The Shootist or The Awful Truth

Sol, fifty-seven years old, looks forward to doing his tour of duty for border patrol. Not a military person by experience nor trained for security but he relishes the opportunity to serve his community.

He goes to the target practice area in the morning and feels good about his score. It should qualify him for patrol. But, there is one other hurdle to acceptance and that requires taking a physical exam where one is not graded on a curve. He is middle-aged and has acquired the requisite waist spread although it doesn’t look too out of place on his six foot frame.

Part of the physical includes that dreaded colonoscopy. As they say, the bark is worse than the bite. He downs the tawdry liquid and undergoes the forced intestinal cleansing. Now it is just a matter of being put to sleep for a half hour or so, getting probed and waiting for the usual results so he can go on to his assignment.

When he comes to, the doctor tells him that they need to talk. You see, there appears to be blockage that is caked in blood. A second examination reveals a tumor in his liver as well and possibly also attached to his lung. He will need to have an operation as soon as possible to have the colon tumor removed and examined.

The following week surgery confirms that all the tumors are cancerous. Sol will start chemotherapy within three weeks or as soon as he recovers from the surgery It will be done all over his body.

I stop in to visit Sol while I am in the town where he lives. He sits on his sofa holding his stomach in pain and weakness. He asks me to take money from an envelope his wife hands over to pay for a mutual relative’s grave upkeep for the coming year. I protest telling him that there are a handful of cousins chipping in and refuse to take more than a third of the cost. Agreeing to compromise, we part.

In 1976, John Wayne acts in his last film, “The Shootist”. He plays an old gunslinger nearing the end of his life when he gets confirmation from a doctor that he has cancer. It is a memorable scene in movie history between Wayne and Jimmy Stewart who plays the frontier doctor. Stewart blurts out without feeling that Wayne is dying from the big C. Wayne asks how long he has to live and Stewart tells him months, or maybe weeks. He then describes how Wayne will know when he is coming closer to the end. Wayne decides to go out dramatically in a blaze of glory of a gunfight with another gunslinger.

There is a subtext to the story line as Wayne not too many years earlier has a brush with death from lung cancer. Three years later- 1979- he will succumb with a final attack on his body. But, for those moments in 1976 the movie is only make-believe. The two veteran actors cringe when they say their lines but get to go home at night and act out for the director the western play again the next day.

Sol’s ordeal is real, not a movie. He asks the doctor during his most recent visit if he will project out his next five years. The doctor tells him that he is not in the business of making projections. For now, Sol gets ready for his treatments and regular regimen of doctor visits. He goes home at night to hope and prayer. It helps that he knows he has many rooting for him.

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