Marse Robert, I ain’t goin’

This is the spot where the Union troops waited for the Confederates. 12,000 Confederate troops came out of the trees in the distance. The had to cover almost a mile of ground under withering Union fire. 

In Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Civil War,” writer Shelby Foote talks about the bravery of the Confederate soldiers as they started out of the trees in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The attack,known as Pickett’s charge,happened on July 3, 1863. These soldiers knew what they were facing. Union troops were positioned on the high ground, and could see the Confederates coming. Just to walk out of those woods took an amazing amount of courage.

This is the spot that General Lee rode out to meet his troops as they staggered back from the disastrous frontal assault known as Pickett’s charge. He kept saying to his men, “It’s my fault, it’s all my fault.”

But what Foote says after that has always struck me as remarkable. He said that even though it took amazing courage and valor to walk out on that field that day, he said that there would not have been one soldier that would look at General Lee and say, “Marse Robert, I ain’t goin.” According to Foote, “Nobody’s has that much courage.” So, it would have taken less courage to face the enemy than to face General Robert E. Lee.(“Marse” is a southern word for master. Not being from the south, I had to look it up.)

Mr. Shelby Foote, the unquestioned star of Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War. His voice is like honey whiskey and pipe smoke. 

I bring this up not to just talk about one of my favorite subjects, the Civil War, but to also bring up the subject of bravery and courage when it comes to fighting cancer. Many times in obituaries we see something that mentions how brave a person was, that the person fought a “courageous battle with cancer.”

I can’t speak for anyone else here, but as I go through the different treatments to fight this dreaded disease, I have never once felt brave. I feel like I’m doing whatever I can to keep breathing, to keep from ending up dead. Now, I have never had to make the decision to receive chemotherapy treatments, or decide whether or not to start a clinical trial that can ravage the body, but my guess would be that those decisions are also based on doing whatever you have to do to keep fighting, to keep breathing, to keep living. Not to say that these decisions aren’t brave. Like those Confederate soldiers who stepped from the trees on that hot July day and started across the field in Gettysburg, putting your body in harms way by attacking cells with chemicals that are toxic and can kill you is incredibly brave.

From Little Round Top. I am directing fire at where the Confederate positions were that day in 1863. When the rebels stepped out of the trees, the cannons from this spot and Cemetery Ridge unloaded on them. A Union soldier said that day, “We couldn’t help but hit them with every shot we took.”

But, as we have learned from Mr. Shelby Foote, is the decision not to fight, to keep living your life the way you want to live it, sometimes even more brave?  In the throes of depression from my first go around with Lupron, I tearfully vowed to my wife that I would never take another shot of the vile substance. As my PSA started going up during my second round of hormone therapy, I once again bravely talked about getting up off the doctors table and walking out the door. In both instances, I sat there, unable to move or speak as the nurse prepared the shot or started to get info for the prescription. My big talk had become frightened silence. I could not look at General Lee and say,”Marse Robert, I ain’t goin’.

In the cancer fight, there are decisions that survivors have to make as they move down the path of life. These decisions are complex, clinical, and above all, emotional. But ultimately, the decisions are up to each individual who is in the fight. The bravery of the survivor, on whichever path he or she chooses, should never be questioned.


The three of us at the Devil’s Den. From the left, Jim Bird, myself, and Jon Vos. Jon is my wife’s cousin and was one of my brother in law Mike Vos’ best friends. I am honored and privileged to call these two gentlemen friends. 

This blog is dedicated to the memory of my brother in law Mike Vos, on this the occasion of what would have been his 57th birthday. Mike died of pancreatic cancer on November 11, 2001 at 41 years old. He lived the last 6 months of his life with bravery and amazing courage.

Mike Vos lived a roller coaster of a life. He got the most out of his 41 years on this planet. Mike and I weren’t particularly close because we were always at different stages of our lives. While Mike was single and living the life of a freewheeling bachelor, I was married with two small children. Just before he got sick, he was married to a wonderful woman with three children of her own. I was looking forward to hanging out and doing things with Mike and Debbie. Cancer stole that from me. Cancer stole that from all of us. 

Rest well my brother. You are missed.

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