“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.” — Thomas Paine
Ever since I’ve known him, Larry Cluff has been a go-getter. Nothing could get him down, not even a brain tumor.
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In fact, it was his tenacity and determination that made him among the top cross-country runners at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he ran with my roommate, Lacey. It was Lacey who introduced me to Larry.
Larry was also good friends with Mike, the man who would become my husband. Mike and I almost met many times in those years, but seemed to always just miss each other. It wouldn’t be until 10 years later that Mike and I would finally meet, thanks to Larry and Lacey.
After college, Larry built a successful business restoring and converting commercial and residential properties. He had a close group of friends he enjoyed spending time with, and the ambitious goal of someday sailing his boat around the world. Larry finally married and had a family — and life became even busier. He was a living example of the saying “a rolling stone gathers no moss.”
Larry loved his work, and poured himself into it. In fact, I’m not sure he knew how to take a break.
Even when we all vacationed together, he was on his phone managing his business and solving problems — for hours a day, every day. Things that would cause most of us to have heart palpitations seemed to pass over him like a breeze. Nothing seemed to get in his way or get him down.
And then, just like that, life as he knew it changed.
The diagnosis of a brain tumor
It was the summer of 2016 when Larry first began experiencing symptoms. It started with fatigue and a sudden need to nap every afternoon. Then he began hearing voices. He decided it was time to see his doctor.
At first, his doctor didn’t make much of his symptoms. Larry was an otherwise healthy, active 52-year-old man who was probably just overworking himself.
But when Larry’s symptoms persisted, and then worsened, he was evaluated by a neurologist.
What he learned next came as a shock.
A CT scan revealed a brain tumor. It wasn’t until it was biopsied during surgery that a specific diagnosis was determined.
Although Larry had never heard of it, I knew it well — glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). Coming with an average life expectancy of 12 to 15 months, if you had to have a brain tumor, glioblastoma was the one you did not want to have.
To add to Larry’s challenge, while doctors were removing the mass, two vessels were cut, resulting in a stroke and paralysis of his left side. Unfortunately, this was also his dominant side. After a month in the hospital, and a lot of therapy, he was able to walk out of the hospital. And while he’d made improvements, he had new limits to contend with.
I asked Larry what his initial thoughts were when he was diagnosed with cancer.
He said: “I thought, OK, I have to stay positive. I decided I wasn’t going to let my family see me weak. I was going to be positive the whole time. It was a quick decision, really.”
With a diagnosis of brain cancer and new physical challenges, Larry did what befit his character — he resolved to beat the odds.
Despite therapy, the stroke left Larry unable to write with or use his left hand well, and walking in a straight line and balancing were a challenge. His short-term memory was impacted, and he sometimes had trouble finding words. The calculations he’d once done so easily for work were now impossible.
For someone who was used to being in charge and going all the time, it was a big change. He wanted to keep his same pace, but his body and mind wouldn’t cooperate.
After surgery, Larry started chemotherapy and radiation. When this failed and the tumor quickly regrew, requiring another surgery, he became determined to find a treatment that would work. After discussions with family, and advice from experts, he decided on an experimental therapy at VCU’s Massey Cancer Center, which he’s continued to this day.
Even so, Larry had to learn to slow down. “I used to have a list of goals, and objectives for how to meet those goals, with a game plan, and a backup game plan. You focus on those and you just keep rolling. But now, I have to chill a lot more.”
Larry had to give control of his business over to others. He had to learn how to be more patient, mostly with himself, and how to rely on others for help.
Of course, Larry’s version of slowing down wasn’t what the average person’s might be. Though he couldn’t run his business, he and a crew continued rebuilding a historic home at his river house, and then rebuilt a second one.
While his diagnosis may have slowed him down, it didn’t stop him.
He said: “I remember laying there on the ground, trying to hold a nail so I could hammer it in. And I couldn’t do it. So I figured out a trick. I took a bobby pin and put the nail in it, and held that. Once you got your first good hit, you were good to go.”
Remembering what really matters
Perhaps the answer to what really matters lies in our first thoughts when facing a crisis. For Larry, his thoughts were of his family.
He thought of his daughter Lily — of how he wanted to be around for her 16th birthday, for her wedding day, to be there as she grew older. He thought of his wife, Kathy, his dad, Larry Sr., and his beloved dogs.
