What can you say or do when someone is told that they have approximately five weeks left to live? It’s a moment we all dread, and yet it’s a moment that fascinates us, too; what would we do if we only had a day, a week, a month, a year left to live, we ask ourselves? What would we do if we were given that final, non-negotiable ultimatum?
The truth is that when the doctors gave dad the news, he had plenty left on his “bucket list”, but he was so ill by that stage that he wasn’t able to do much of anything. Too late to go and see the Northern Lights, too late to swim in the Adriatic or take one last look at the view from the top of Table Mountain. Too late to find out what it feels like to jump out of a plane or float in the Dead Sea. Too late even to enjoy an ice cream at your favourite cafe in town, or to go to the cinema to see a film that you’ve been looking forward to for a while. Leaving the house when you are in the last stages of terminal prostate cancer is almost impossibly difficult, and sitting upright in a normal chair for more than a few minutes is agonising.
As soon as he told us, I knew that I didn’t want to waste any of the time we had left. I didn’t want to spend the weeks we had left mourning him before he had gone; I could feel the overwhelming grief clawing at me already, and I knew once I gave into it there would be no turning back. I needed a distraction from the terrible thing that loomed over us all—we all needed a distraction. Something to do. Something, no matter how tiny, to brighten these unbearable last days. I wanted to show dad that these days mattered, that we’d treasure every single moment we had left together.
Dad was prone to making awkward jokes at difficult moments to try and lighten the mood. When he was taken into hospital for the initial diagnosis of the cancer a few years back, he quipped to the nurse that he hoped he’d be back home in time to watch the latest Sunday night episode of Downton Abbey. He made a similar attempt when he found out he was reaching the end, feebly joking that he was disappointed that he’d die before Captain America: The Winter Soldier would come out on DVD. Except for this time his joke fell rather flat, because we all knew deep down that this was it; there was no getting around the deadline he’d just been given.
This film has already been released, it’s in cinemas right now—we just don’t have time to wait for the DVD release, I thought. If he wants to see this film, I am going to do my damnedest to make sure he can see it, I thought. It felt like the very least I could do. From that point on I was like a crazed dog with a bone.
I posted a Facebook status update just before 11pm on Monday 12th May 2014, a few days after we’d found out about the bad news, asking my friends to read a blog post that I had written and help me do something amazing for dad. I altered my privacy settings to make sure that dad wouldn’t see the post on Facebook.
In the blog post, I explained about the news we’d received, about how dad had loved comic books all his life and how disappointed he was not to be able to go to the cinema to see Marvel’s latest release. I explained that I wanted all of my friends who used Twitter to start sending messages, asking if they would consider sending dad an advance copy of Captain America: The Winter Soldier so that he could watch it at home from bed. I also explained that it would be amazing if we could get some of the actors from the Marvel cinematic universe to tweet us pictures of themselves holding messages of support for dad, thinking that would just be the icing on an already very ambitious cake, an extra bit of fun.
My friends and their friends and colleagues and all our random acquaintances took to the idea with heart-warming enthusiasm, and if they had reservations or concerns for my mental health, they kept them well-hidden from me. We tweeted up a storm, rallying around the hashtag #CapForStrat, and achieved what I later found out is called a “thunderclap effect”: we managed to get the hashtag picked up by a whole bunch of random strangers around the world who thought it was a cool idea, and the hashtag started trending.
Within 24 hours Christopher Markus, one of the screenwriters from the film, had seen my blog post by the power of the six degrees of separation phenomenon and left a comment to let me know that he would get in touch with Marvel and see what he could do to help dad see the film.
When I woke up the next morning and checked Twitter, I discovered that Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays the Hulk in the Avengers movie franchise, had seen and responded to our frantic tweets with a photo of himself holding a sign expressing support for dad. He said that his own father had gone through prostate cancer, too: “Hang tough, Strat! We are pulling for you,” his tweet said.
