Life Lessons in a Texas Garage

What does a garage in Texas – and the lessons learned here – have to do with cancer treatment more than 10 years ago? Everything, it seems.

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  •  7 min

Cole and his father Nathan

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Nathan and Cole stand by the old black truck. Dad and son, of course, but more than that.

The hood is up, and they point out the work they’ve done so far, the problems they encountered and how they solved them.

You ask, What’s a perfect day in the garage?

“Getting the roll bar put on and having the brackets to put the bumper on and getting this fan shroud put on and renewed,” said Cole. “A perfect day is having all the parts and...

“…everything fits together perfectly,” said Nathan.

“Yeah,” said Cole.

“Not a lot of those perfect days,” said Nathan.

But Nathan is smiling when he says it. Because back when things weren’t going well for his family, he didn’t pray for perfect days. He prayed for normal ones.

More than 10 years ago, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital cured his son Cole, and Nathan says the experience turned him into a “better dad.”

Cole has learned from his dad there’s no such thing as a lost cause. With hard work and dedication, maybe a little faith, you can return a thing you love to its former glory, and then some.

You could say Cole himself is proof of that.

So who is teaching whom here? Are the lessons Nathan teaches Cole really just the lessons Cole taught Nathan years ago?

Well, yes and no.

Restoring vehicles is an opportunity to take something that somebody else doesn't value anymore and make it new and make it back to its former glory.
- Nathan

Cole wanted the 1977 Chevy K10 Stepside because it was one the hero drove in the original “Red Dawn,” a patriotic, 1980s shoot-‘em-up movie classic. Patrick Swayze’s character, Jed Eckert, who drives the truck, leads a group of teenagers, the Wolverines, bent on saving the world.

“It was a really, really cool escape truck,” said Cole. “I wanted one exactly like it." 

Nathan bought the truck, but Cole has been paying it off by mowing neighbors’ lawns, even on sweltering days when the heat seems to throb and it’s hard to see from all the sweat.

In 2013, Nathan had Cole by his side as he fixed up a 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am like the one from “Smokey and the Bandit,” “and it looked terrible,” said Cole. “The paint job wasn't at its best, but it ran good, but it needed some work done.”

Nathan noticed Cole’s sincere interest in the process.

“We had a hot rod shop that was very close to our house, and I did most of my work on my Trans Am there,” said Nathan. “Cole was walking around with the owner of the shop, and having conversations with this guy who's, you know, 65 years older than him. This old man would throw a knucklehead out of a shop and he kinda had a no-kids rule. But Cole would come in, and ask really good questions, and not get thrown out. …And so, he was allowed to stick around and sweep the floor every now and then and learn.”

Cole’s precocious ability to absorb information — Nathan had seen it before, six years earlier in 2007.

He remembered Cole, not even 3 yet, ticking off the names of his chemotherapy medications. Sitting by the nurses as they did their work around him, asking them questions, learning the procedures, grilling them good-naturedly about anything that deviated from what he perceived to be the norm — in that little boy voice that’s disappeared now.

“He was still 2 years old, and he would watch the nurses clean his line,” said Nathan. “And if it seemed like a step was missed, he was on it. He picked up the vocabulary pretty quick.”

The vocabulary of cancer.

Things don't always happen in my time. They're gonna happen when they happen. - Nathan

The biopsy at the children’s hospital in San Diego confirmed a diagnosis of neuroblastoma, a cancer of the peripheral nervous tissue.

“It started on his adrenal gland,” said Nathan. “The nervous tissue that works between your brain and your adrenal glands to tell you, ‘OK, you need some adrenaline now,’ turned into a giant cancerous tumor.”

One of the doctors told them St. Jude offered the best chance for Cole’s complete recovery.

“As a military guy, you tend to think in very bottom-line terms,” said Nathan. “And it's like, ‘OK, this is our best chance. This is where we're going.’”

They obtained a referral to St. Jude.

Nathan had just earned his aircraft commander qualification in the U.S. Navy and was getting ready to go on his second combat deployment — an important career milestone. He had been to Iraq in 2005.

His commanding officer gave the order for Nathan to focus on his son. “He basically said, ‘You're gonna go with him to Tennessee. You're gonna do the dad thing, and then the Navy will figure things out for you when you get back,’” said Nathan.

That decision made, the family packed for Memphis.

Each part has its own purpose, and if you're missing one part, then a whole vehicle can just fall apart.   - Cole

Cole's diagnosis was stage IV neuroblastoma, “and there's not a stage V,” said Nathan.

