star quarterback, the man many Alabamans considered a gridiron god. Confidence was running high.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter the Crimson Tide had the game and their national championship hopes solidly handled. Then . . .
Charlie dropped back to throw a routine screen pass when he saw a streak of orange coming from his left. Somebody missed a block. The hit was hard. Then a thunderous CRACK! and pain unlike anything he’d ever felt.
All the players on the field heard the nauseating snap and tear. The crowd went silent. No sounds; just muffled anguish. Charlie lay writhing on the ground. He rolled around out there on the field of Bryant-Denny stadium for a long time. The god humbled at the center of the sprawling script A.
Charlie sighed, and was back in his hospital bed. There was horrible pain in his joints. Cancer really hurts. But he wouldn’t trade it for the pain he felt that terrible afternoon many years ago.
In a few moments the deep bone ache and muscle ache subsided a bit and his thoughts drifted backward in time again. He recalled that at the instant of the hit he knew it was serious. He panicked. He was a young man then, but for the first time in his life he was flat on his back and not getting up. He suddenly felt very human and very, very afraid.
But football doesn’t care. Football doesn’t cry. The dream was over. Charlie was done and fate had different plans. His dream ship had marooned him, broken and alone. It was a whole new game now, the beginning of a very long and difficult story. No self-pity allowed.
He snapped back into the present moment as he tried to clear his burned-out throat. The pain was enormous. What happened? What was this cancer all about anyway? Why me?
THE SURGEONS DID THE BEST they could to fix Charlie but he had a permanent limp from the hit. He was twenty-two years old, and his dream of playing in the pros was over. He’d be lucky to walk normally again. Outside of pro ball, he never had any other vision for himself. Football was just the perfect place for him and there was never any need to think further. Now the future was . . . blank. Nothing. No vision. No light. No hope. Maybe he’d drive a city bus or be a gym teacher.
In the years following college graduation he’d slowly begun the process of building a life and a future completely from scratch. It was the toughest fight he’d ever faced. Few people know what it’s like to have your whole future, your entire vision and identity, stripped from you in one appalling second.
But here he was with his loser’s limp, hobbling through life, trying to get something going.
The Midas touch of his playing days had vanished. It was replaced with a roiling and frustrating pain that radiated off him like heat. He bumped from one college assistant-coaching job to another. How many times had he heard that he just wasn’t the “right fit”? Twenty years’ worth. Never breaking through into the big time. His attitude grew more corrosive with time. He became known as difficult and unlikable, missing opportunity after opportunity to rise in the coaching ranks.
His friends and mentors were as encouraging as they could be, but the life of an assistant college football coach is a grind. Lonely nights on the road recruiting. Relentless hours during the season. Film, film, and more film. There was little recognition and less money. His wife, Eve, was done with it long ago. Charlie believed she held on in hope that the next season would bring a more secure job, better benefits, and maybe even the big break. But if he was honest with himself, Charlie knew that Eve’s hope had faded long ago and she was mentally and emotionally done.
Then the call came from Seminole Valley. Coaching his high school alma mater. They had a winning tradition back in Charlie’s day, but that was long ago. Still, he would have accolades, prestige, and nights at home. It was an imperfect solution to the perfect mess, but you take what you can get.
Eve was inconsolable about this move down. She’d secretly dreamed of Charlie finally going up to the pros. She saw herself sitting on the plush thrones of the owner’s suite, dressed to kill, watching her superman coaching Super Bowls. She envisioned herself waving from the towering heights of her cushy loge, beckoning to her conquering hero, then draping her adoring arms around him amid flying confetti.
Her disappointment about him going back to coach high school ball turned into naked bitterness and outright anger. She had suffered so much for so many years for this? She resolved to resist this downward move as long as possible. Though she still lived in their home and took great care of the girls, she was over it—over him.
Charlie was crushed and angry as ever. Finally a chance at some redemption and the person he most wanted to share it with was a shell. No self-pity in marriage leapt to his mind as he recounted his plight. Eve was helping out during his treatment, but things between them were always tense and unsettled.
DUE TO THE MANY complications likely in Charlie’s cancer-therapy protocol, every round was done as an inpatient. Normally chemo is done on an outpatient basis, but the pain, exhaustion, blood-monitoring complications, and extreme nausea that accompanied the aggressive intervention Charlie was receiving were unmanageable in outpatient care. Charlie was told the first round of the three-phase treatment would be difficult; the second round was usually much worse. They hoped they would be able to get to the third.
The head nurse during his extended hospital stays was a happy woman Charlie would begin seeing as an angel: Lisa. She seemed to always carry an aura of big joy. It never really registered with Charlie until he became more accustomed to the routine, but her effervescence meant a lot to him. When she was around he just felt better.
Lisa entered the room, interrupting Charlie’s constant “failure-at-everything” mental beating. In her hand was a letter.
“Another one, Coach” she said, waving it gently.
Charlie glanced down at the “Dog” letter Bing had brought earlier. Something about the memory of giving Bing that letter alerted his mind. Charlie had a sudden recognition, an almost out-of-body observation that this cancer was making him act crazy. He was high, low, sharp, dull, depressed, sleepy—all in five minutes. He couldn’t control it. And the letters . . . they were the strangest things. He’d never really considered them.
Lisa reached to pick up the “Dog” letter and toss it into the shoebox with the others, but Charlie stopped her.
“Are these still coming?” he asked. “I’ve been a little groggy.”
“Almost every single day since you’ve been here, Coach,” she said.
During his first month in the hospital his clarity of mind would come and go. During the alert times he became vaguely conscious of the constant rhythm of these strange letters. They were easy to recognize: they had no return address.
His mind cleared and the letter sparked his curiosity.
Lisa put the letter on the tray next to his bed. Charlie just stared at the envelope as Lisa checked his vitals and adjusted the equipment. She patted Charlie on the foot as she left and said, “Remember you’re being pruned, honey. Get better, not bitter.”
She was so nice to him. She surely didn’t deserve the way he’d treated her.
Charlie smiled weakly, then it dawned on him what she’d said: “Get better, not bitter.” He’d heard that before somewhere. It was blurry, but wait—it was the first letter, the only one he’d read. That first letter came out of nowhere. It was neatly typed, about a page long. Then they just kept coming and coming, and he lost interest. Handed them to nurses, to Bing, and to who knows who else.
Charlie reached down, picked up the shoebox, and slowly flipped through the mostly unopened letters. He found that very first one.
Hey Charlie, it’s me—
John 15, in the Bible, is one of the last discussions Christ had with his disciples. He opened up the discussion by talking about pruning and husbandry and then he started talking about how you will be pruned: all the leaves and stems that don’t bear fruit will be taken away and the ones that have fruit will be pruned to make them more fruitful.
Then Christ’s half-brother, James—who was recounting the story—said be “glad for your adversity.” Be glad for your suffering. It will teach you patience, endurance, and long-suffering.
These merge into a simple idea: be better, not bitter. You are getting pruned. You are being tested for endurance. You should be doing back flips. Be happy for endurance. Be happy for long-suffering. You should throw a party. It teaches you patience.
Here we go, let me pull this all together: When I got with my wife, she loved to bike. She was in biking clubs. She would go on fifty-mile rides. Charlie, I’m not a biker. I always had a basketball or a football in my hands. Biking? It’s a little too groovy for me.
But I wanted to be close to my wife. So I bought a bike and now I’m biking. I got into the things that she’s into because I wanted to be close to her.
To get close to God, get into the things that He’s into. He’s into the poor, He’s into the suffering, He’s into the lonely, and He’s into the sick. That’s what God is into.
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Page Count
- 258 pages
- Worthy Inspired