At the pinnacle of a soaring career in the U.S. Army, Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber was tapped to serve in a high-profile job within the Afghan Parliament as a military advisor. Weeks later, a routine physical revealed stage IV intestinal cancer in the thirty-eight-year-old father of three. Over the next two years he would fight a desperate battle he wasn’t trained for, with his wife and boys as his reluctant but willing fighting force.
When Weber realized that he was not going to survive this final tour of combat, he began to write a letter to his boys, so that as they grew up without him, they would know what his life-and-death story had taught him—about courage and fear, challenge and comfort, words and actions, pride and humility, seriousness and humor, and viewing life as a never-ending search for new ideas and inspiration.
This book is that letter. And it’s not just for his sons. It’s for everyone who can use the best advice a dying hero has to offer.
Weber’s stories illustrate that in the end you become what you are through the causes to which you attach yourself—and that you’ve made your own along the way. Through his example, he teaches how to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
Praise for Tell My Sons
“A gift to us all . . . Every page exudes courage, honesty, and an indomitable spirit. Mark Weber’s story has touched me in such a profound way.”—Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie
“Tell My Sons is a deeply moving, personal account of a soldier’s journey into an ultimate frontier. As I read Mark Weber’s book, I was astonished by its honesty, courage, and discipline. This book offers one of the most profound and detailed descriptions of the strange world of cancer and should be essential reading for all of us who seek to understand that topsy-turvy terrain.”—Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies
“Tell My Sons is one of the most profound and inspirational stories I have ever read. It may have been written for Mark’s children, but it may as well be a treatise for all of us about honest parenting and leadership with character in love, family, faith, and politics. For a man who is facing profound health issues, Mark is doing a remarkable job showing us all how to live with courage and integrity.”—Walter F. Mondale, former vice president of the United States
“This book is why I have always been proud to call Mark Weber my son. His ability to reach across complex boundaries and write and speak with such depth and beauty makes him a modern day Lawrence of Arabia. Mark’s passion, attitude, and thoughts about life are what is best about America.”—General Babakir S. Zibari, chief of defense, Republic of Iraq
“A poignant illustration of what being a hero is all about . . . Heroes exemplify invincible courage, character, and perseverance in times of insurmountable odds. Mark embodies these attributes. Tell My Sons will empower the reader with profound lessons of living life with hope and determination.”—John Elway, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
. . . Not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge.
The entire medical team at the Mayo Clinic was unanimous in their assessment: there was no path of comfort. The team proposed a massive and radical surgery called “the Whipple-plus.” The Whipple would remove the mush that was left of my duodenum, the bile and pancreatic ducts, the head of the pancreas, the surrounding lymph nodes, the gallbladder, and maybe more, depending on what they found when they cut me open. The “plus” would remove 60 percent of my liver but only half of the cancer, with plans to come back for the rest later.
The doctors were incredibly upbeat, but they offered more conditions and caveats than a car commercial.
Forget the cancer. The surgery alone would result in months of severe physical disability, an overnight change in lifestyle (eating, activity, leisure, work, social interaction), and just as much cancer would be left inside my body as the doctors planned to take out.
The doctors on my Mayo surgical team performed five Whipples per week, but they didn’t conceal their inexperience with the Whipple-plus or sugarcoat its risks. With the surgery, I might die soon, they said; without the surgery, I would die soon.
It wasn’t a hard decision for me. If I was going down, I would go down fighting.
When an army is about to go on the offensive, there is nothing more motivating than a rousing set of remarks from the commanding officer. I decided to rally my small army of supporters in the same way. The inspiration for what to write came to me one morning just as I opened my eyes. By 0600, I was feverishly typing out my own adaptation of General George Patton’s remarks to the Third U.S. Army on the eve of D-Day, the largest invasion in world history. My rally read, in part:
At ease! (which means “Listen up!”)
Now, I want you to remember that no one ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dummy die for his country. Family, friends, all this stuff you’ve heard about cancer always winning the fight . . . is a lot of horse dung.
You know, by God, I actually pity those poor cancer cells we’re going up against. By God, I do . . . We’re going to murder them by the bushel. . . .
Thirty years from now, when you’re sitting around your fireside with my grandchild on your knee and he or she asks you what I did in the year 2010, you won’t have to say, “Well, he sat around and felt sorry for himself in Minnesota.” . . .
All right now, you know how I feel. Be strong with me. Fight with me. Oh, and I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle—anytime, anywhere. That is all.
It was not lost on me that Patton had survived a thirty-six-year army career and two world wars only to suffer an inglorious death from injuries sustained in a car accident four months after the end of the war. Now it looked as if I might survive combat and twenty-one years in the army only to succumb to cancer at age thirty-nine.
More than that, I realized that war speeches may sound great to adults, but they don’t play so well with children. When deciding how and what to tell you boys about the cancer, we decided early on that if you were expected to endure the crash landing, you had better be on board for the takeoff.
Bad news does not get better with time. Sooner or later, the people you know and love are going to find out. Who do you want them to hear it from—you or someone else? And if they hear it from someone else, what are the chances your bad news becomes something worse—such as a conversation about why you kept something so important from a loved one?
Keeping things quiet until we had more information was not an option for us, because the information was floating on Facebook like a stray bullet. Thankfully, Joshua and Noah, you were only ten years old and had no cellphone or computer, and Matthew, you were in New Mexico at the Philmont Boy Scout camp, where there was no reception. We needed to get to you before the news did—but not before you finished your camp.