Since his diagnosis, Larry’s learned to appreciate his family more, as well as the everyday things he used to take for granted. “I appreciate small things a lot more now, like good weather, a nice meal, and even Uber.” He appreciates waking up to another day.
Larry has also realized the importance of his faith, and says it’s deepened since his diagnosis. Church is a regular part of that, but he said with a laugh: “This weekend, I decided I was going to go fishing instead of going to church. But God taught me a lesson because I didn’t catch any fish.”
For Larry, his faith brings him a sense of peace. “I put all my faith in God. He’s going to do whatever he’s going to do about it [the cancer]. So it’s a little less for me to worry about, because it’s in His hands.”
He also prays every night. “I start with thanks for all the good things that happened that day, and that’s usually a pretty good list. Then I ask God to help me with the things I need help with the next day. And I always include some prayers in there for other people, too.”
In matters of life and death, we’re forced to re-examine what really matters. And what we typically find is that the things we had believed so important, or so difficult, are no longer so.
It’s not the new car or job promotion that matters, but family, friends, being good and kind, and making the most of each day, that truly matter.
We’re given a chance to remember why we’re really here.
Tempered by difficulty
Life’s challenges can certainly change us. Whether those changes are good or bad is ultimately up to us.
“Before my cancer diagnosis, I was more competent, more confident, maybe even overly so, and I had an excellent memory. But I was sometimes impatient and short-tempered when my workers made mistakes, and I wasn’t very good at relaxing.”
Since his cancer diagnosis, Larry jokingly said: “Anyone could take advantage of me now, and I wouldn’t care.” Things roll off his back more easily, and he flows with what life brings. “I think things always work out better when you can do that.”
Of course, that flow requires giving up control. “I let Kathy handle things, which keeps things simpler. Of course, that means she’s the one that has to hold everything together, and I know it’s a strain on her.”
Because of his limitations, Larry no longer drives. He’s had to close his business and limit his beloved boating trips to times when someone can go with him. The result has been fewer social interactions, financial changes, and decreased independence.
Even so, Larry hasn’t let it make him angry or bitter. “I have more empathy for people now, especially for people at the cancer center. I’m lucky enough to have had a few years. But a lot of them don’t get that.”
I think there are some changes he’s not even aware of.
For example, my husband noticed: “When a telemarketer called the old Larry, he’d get annoyed or hang up. But now he’s really nice when they call. He listens to what they have to say, politely says he’s not interested, thanks them, and tells them good luck.” My husband chuckles at the change in him.
Larry’s journey hasn’t been easy. He’s had to give up a lot and find a new normal. He’s had to be courageous in the face of his own mortality.
But he said: “I don’t really have fear. I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of it. The theory I’ve come up with in my head is that it’s harder to live than it is to die. Dying is easy. So I’m not in a bad situation, and I know my family will be taken care of.”
Larry believes a positive outlook has helped. “I think being an athlete and my six years in the military helped shape who I am. It taught me to stay positive and never give up.” He’s also learned to be positive from his dad, who’s been a big influence in his life.
Strength has also come from a local cancer support group and newfound meditation practice. One of the most effective meditation techniques he’s learned is to “visualize taking all of your problems and putting them on a boat. And then you just watch them float away. If you want, you can always bring the boat back to deal with one of the problems. But otherwise, you mentally just push them all out there, and let them go.”
While Larry has admittedly had some down times, he hasn’t let them stop him. He’s made the decision to push through, no matter how tough things get. When he encounters an obstacle, he said: “I just keep going at it until I get it figured out.”
Humor has helped, and so have his hobbies. He’s recently started an art class, and enjoys training his dogs and working on his boats — even though he sometimes has to get help now. He says the limited use of his left hand is probably his biggest frustration. And yet, he said: “I just try to smile, be nice to other people, and encourage them whenever I can.”
Larry has always had a kind and generous heart. In fact, he says one of the things he misses most is being able to help his friends more. Perhaps it’s his concern for others that’s helped carry him through.
Looking back, Larry has been a great friend to so many. Indeed, I’d venture to say there’s a predestined connection at work, intertwining all our lives.
Sometimes it takes hearing other people’s hardships to put our own into perspective. May Larry inspire each of us to persevere in the face of hardship, stay positive, be kind and grateful, think of others first, and hold onto faith and hope, no matter what life may bring.
Like holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, while we may find ourselves powerless to change our circumstances, how we react to our circumstances is always within our control.