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Twin's cancer diagnosis is yet another unfair blow

George was born with the gift of gab, a gregarious fellow who never met a stranger in his world travels.

But a simple word from a medical specialist recently left my twin brother nearly speechless for the first time in his 61 years.

"When they say the 'C' word, that's real scary," he acknowledged. "It gets your attention."

Actually, it was two words that caught his attention: colon cancer.

He was diagnosed with the dreaded disease within the past few weeks. A surgeon in Portland — Maine, not Oregon — removed a large section of George's colon on Oct. 4.

The surgeon apparently also removed a portion of his sense of humor. George didn't laugh when I asked him if he now had a semi colon, hoping the black humor would lift his spirits.

Nor did the dumb joke do anything to improve my feeling of despair.

Ever since we watched our father slowly die at home from cancer when we were 9, the "C" word has struck fear into our hearts.

We and our three older siblings — another set of twins in Charles and Delores 14 months our senior and brother, Jim, some 4 years older — listened helplessly at night as our semiconscious father involuntarily groaned from intense pain as he lay dying in 1961. His final days and nights were spent in a hospital room parked in our small living room. It was a living nightmare.

On the dark day he died, I don't remember crying. I do remember clinching my fists and gritting my teeth in anger. How could a good man who had earlier lost his right leg in a logging accident be made to suffer more, dying relatively young, leaving behind a widow and five children? Why?

I feel that anger now when I think about my twin's illness. Like our dad, George is a good person who doesn't deserve this.

We are fraternal twins. He was a carrot top before his hair turned gray; mine used to be dark brown. He has freckles; I'm a bit swarthy. I'm married with children; he's a confirmed bachelor. He was Army; I was Marine Corps.

George invariably told people he got the looks and the intelligence. My feeble response was that at least he got the sense of humor.

In truth, George has been closer to our other siblings than to me in recent years. A rift in the family fabric, caused by political disagreements, bruised egos and my obstinacy, has gradually separated me from the rest of the pack.

Yet my bond with George that has carried us through thick and thin remains unbroken.

He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, a retired school district employee and a globetrotter eager to be reunited with old friends he had never met.

And he always landed on his feet. While hitchhiking in New Zealand years ago, he was picked up by a sheep rancher and his wife who let it be known they had only met one Yank before him. That was a bloke from California, a fellow named Jim Fattig.

You guessed it. That was our older brother who had traveled through the area a few years earlier. George was invited out to the ranch where he enjoyed a period of rest and relaxation.

My twin invariably left whatever place he was on the planet better than how he found it. If you needed money and he had it, it was yours for the asking.

Shortly after I graduated from college and was starting out with a young family, George pulled up one day in a borrowed pickup. In the back was a new freezer. He figured we could use one so he bought it for us.

Another telling anecdote of his character was the day in our youth when a friend and I announced we were going "plinking" for ground squirrels with .22 rifles. Plinking. That was our euphemism for killing squirrels.

"Why are you going to do that?" George asked. "They aren't hurting you. What do you want to kill them for?"

He was really steamed, ready to duke it out to protect creatures who could not protect themselves.

He was right, per usual.

George lost a bit of his zest a few years back when he had a stroke. He spent six months at our house recuperating. But he was itching to leave the moment he was on the mend.

Of course, George being George, he couldn't settle anywhere easy to reach from the Rogue Valley. Not only does he live in Maine, he now calls home the island of Vinalhaven some 12 miles off the coast.

Nothing wrong with Maine. And Vinalhaven does seem to be a place of natural beauty, with 1,200 year-round residents, but it's a bit far from his native Southern Oregon.

"I'm going back to the island as soon as I get a little stronger," he said from Portland. "I can walk but I get real tired. But I can't cough, can't sneeze. It has been pure hell."

As he indicated in one of our earlier conversations of late, we have reached an age when life quits giving and starts taking away. If it comes to chemotherapy or radiation, he doesn't intend to go that route, he told me.

"I'm going to die there on the island," he said. "My ashes will be scattered there."

Talk of his passing was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was nearly speechless.

"But you are not dying yet," I protested.

"No, not yet," he promised.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.