A Trip Derailed by a New Journey

Editor’s note: Columnist Tom Vartabedian has been diagnosed with cancer. This is the first in a series of columns about his treatments and other experiences related to the disease that will appear occasionally in the Haverhill Gazette, where Vartabedian worked for decades. The Armenian Weekly will share these columns with its readers.

Two weeks after I notified my extended family about my cancer, the vindictive boomerang came back and struck me hard.

My cousin called to inform me that she, too, was burdened with almost the same illness. Our cancers were running a similar biological path around the gastrointestinal regional, only hers had metastasized to the liver.

We spent Easter Sunday commiserating with one another in the presence of our loved ones, careful not to worry the children with our devastation. She is 13 years my junior (62) with one grandchild. I have six.

The most difficult road, I have found, is not the weekly chemo treatments I have been receiving at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Far from it, in fact. But the constant queries that come your way in church and community life. People are concerned about your welfare and constantly want an update.

The moral support you’re receiving from a lifeline of friends, even strangers, is the best panacea one might receive at such a time. People are holding you in their thoughts and that’s a blessing.

How would I be able to deal with a Sunday School class at church where I have taught for 45 years? Would the students there understand my dilemma?

I decided to leave it to their parents. The older children were given the news while the younger ones were spared the burden. We all have different ways of dealing with grief and it tends to become a personal choice. I’m finding the older students much more tolerant during class time, encouraging their younger peers to “pay attention to Teacher Tom.”

There is never a good time to treat cancer. The diagnosis conflicted with a pre-planned trip to Munich, Salzburg and Vienna—a journey I’ve been meaning to take for 55 years.

I was but 19 years old and a freshman at Boston University when I received an opportunity to study inside an Armenian Catholic monastery in Wien, home of Strauss, Mozart, and the Danube. I spent a year there with the priests, brushing up on my Armenian Shakespeare, so to speak.

When I left after the ethnic education of a lifetime, I vowed to return and see the Fathers, who had become an integral part of my life during those 12 months. While there, I got to photograph a seminarian taking his priestly vows. He was only 25 then and had been my teacher.

Fifty-five years later, I had planned a return visit. Of the 30 priests who were occupying the monastery in 1960, Father Paul was the only one remaining. I telephoned Vienna with the news of my pending arrival. He was ecstatic at the chance to see me again in his role as Archbishop and Abbott General. The feeling was mutual.

We would be spending a day with him touring the city and visiting with the remaining five priests in the Catholic Order. It never came to pass, abducted by my illness.

A week before my scheduled arrival, I called him to relay the bad news, only to hear an emotional burst at the other end. He was saddened for me, bearing the grief of Level 4, inoperable cancer.

“I will keep you in my prayers,” he lamented.

I chose to go public with my diagnosis and made an announcement just weeks ago on Haverhill Community TV. I was appearing on Jay Cleary’s show, “When I’m 64,” promoting my new book, “Armenians of the Merrimack Valley,” when I ended the show with news of my ordeal. Jay handled it well as a consummate host and friend.

In the weeks to come, we will co-produce a couple of shows dealing with cancer, leading to the Relay for Life at Northern Essex Community College in June.

At that time, I shall invite my cousin to join me in sponsoring a team comprised of family members. When people work together, they can move a mountain—even stop cancer in its tracks.


Source: Armenian Weekly Mid-West