Philmont is a rite of passage for scouts, and you were only a day or two from completing it as a fourteen-year-old. You had already hiked seventy-five miles and seven mountain peaks with a fifty-pound pack over eleven days, every single day in some rain, and three full days in rain and fog. The last thing I wanted you to hear as you reveled in this amazing achievement was an accidental “Hey, sorry about your dad” from one of your comrades or scout leaders.
My deployment provided a perfect cover story, and I swear I could hear the theme song to Mission: Impossible in the background as we went to work. We ensured you were whisked away as soon as you came off the trail, and then we disabled your phone and shut down your Facebook page.
With all you boys home, and with a plan in hand for what would come next, we broke the news. In reflecting upon what and how much to share, we kept in mind that entire books had been written on this subject. We knew we had to separate the things that needed to be addressed now from the things that could be addressed later.
One question ended up guiding our thinking: What were you going to see or hear in the next two to four weeks?
Since there’s almost five years of age between you, we told you separately—first Matthew, then all three of you together. We gave you the same message but presented it in different ways, based on your age and personality. Because of our army life, this wasn’t the first time we’d had the “what if something really bad happens to Dad” talk. And before each of my deployments, we had discussed the immense responsibility you needed to assume while I was away, whether I survived or not.
I organized my thoughts in writing and rehearsed before talking to you. “Boys, I know you’re smart little buggers, and you’ve probably noticed a lot of stuff going on around you this past week, right?”
Noah, you slowly nodded and commented, “I have seen Mom’s face looks red around the eyes a lot.” You also commented about the number of sad people you saw coming and going. You added, “And I think I heard Grandma Coughlin say something about you and cancer when she was on the phone last week.” I wasn’t mad about this misstep, only reminded that kids see and hear more than we think.
The calm in your voice told me you knew the information but didn’t understand it.
“I do have cancer,” I said. “I know it doesn’t look like it, but I am very, very sick inside.”
Your face transformed much like Kristin’s had in the doctor’s office. You started sobbing and reached for Kristin’s leg. I stopped. Joshua and Matthew, you sat stone-faced, but I know well that you are introverts, and that you were processing that same emotion inside. I felt I needed to acknowledge it all before continuing.
“Why are you crying?” I gently asked you, Noah.
“Because you’re gonna die,” you said as you rolled your eyes.
I tried to address all three of you in my reply. “Well, that’s part of why Mom and I are talking with all of you now—to help you understand what’s happening. I won’t lie to you. I might die soon, but I’m not dead yet, and I have been given a chance that lots of people don’t get.”
Then I deliberately switched to a stern voice—the one I use for discipline. “I’ve been given a chance to fight, boys, and that is exactly what I’m going to do. You need to know this fight is going to be pretty easy right now—getting smart about this stuff and doing good planning, strategizing, preparing. But it’s going to get a lot harder. In a few weeks, you’re going to see your dad knocked down hard, and I’m going to be in the hospital for a long time. I am going to look . . . rough. Those will be the days that I may not look like me, but I’ll be in there—fighting.”
I switched back to a much softer tone. “You may not see me cry much, but I do cry. I get scared, and I do get mad about this cancer thing. You’re probably going to experience those same feelings, and you need to know that’s okay. It’s okay to be sad, mad, frustrated, scared, and even to enjoy a little denial every once in a while. But you cannot stay there.”
When I was a young soldier, I explained, we performed training missions that lasted all day and most of the night for up to a week at a time. “When someone on the team got tired, we stopped and we took a knee to rest. But we always got back up, and we never quit . . . never. Just like those young soldiers, we can all take a knee too, but if we don’t get back up and move out, we’re likely going to die or fall to pieces in that place.” I told you that soldiers aren’t always happy about doing it, but we do what must be done.
This had to be done, too. “We’re all going to get through this together as a team.”
We continued, discussing the healthy things you could do, like talking to your school counselor, or swimming or playing to occupy your mind and your energies. We also discussed the unhealthy things you should avoid when dealing with your emotions and how vulnerable those emotions would make you feel.
Table of Contents
Introduction: … To be Strong Enough to Know When You are Weak, Brave Enough to Face Yourself When You are Afraid xix
Chapter 1 … Not to Seek the Path of Comfort, But to Face the Stress and Spur of Difficulty and Challenge 3
Chapter 2 … Not to Substitute Words for Actions 28
Chapter 3 … To be Proud and Unbending in Honest Failure, But Humble and Gentle in Success 50
Chapter 4 … To Seek Out and Experience a Vigor of the Emotions, a Freshness of the Deep Springs of Lift, an Appetite for Adventure Over Love of Ease 80
Chapter 5 … To Seek a Temper of the Will, a Quality of the Imagination, and to Exercise a Temperamental Predominance of Courage Over Timidity 107
Chapter 6 … To be Modest So that You Will Appreciate the Open Mind of True Wisdom, the Meekness of True Strength 128
Chapter 7 … To be Serious, Yet Never to Take Yourself Too Seriously; to Cry, but also to Laugh 165
Chapter 8 … To Discover the Sense of Wonder, the Unfailing Hope of What is Next, and the Joy and Inspiration of Life 187
Epilogue: "How are You Doing?" 197
Author's Note and Acknowledgments 209
Each of these Titles Comes from a Farewell Speech General Douglas Macarthur Delivered in 1962 to the Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point.