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) May 14, 2014
Dad was in hospital that morning for some treatments, and I clutched my laptop as we strode through the wards to find him. I couldn’t wait to tell him what we had been up to, but I was also a bit nervous—what if he didn’t want all of this attention? It was too late to undo anything. As I explained that someone was in touch with Marvel and that they were trying to see if they could let him watch the film at home, his face broke into the excited grin of a school boy in a sweet shop. When I showed him Mark Ruffalo’s picture and message, he could hardly believe it. “Green is my new favourite colour!” he said gleefully. And then he started doing what dad did best: philosophising on the situation, reflecting on how the Hulk, of all the Avengers, understood the struggle of cancer, having a body that does things you don’t want it to do as your cells mutate and multiply uncontrollably.
By the end of the week, many more of the big names from the Marvel universe had tweeted pictures and messages of support for dad and our family, including Chris Evans (Captain America himself), Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr, and even the legendary comic book creator, Stan Lee. News outlets everywhere were covering the story, including TIME, Mashable, The Independent and The Huffington Post (though, my favourite article was by a lovely journalist at The Denver Post). A representative from Marvel had got in touch to tell us that they would be happy to organise a special screening of the film for dad at home; within a week they had organised to send someone from their team to our house with the film on a USB stick so that he could sit with dad as he watched it, lying stretched out and propped up with cushions on the sofa.
But even better than dad being able to see the film, better than all the fun messages from the celebrities that provided much-needed light-relief and distraction from the pain we were all going through, was the outpouring of love from friends and strangers from all over the world that we experienced during that time. Everyone started sending us their photos of support, and I ended up making collages of them all that we hung up around his room. It felt like the whole world was rallying around him, carrying us all on a tidal wave of their love. In a time when it would usually have been impossible to feel any kind of happy, we were all relieved to have a reason smile and laugh.
— Matthew T. Fritz (@fritzmt) May 19, 2014
Countless messages poured in via every social media platform from complete strangers, to friends we’d lost touch with years ago who wanted to get back in touch when they heard what was going on. The photos were silly, sweet, and incredibly moving. One guy sent us a comic book cover featuring dad as Iron Man that he had designed. People of every age sent us photos of them dressed up as superheroes, holding signs for dad. One of dad’s favourite photos was of a classroom of children in Mexico holding up signs and waving enthusiastically at the camera. I was having all kinds of incredible conversations with strangers on Twitter who had been through a bereavement or experienced cancer, and people were getting in touch to let me know that our campaign had provoked them to have important conversations with their loved ones about cancer.
— Liz Dodd (@liz_dodd) May 16, 2014
Then, inevitably, as the weeks progressed we came down from the high of all of that love and energy, and I had to face the reality that no effort or ingenuity on my part could make what was about to happen go away. Dad took a turn for the worse, entered hospice care, and the terrible descent of his last few weeks hit us.
For a while I felt almost ashamed of the #CapForStrat adventures; was it wrong to put him in the spotlight, had he really wanted that, and at that time? He seemed happy, but had I actually embarrassed him? Would people think I had trivialised something momentous and serious? What about all the other people in the world suffering right now who couldn’t have their “dying wishes” fulfilled? (Why the words “dying wish”, anyway, for something that was a bit of fun but not actually one of my father’s true deep and meaningful “dying wishes”?) Would people think this was more about me than it had been about dad? Had I been attention-seeking or inappropriate?
Now when I look back on it all, it feels like it was a strange dream; a dream that proved to me that it’s always worth asking, trying, making an effort. That when you’re in trouble, there are so many people out there wishing they knew how to help you; don’t be afraid to ask for help. That optimism is infectious, and the world is desperately hungry for it. And finally, that if I feel in my heart that something is worth doing and I know that my own intentions are good, I shouldn’t get too caught up in what other people may or may not think of me. None of that can bring dad back, of course, but it’s worth a little something in the grand scheme of things.