Living in the moment
October 28, 2004
Charley Dean, 48, has brain cancer, no job, no money and a mountain of debt.
He’s never laughed so much in his life.
He says a brain tumor makes you do some strange things.
A year ago, before doctors gave him the bad news, he kept getting laid off from his engineering jobs because he couldn’t control his impulses.
One time, he grabbed a man by his collar and threw him bodily out the front door after the man’s wife emptied her ashtray onto the parking lot.
“Not your normal reaction,” he said with wide eyes.
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After a craniotomy last November in which doctors removed 54 percent of the lemon-size mass in his head, he and his wife, Debbie, 50, thought of using the suture staples as a tool for morbid party tricks. They thought it would be fun to imply he’s crazy.
“He could lean on my shoulder, and I could stroke his head and say ‘I can’t leave him at home,'” Debbie said, enacting the scene and giggling. Charley put a vacant, lobodomy-style smile on his face to illustrate.
Then there was the time all the teenagers in their rough neighborhood on Lee Street thought Charley was a pimp because of the way he wore his baseball hat – tilted to the side – to hide the staples.
When people commented on it, he’d whip off his hat and gross them out.
“I really miss those staples,” he said with a mischievous smile and rubbing his bright red hair. “You can say anything you want, and nobody in the room is going to object.”
The frequent seizures don’t help. He had one while he was rock climbing and woke up hanging from a tree.
Now he can’t drive, for fear of seizing up behind the wheel. As lighthearted as they make it seem, this is deadly serious.
These days, money is tight for the Deans. Charley’s insurance company dropped him because his former employer called to report he wasn’t working 40 hours a week. He couldn’t. The computer screen reacted with his seizure medicine, and he was constantly vomiting.
Debbie is a perennial-plant buyer for Greenhouse Garden Center. Hours recently were cut for most employees, so she’s temporarily unemployed until they can use her again. She said everyone she works with has been incredibly supportive.
Now she collects monthly unemployment. Combined with Charley’s disability check, they barely make enough to afford their COBRA insurance payments, Charley’s seizure medication and $17,000 in medical bills.
The couple use wood to heat their small 1960s home and candles to light it. They’re living room wall is stripped of all drywall – they were about to remodel before Dean was diagnosed.
Across the wall’s exposed wood, scrawled in spray paint, most likely by a playful construction crew in the ’60s, is the bizarre question, “Who’s a coward?”
Though it’s a bit ugly, the Deans like to keep the graffiti around as a challenging reminder to stay strong.
The couple met 12 years ago at a geology conference in Sonoma, Calif. They stayed up all night talking about obsidian and volcanoes.
Charley’s doctors estimate he has anywhere from four to seven years before the cancer invades his healthy cells and kills him. They’re making sure to live in the moment.
On good days, Charley builds a kayak for his wife, plays the guitar, and walks their dogs. On bad days, he has palsy twitching, he thinks last night’s dreams are real, he continues conversations out loud that started in his head, and suffers from the terrible gastric reflux that precedes a seizure.
But whatever happens, the Deans are sure to hold each other close and laugh about it.
“We get to live the ultimate love story,” Debbie said, clutching her husband’s hand in her lap. “Till death do you part.”
Contact reporter Robyn Moormeister at email@example.com or 881-1217.
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