A few weeks ago I called Wake Forest Cancer Center to give them information about George Plym’s memorial website. The person who answered the phone said, “Oh, I bet you’ve met me.” I let her know that I hadn’t been to Wake with George. My husband Jose, however, was George’s friend and a fellow brain tumor patient.
Nonetheless, she went on to regale me with George stories. For the first half of our conversation, I felt disappointed that I had missed the party that took place over the course of a day of scans, labs, doctor visits and waiting-room encounters. The second half of our conversation, I could hardly speak through tears as she shared how George touched the lives of so many people during the years he had been a patient there. That conversation reminded me that every person whose life has been touched has George stories they are eager to share.
But I am getting ahead of myself. At 12 years old, George was a baseball-obsessed kid in Illinois. When he wasn’t playing or watching baseball, he was thinking about baseball. One day in the outfield, he started seeing two balls instead of one. A brain tumor was the culprit, and in 1968 George had his first brain surgery, followed by radiation.
Fast-forward through 33 years and six more brain tumors: The kid from Illinois is in Asheville, N.C., and has settled into his usual activities — church, work, music, coaching baseball and brain tumor treatment.
Tumor No. 7 was a long, tough ride with lots of complications. His treatment was at Wake Forest Cancer Center, and George missed having a support group nearby. He contacted Mission Hospital about starting a group, and his offer was declined.
If you think about the numbers, success seems unlikely. Brain tumors are a less common cancer, can be particularly debilitating, create extreme stress and caregiving burdens for families, and have a high fatality rate. Fortunately, George didn’t think about the numbers. He followed his heart and started WNC Brain Tumor Support meetings in the basement of West Asheville Presbyterian Church. Those of us who live with brain tumors are extremely glad he did.
The May 2016 meeting of WNCBTS celebrates our 15th year. It also honors the life and legacy of our founder, who died peacefully in his sleep on March 18, 2016 (see “Honoring George”).
We will gather Thursday, May 19, to share George stories as we try to capture the magnitude of his presence in order to come to terms with the enormity of our loss. These tales contain lessons that are carried in our group DNA and will be shared with patients and families who will never meet George.
George turned life’s curveballs into home runs. A relative newcomer to the group, I became quite distressed when George suddenly decided to sell his guitar. With new tumor-related neurological problems, he had struggled a bit playing and singing in front of a group. In contrast to my distress, he was clear and calm about the situation because he knew that when the brain tumor throws up a barrier, you take a detour, and explore a new direction.
At the next WNCBTS meeting, Plym announced he was taking up photography because he could handle a camera better than a guitar. He immersed himself in photography and soon had a large circle of new photographer friends.
George was all in for every undertaking but especially for offering brain tumor support and for shooting and sharing pictures. At his passing there were posts from across the country and around the world, like these:
“So sorry to hear of George’s passing. Even over here in Australia I knew of his courage and advocacy on behalf of the brain tumor community. We will miss his strength. To his family, my sincere condolences; I wish you peace.” — Lynne Greenlees
“An inspiration to many and a man of tremendous talents. The brain tumor/brain cancer community at large is beholden to George. He not only showed us how to survive this diagnosis, but how to thrive despite this diagnosis. His memory and his accomplishments are forever etched on our hearts and in our minds. Thank you George for being you and for teaching us how to follow in your footsteps!” — Geri Shaffer, Southeast Brain Tumor Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia
“My other favorite George Plym story is the day when we were over at the Biltmore walking along the Ridge Trail above the Bass Pond. He was weak but insisted he could get up the slope. When we got up there, he was using a monopod to steady the camera for the shot and not doing a great job of it. I asked if he was OK, and he replied, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, I am going for the blurred background look.’ Then he had to sit down and yelled out, ‘I’m fine, just going for another perspective.’” — Bill Pattison
George loved capturing the world around him in pictures. But there are times that pictures don’t tell the whole story. If you look at a picture of his brain, you can’t help but gawk at the caved-in skull and the giant chunk of missing parietal lobe. What you can’t see is a man with ever-present and infectious humor and astounding optimism. He was a master at going for another perspective. There are not many who can find good news in brain tumor No. 14 with no treatment options (see George’s “Good News Update”).
My good news is that whenever I recall George, I think of laughter. That is his gift to those of us in the brain tumor community. When we were with him, he inspired laughter that relieved us of the crushing darkness of living with a brain tumor. Now that he is no longer with us, we have the legacy of his laughter and the lessons of his stories.