Last spring, when Daily Circuit co-host Tom Weber scheduled an interview with retired Lt. Col. Mark Weber, the two agreed to tape a preliminary interview, "just in case."
Mark Weber (no relation to Tom), a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, was dying of cancer. He didn't expect to last the summer, and he had already lived longer than doctors expected. He used the time to finish work on a book, called "Tell My Sons," which takes the form of letters to the three boys he leaves behind. The self-published volume was recently picked up by Random House.
The precautionary interview turned out to be a good idea. The retired officer did not feel well enough on June 7 to travel from his home in Rosemount to the MPR studios. He died less than a week later, on June 13.
In the taped conversation, Tom asked Mark how he felt about sitting for a "just in case interview."
"I appreciate addressing it for what it is," he said. "It's not wishful thinking, one way or the other. It's just what it is. It's the damndest thing. I'm continuing to make plans. I'm continuing to schedule things two months from now. So I'm hopeful. But 'hope' is a word that I use very judiciously.
"'Where does hope really begin and where do your actions really end?' is the question I ask, or challenge people with. I challenge my boys with that. You have to ask yourself that through life, because we say it all the time. 'Oh, I hope I get an A on this test.' Well, hope and a little study. 'I hope this girl likes me.' Well, hope and a little bit of work on your part.
"We all kind of get that, but there's a lot of stuff we don't get. We still throw the 'hope' card way too soon."
Tom observed that Mark had shown a lot of energy in recent months, in spite of his illness.
"I'm a believer that you've got a candle," Mark replied. "It's going to burn whether you do something with it or not. It's going to burn down to the base. So how do you want to burn it?"
Even so, he sensed that he was losing ground. An infection he would have gotten over in two days was now lasting two weeks, for example. "And I feel like I've got a hangover for two weeks," he said. "I mean, a full-on hangover, from morning until I go to bed. It's horrible, just horrible."
He laughed about it, and explained his thoughts about finding humor in difficult situations.
"To me it's really about just seeing the humor in life, the way comedians see it. The ironies, the hypocrisies, the contradictions," Mark said. "And in seeing it in that light, not losing your mind. Because if you couldn't laugh about it ...
"We had a saying in Iraq. If you couldn't laugh about that stuff, you'd just want to cry. Because it felt that hopeless on most days. You'd wake up and it was 'Groundhog Day' all over again. And for how many years in Iraq? And the same in Afghanistan. I don't know how you'd get through the day if you couldn't find something to laugh about.
"It's not that war is funny. Or that cancer is funny. Or that any hardship is funny. It's that right next to that same hardship, like within death, there's something funny right next to it. Within war, within the chaos and horror of war, within an event, there is a piece of humor right next to the tragedy. And you have to let yourself see it.
"The best example I can use is when my boys get really mad after they've been punished. You can just see the scowl on their face. And they're mad. And after about two hours, I'll intentionally say something funny. And I'll see a little crack come out at the corner of their mouth. And what do they do? Any parent can appreciate this. They try and fight that smile. They don't want that smile coming out.
"And I think we do that as adults."
So he was able to see irony, if not exactly humor, in the timing of two huge events in his life: His invitation to serve on the staff of Gen. David Petreaus in Afghanistan, and his cancer diagnosis a short time later.
"Irony," he said. "Gen. Petreaus, the day Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal got fired, asked me to be part of his team. And that's what a soldier lives for, to be brought into the big game, to be brought into the majors, and say, 'Hey, you want to be on the team?' Heck, yes.
"And two weeks later, not only have you got cancer, but it is bad."
Living with the disease, he said, had been "exhausting. It's been two years now. Up and down, up and down, up and down." He said he imagined himself in the places of the people around him, thinking, "When is this dude going to die? It's sad. I mean it's joyous that he's surviving, but my God, you know? It's just the weirdest paradox."
He said he hoped his book "helps people ask the question, 'What do you do when life doesn't go the way you want it to?'" He also wanted it to get across the message he often gave his boys: "The little things matter. A lot. They just add up.
"There's nothing magical about what I did for the people I worked with. I just did my job. I did a lot of really fairly simple things exceedingly well. And it has been my credo through my adult life that if you do the simple things exceedingly well, when the complex hits, you just find it easier to skip across those rocks."
But no one should expect things to be easy. "It's never easy."
"We have a saying in the army, that they give you a lot of opportunities to excel. When you're given an opportunity, you either sink or you swim. One of the things I talk about in the book, with my boys, is to periodically choose some paths of discomfort. Choose some paths of challenge. Find something that scares you and do that."
Mark said he intended to keep burning his candle as far down as he could.
"One of my favorite quotes is from Mark Frost. He said, 'Life is not a journey to the grave, with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, Wow — what a ride!' Emphasis mine.
"That's me. Anyone who knows me, they know: that's me."
LEARN MORE ABOUT MARK WEBER AND 'TELL MY SONS':
• On Memorial Day, decorated veteran delivers message of citizenship
Hundreds gathered at Fort Snelling National Cemetery Monday to honor fallen military servicemen and women. They heard messages about duty and service and the meaning of citizenship in a speech from a soldier who is currently confronting his own death. It came from decorated veteran and author, Lt. Col. Mark Weber. And it focused not on the sacrifices of those in uniform, but on the duty of all Americans — the duty of citizenship. (MPR News)
• Soldier's memoir touches on a different fight
Mark Weber spoke with MPR's Tom Crann about his life with a disease that had enough of a persona that he had given it a name. (MPR News)
•Mark Weber and his family appeared on 'The View'