You won. A tribute to James Forni
“Jack, it’s time to take your medicine.”
It was Sunday, June 28, 2015, 8:36PM- exactly two hours since his last bite of food. Two hours is the required amount of time to pass before he can consume his daily dose of chemo.
“Jack! Please sit down,” I yelled.
Administering Jack’s medication is no easy feat. The following steps MUST be taken in this order:
Wash hands thoroughly.
Grind 1 or 7.5 pills (depending which day of the week) in pill crusher.
Mix (the now) powdered pill by dropping the correct amount of water into pill crusher.
Thoroughly stir and let dissolve.
Siphon ALL liquid into the syringe.
Depending on mood- hold Jack down whatever way possible.
Inject liquid into Jack’s mouth and make sure he swallows.
Make sure he drinks water to wash down before walking back to sink.
Place syringe in the labeled zip-lock bag
Wash hands thoroughly.
This daily routine typically ends in some amount of crying, and sometimes hitting (either himself or me). It’s painful to watch your five year old go through this, knowing these drugs will make him feel like shit in the short term. For some, fighting cancer, it’s a necessary evil.
I was growing tired and frustrated at this point; some might say, “short-fused.” Ten hours earlier, I just got word of my friend passing. I spent most of the day alone, in and out of tears, and smiles and back to tears. When you lose someone who has had a significant impact on your life, it’s difficult to swallow, let alone comprehend. My friend died because of cancer, and here I was yelling at my son who was in the middle of his own battle. Why does this happen?
Most nights, I put Jack to bed while Angi takes Charlie. If you know Jack, you know he’s currently non-verbal, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our “talks.” As I closed his favorite book and turned out the light, our conversation circled around strength and courage. Honestly, it was more of a re-cap from a few months prior when I spoke about my friend, James Forni. Forni (as I call him) had been battling melanoma for some years and had forgone several chemo and radiation treatments. Jack sat quiet with a puzzled look on his face as I reminisced.
My friendship with Forni stems from our days in youth sports, but mostly 6th grade camp. If you’re from Petaluma, you know Camp Navarro is a classic rite of passage. Each year, sixth graders spend an entire week without mom or dad or the comforts of home, developing new relationships and challenging themselves in a variety of capacities before moving on to Junior High. For the counselors, we had the opportunity to return every year to rekindle friendships and act like kids ourselves. Forni and I bunked together in the Wani-ooo-ooo cabin along with a few other knuckleheads. We spent most of our time dressed in camo with army-painted-faces and shit-eating grins. We ran the daily ropes course….and all the while James would bust out his classic lines, “To the trees” and “May the force be with you young lad.” His outlandish, imitated accents would come out of nowhere, and we all laughed. James was the king of water ballooning; and made sure we all knew how many direct hits he had at the end of the day. “What do you think your average is, Busick? Me, I’m straight cleaning up. You’re alright though…. You’ll get there. Keep your head up.”
I also witnessed the beginnings of a tremendous mentor and coach. Funny how every counselor, student, and teacher alike knew James Forni by the end of the week. He had a way with people. He never passed judgment. He sought out the ones who didn’t quite fit in, and made them feel a part of it all. I admired him.
Jack now lay on his back, adjusting his diaper. We have to double it up at night so he doesn’t wet the bed. It’s important to keep him hydrated and hospital free. Like James, Jack hates the hospital.
“Forni- Are you scared?” I remembered asking one evening. We had just finished our rec league basketball game and were standing at the baseline. James sat most of the game. He must have been tired. This was Forni’s gym; At least in my mind it was. He’s been the boy’s varsity basketball coach for some years and had earned that respect, bringing home championships and producing some outstanding players-more importantly, quality young men.
I remember immediately regretting the question, “Are you scared?” What was I thinking? What kind of question is that? Of course he’s scared. He’s fighting cancer!
James replied, “Do I look scared, Busick? Look at me- I’m a force to be reckoned with!”
Forni’s smile was as big as him, including those massive feet. He’s always been skinny, but I noticed significant weight loss, dark circles around his eyes, and pale skin. The poor guy looked physically exhausted.
“Are you scared, Busick… for little Jack, I mean?”
We were 4 months into Jack’s diagnosis and I signed up for this men’s basketball league in hopes to blow off some stress. Basketball has always been therapeutic for me. James looked me directly in the eye…. We didn’t say a word for some time. Tears began to build and James put his arm around me as we headed for the door.
“Yea, I’m scared, Busick. But I’ll beat this thing and so will little Jack. Fear is only natural when you’re fighting this disease…. But don’t let lil Jack see your fear. He needs you to be strong and positive. This disease is a beast…. but so are the Busicks,” Forni said.
I left the gym without saying another word, thankful for the much needed pick-me-up. I see why his students and players respected him. He was honest. He was real. He was a friend, and that goes a long way in my book.
“mmmmmmmbbbbaaaaaaaaaa ehhhhhh,” Jack hollered. He was trying snap me out of memory lane and back to our “talk.”
A few months ago, my wife and I were putting on our first annual big fundraiser for our local Down syndrome nonprofit. I reached out to a handful of my local friends who had significant ties to the community. James was at the top of the list and one of the first supporters to come aboard. A week after I sent him a text, my phone rang- “Busick, I got you taken care of. Come by the gym around noon and I’ll hook you up.”
When I arrived, four of his players were there waiting for me with signed posters, Casa swag for the silent auction, and a special beanie for Jack. The autograph’s net worth is to be determined, but the value of the human spirit couldn’t have been bought that day. I knew right then and there, my pal Forni was one of the most empathetic, kind souls I had ever met.
Jack stirred a bit as I went on to explain what the meaning of Vincero was and why we bought the shirts-
“Italian for- I will win,” I told him. Thousands of Vincero T-shirts are being worn all of our community and beyond, which is a testament to James and what he represented.
“You will win, Jack!” He looked at me funny….
“You will win,” I said again.
Jack’s eyes looked tired. He was about to go down for the night…
Stuart Scott once said, “When you die, it does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live! Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, lay down and let someone else do the fighting for you.”
In my eyes, James beat cancer.
James has beat cancer when I look at Jack and see hope and strength.
James has beat cancer when I see an entire community rising to honor and support.
James has beat cancer when I witness humanity at its best.
James has beat cancer when I spot another kid at the hospital fighting her own battle, sporting the Vincero shirt and spirit. Battle tested.
James has beat cancer in more ways than any of us truly know. His kind, humorous, fighting spirit will live on for many many years to come.
Jack was now asleep. “You will win, Jack……Just as Forni won. I promise.
And tomorrow, we’ll honor Forni and his victory by shooting some hoops.”