The softball-sized tumor, which had started on his adrenal gland, had wrapped itself around other organs, and the cancer had spread to his bones.

When he was diagnosed, “Over 75 percent of his bone marrow had turned into cancer at that point, so he was very, very sick,” said Nathan.

Nathan remembers telling other St. Jude parents what kind of cancer Cole had and seeing their expressions change.

“They make a face, like, ‘Ooh, that's a tough one,’” said Nathan.

His treatment was intensive:

  • One biopsy surgery
  • 11 rounds of chemo
  • Surgery to remove the tumor
  • One analogous stem cell transplant
  • 23 days of radiation therapy
  • 16 rounds of maintenance chemo

“You're standing there talking to another parent whose kid is fighting cancer, and you're jealous because their son has a better prognosis,” said Nathan. “That's just never a spot where you thought you’d be. It's one of those cancer-isms you get through. You get through as a family, and the staff at St. Jude helps, and they help with the kids.”

But Nathan was scared.

Have faith. - Nathan

The Bible helped them through it. Nathan looked to the Book of Daniel for guidance in part because while Cole goes by his middle name, his first name is Daniel. Surely, there were lessons in this book for them. One verse in particular spoke to the hopes he had for Cole.

“Daniel 3:27 reads, that, ‘When they came out of the fiery furnace, that not a hair on their head was singed and the smell of fire was not upon them.’ It's a story about being faithful and God being faithful to you, and also that kind of complete healing that we were looking for,” said Nathan.

The St. Jude treatment, which was a research protocol, had elements of proven treatments within it.

The family had come all the way from California for this chance.

“For the people that run in the same military circle that I do, my analogy is that [St. Jude is] like test school. That's where all of the testings of all of the new aircraft are done and all the procedures are written. And that's what St. Jude is for pediatric cancer,” said Nathan. “That's where all of the treatments are developed, and then they're sent everywhere else.”

And Cole responded well. He completed treatment when he was 6, and now he’s nearly 16.

Sometimes the things that have a few miles on them and that are proven are better than the things that are brand new. - Nathan

“I don't like to see myself as a different or special kind of person,” said Cole. “I like to see myself as just another person in the crowd. You know, there's not much different from me than them. All I have is a little bit difficult hearing and a different past.”

Cole wants to be normal, and he is, but sometimes just being normal is the answer to a prayer.

“I prayed that he'd be normal, and he's very, very, very normal, including teenage stuff,” said Nathan. “So the joke now is that we say, ‘Ah, man. Wish we had prayed that he'd be perfect!’"

But cancer has changed who he might have been.

Cole’s present-day pain tolerance: off the charts.

One day after falling off a bicycle, it took hours before Cole even registered the pain.

“We're in the living room watching TV a couple of hours later, and he's like, ‘Dad, my arm kind of hurts.’ And I look, and it's crooked. I'm like, ‘Yeah, so we're going to the hospital.’

I remember thinking, ‘It's nice to be in an ER and have it be for something that's not life-threatening.’”

Cole’s ability to adapt: epic.

When Cole learned from St. Jude recently that he had stopped growing, he left football and turned to a sport where he could use his size to his advantage.

“The wrestling team was super excited because there's not a whole lot of guys that can wrestle them in the 113 weight class,” said Nathan.

Cole wrestled Varsity as a freshman and finished sixth in a 5A district as a novice player.

“That's pretty good,” said Nathan.

Cole’s sense of empathy: outsized.

“He really wants to help people,” said Nathan. “Even to his own detriment, he'll put off homework if somebody is having problems in their personal life. …And I really think that he gets that because his entire experience when he was little was people that would stop doing what they were doing to take care of something. And he's a very positive steward, you know, of his fellow man. He looks after people.”

Life doesn't always bolt right up. Sometimes you have to do a little fabrication to make things fit. - Nathan

“I'm definitely gonna try and keep this truck forever,” said Cole. “I have no intentions on selling it in the future. Having this truck now, it's, you know, it's kind of a blessing. And, you know, you don't just want to go around selling blessings because this was my dream.”

Cole and his father Nathan

Was the dream the truck itself or something else? For Nathan, it’s not about the steel, but about the flesh and blood. Being here together with Cole, that’s the dream.

“And now, I get to have it and live it,” said Cole.

Because when something takes a little work, you tend to treasure it more.

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