Father's Day Heart of the Treasure Valley: 'Magnify how beautiful you can be'

June 16, 2013 

Don Wilkins made a promise to his son before he died of cancer to be the best man he can be. That promise still resonates in his business, in his relationships and in being a father to his younger son. “See into their eyes. ... Don’t miss it,” he says.

KATHERINE JONES

  • A FATHER REFLECTS

    Be here now

    On a trip back from the children's hospital in Salt Lake City, Don and his ex-wife stopped at a place they remembered stopping 10 years before when Matthew was a nursing infant. He was now in the back seat, fragile from his illness.

    "Clearly she's having a moment of remembering back, now looking at him wasting away. … She kept saying, what if we did something wrong? … She was like, what if he doesn't make it?

    "I said, 'It doesn't matter. We don't have tomorrow, we don't have yesterday. All we have is right in front of us, right now.

    "'We could pull back on the freeway right now and a truck could have a blowout right next to us and kill us all. And your worry right now did nothing.'

    "We might have an hour for all of us. We might have the rest of our lives.

    "All we have is right in front of us. Who are you being right now; that's what I say to Sam: 'Who are you being right now?' It's all that matters."

    Little stuff doesn't matter

    "If Sam breaks a glass because he's being stupid and milk goes everywhere, big deal. We'll just clean it up. ...

    "Unless I see something that gives me concern for his moral judgment, I don't get too worked up about anything. His appreciation for the work of others falls under that moral judgment: 'Do you know what someone had to go through to make this happen for you?' kind of thing."

    Enhance individuality

    "Your kid's mind is not your own. They have their own unique life experience. Your goal, as their dad, is to become intimate with that life experience of their mind, and help them to enhance it. Not to tell them this is how it should be. That's what, I think, preserves their individuality. That's at the heart of it, I think."

    Be spontaneous

    "See what excites them; don't miss it. We assume so much. They'll say blah, blah, blah. We assume we know what they're going to say; we have a scripted response. Don't be scripted. The best part of life is dynamic and spontaneous."

    Live in the moment

    "I truly accept that (idea of ) 'live in the moment.' … I have a very real understanding that life is strange and disaster is part of life. And so is evolving from that. And recovering from that.

    "There is a beauty in the experiences I had one-on-one with the people who went through the cancer with me - and that loss. There are some moments there than cannot be duplicated in any other emotional situation except that one. And I'll have that with those people forever."

Don Wilkins wasn't altogether sure he wanted to be a father. He's kind of a free-spirited businessman, and children might have interrupted the comfortable lifestyle he and his wife had created. Too many things could go wrong with kids.

He says: "So a lot of thought went into that (decision), and it wasn't an accident. …

"I still say … I really feel like he … gave me a lifetime experience in his 13 years because of the child that he was."

So Matthew was born, the eldest of two sons, in 1997. It was 11 years after Don and his wife were married, and Sam would come along four years later.

"If I had known I would lose him at 13 (years old) - but I'd have him for those 13 years - would I have done it? Would I have signed up for it?

"I would.

"Because it was worth it. It was absolutely worth it and my life was changed forever."

Matthew was about 10 years old when his parents noticed a blue lump on his hip. Matthew played baseball, so they thought it was might be a bruise, but it didn't go away. The family doctor thought it was a cyst. Lab tests, however, said it was cancer.

"We had a meeting at the hospital where they said, 'Here's everything we know about the cancer you have,' and it's a stack of papers as thick as a phone book."

Don read it all. He devoured everything he could about Ewing's sarcoma, their options, the protocols. That single-minded determination is typical of everything that Don does; his son went through chemotherapy in a protocol determined by the research Don did with experts around the country. "I blew up their phone until they took my call," he says with a chuckle.

"The drama of cancer culminated in one day. Matthew was doing well; he was responding to his … treatment, and we were just elated. The tumors had come back in his lungs and the tumors were shrinking. We were just happy - happy, happy, happy."

Matthew had made such great progress that he was scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant on a Monday, the final blow to eradicate his cancer. The Friday evening before that, however, he had tingling in his hand and by morning, both his arm and leg were limp. They went to the hospital for a CT scan.

"I was allowed to be in the room where the monitors were … so I was standing there and I can see the image developing. You can clearly see that's his brain. And you can clearly see this egg-sized tumor right in the middle of his brain. Far larger than anything we had ever seen before. And I knew. I knew …"

From elation to devastation; remembering, Don chokes on tears. Though he and his wife had since divorced, they were still partners in parenting their sons. She was on a quick weekend getaway and Don had to call her.

"I was trying not to succumb to hysteria. … And I lied. I told her that we'll beat it; we'll beat it. He's strong. He's fought this hard."

And then he went to Matthew.

"He says, 'Dad, what's wrong with me?' I said, 'There's a sense you've got some new stuff.' And he goes, 'Goddamn it.' He's 13."

Matthew asked his father if he was going to make it. Don paused a beat and Matthew knew.

"He said, 'That's the first time you've never not said yes right away.' And I said, 'Well, I don't know.'"

Matthew pushed Don for answers. What were doctors going to do? Was he going to die? And for the only time, Matthew questioned why.

"He goes, you know, if all these people are praying for me (Matthew had a Caring Bridge website) - if all these people are praying and asking God to let me live, I don't understand why he's letting me die.'

"I said, 'I don't either. But I'm old enough to know one thing. And that is: Everything in this world that I see has a purpose.' "

For example, a tree, Don told his son, is beautiful but it also has function: It takes the carbon dioxide we breathe and turns it back into oxygen. Grass is like a carpet, but it also filters water.

" 'We try and build an air conditioning system and it's a big noisy box that sits there. It's not something beautiful to look at or to lay under on a beautiful day and watch the leaves blow.

" 'I think that there's more of a purpose, and I think that your purpose just might not be here.' ...

"I said, 'I always felt, Matthew, you had something special and maybe that special thing you have is needed someplace else for something. And I don't know what that is. ...

" 'You're going to leave us behind for a while, (but) I think I'll see you again. I don't know how.' "

Don pauses for the tears to ebb as he remembers.

"I said, 'I don't have the answers, but I don't think that the energy of our life and our minds just stops. It's energy. Energy and matter are related. I don't know how we coalesce and become something else later; I don't know. …

" 'People will try and tell you that they know what happens when you die, but the truth is, nobody does.

" 'I think that if you're going to go to the effort of making all of these things that are not just functioning but also beautiful - the trees and the grass; and then you're going to build something as amazing as us to appreciate the beauty of theses things …

" 'I find it hard to imagine there's such a limited small purpose for us.' "

And then Matthew asked an odd question. He asked his father, "Are you going to kill yourself?" Don confesses he hadn't thought that far ahead.

"I said, 'Matthew, if I think you can see me … I can't do that.'

"I said, in fact - it was all kind of coalescing in my own mind - 'In fact, I make you this promise:

" 'I promise you that I will live my life the most honorable and the best way I know how. And, in fact, I will not only try to give the world the best version of myself, but the best version of you, to the best of my ability, because (people are) not going to get the chance to have you around.'

"I said, 'I make you that promise.'"

The promise still resonates two and a half years later; it has become the focal point for Don's life and work.

Don has been in business all his life; that's what he does. He's created and sold successful and lucrative businesses in window cleaning, Sun Valley property management, antique dealing, grocery brokering.

The promise to his son has become the driving force behind his next business, which emerged as he researched Matthew's cancer and treatment.

"It occurred to me … that cancer is a symptom of a far greater problem. …

"Your shampoo contains cancerous elements. Your deodorant does; your laundry detergent does: parabens and carcinogens …

"Can you be genetically more predisposed to it than someone else? Absolutely. But that's greatly aggravated by environment, and also decreased by environment, depending on whether it's good or bad."

About the same time he became convinced that cancer was related to environment, Don learned about a product, a proprietary blend of plant extracts, he says, that, applied to crops, increases yields and decreases the need for massive amounts of fertilizer in fields, thus lessening the impact of chemicals in the environment.

"And I have a son who is dying of cancer. …

"I'm thinking this landed in my lap. I have to do something with this."

Don is not an environmentalist or an advocate; he is a businessman. But a businessman with a promise to his son.

"I think that there is more to us; I think that there is purpose. Sadly, the purpose that we often pursue is very base at best: Where can I get to where I can drink more, eat more, hang out with my friends, go boating more. It's (about) personal pleasure, personal satisfaction.

"Not, 'How can I better my own environment and the environment of others at the same time, and be doing something that is significantly constructive?' "

Don is not altruistic, either. But being the father of a son who has died has changed him - and will continue to shape him as he is father to a son who is very much alive.

"It started out with me saying I want to be the best person that I can be - for Matt.

"Then I thought, well, why wouldn't I want to try to be the best dad I could be - and Sam would benefit from that.

"And so, when I get into a relationship, I say I want to be the best man that I can be. …

"It's not like I don't make mistakes; I do. But you always have a chance when you make a mistake to right a wrong if you do, (and) I believe you should always do that."

Matthew died about four months after what was to have been his bone marrow transplant - and the day after he beat a video game called "Red Dead Redemption" and proclaimed his victory triumphantly: "I'm the king of the world."

There is a point, Don believes, and he talked about it with Matthew, where one must decide to do something for others that matters more than our own selves. In Matthew's case, Don wonders if perhaps it was to leave this life behind. The choices are different for those who are still living.

"People are inclined to be selfish. When you're by yourself and no one's watching, you want to be first. …When there's more to eat, you want to eat it. The seven deadly sins; we can succumb to them so easily. We are so ugly when we do that.

"But we have a chance to be beautiful.

"(So that's it): To limit how ugly you are and to magnify how beautiful you can be."

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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