Richard Deming, the son of a grain elevator worker and grocery store clerk from small-town South Dakota, is a modest, soft-spoken man. He has spent the majority of his adult life with people when they are most vulnerable — when they or loved ones are fighting cancer.
Ron Fournier came out of a different background. The son of a Detroit, Mich., cop has spent much of his working life as a big-time political reporter, covering our nation’s political leaders, including several presidents.
While you might think the two are as different as Madison, S.D., and the Motor City, they are quite similar in one important way: Each has become an eloquent, soul-searching advocate for keeping life in the proper perspective. We all would be wise to heed them, especially during these times when so many lives are filled with so much stress.
Deming is medical director of the Mercy One Cancer Center in Des Moines. His life was shaped by his mother’s seven-year fight, first with brain cancer and then with lung cancer, during his high school and college years.
“In retrospect, I’m sure it was her hand on my back that was kind of gently leading me into what became my career in cancer medicine,” Deming said in a recent interview on Bob Leonard’s always-interesting program, “In Depth,” on KNIA radio in Knoxville.
While Deming uses the latest scientific knowledge and tools to treat cancer patients, at times he sounds like someone in a medical ministry. He calls it his “career in caring.” Others are more philosophical: “The good physician treats the disease. The great physician treats the patient.”
Deming told KNIA listeners: “It grew out of my understanding of what it means to live a full, meaningful, joyful life that includes suffering and challenges along the way.
“That understanding — that a joyful life includes the bumps, that joy comes through suffering, not from going around it — has really inspired the way that I practice medicine and the way I try to instill finding joy in the journey, as opposed to just at the top of the mountain.”
Mountains are not just a metaphor for Deming. He has led cancer survivors on mountain-climbing journeys in Nepal, Tibet, Tanzania and Peru. He has a wonderful book, “Above and Beyond Cancer,” that shows and tells the inspirational stories of these expeditions in the words and photos of participants.
Deming told Bob Leonard he is constantly inspired by his patients, both those who are cured and those whose journeys end in death. Both groups of patients find strength they did not know they had.
“It’s the ups and downs, and the twists and turns, that give the emotional complexity to our lives,” Deming said. “We should just welcome what comes our way, realize that we are all in this together, and know there are so many people who are willing to help you on your journey.
“It’s just like a hug. It works in both directions,” Deming added.
Ron Fournier’s discovery of life’s important lessons came 11 years ago when his son, then 12, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism. Fournier came to realize that his own anxieties about his son were really an extension of the timeless anxieties of all parents who want their children to excel, be popular and live happily.
For Tyler Fournier, although highly intelligent, Asperger’s left him socially awkward and ill-equipped to interact with people. It wasn’t until the autism diagnosis that the Fourniers realized their son was not just “quirky.”
“I didn’t want to acknowledge that he might be different,” Fournier wrote in his outstanding book, “Love That Boy,” about coming to terms with and then embracing his son’s autism.
“That’s one of many expectations we carry into parenthood, wanting our kids not to be different, not to be abnormal, to be perfect,” Fournier wrote. “Well, we realized that he’s not perfect, and you know what? That’s OK.”
Once the autism diagnosis was in hand, Fournier was prodded by his wife to capitalize on father and son’s shared interest in U.S. presidents.
The two embarked on road trips to visit museums and homes of notable presidents. With Fournier’s connections from his time as a White House reporter, they met with Bill Clinton in Little Rock, George W. Bush in Dallas, and Barack and Michelle Obama at a White House reception.
The presidents and Mrs. Obama all were gracious and kind to Tyler. That’s just what decent people do, Fournier said.
The title for the book came from a comment Bush made after first meeting Tyler in 2003, on Fournier’s last day on the White House beat. Tyler, then 5, launched into a rapid commentary about Bush’s dog Barney, a Scottish terrier, about Scottish terriers in general, and about President Franklin Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, also a Scottish terrier.
Bush was enchanted. “We were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow. ‘Love that boy,’ he said, holding my eyes,” Fournier wrote in The Atlantic.
Years later, he came to better understand Bush’s message.
“The message isn’t to love him despite his idiosyncrasies. It’s to love him because of his idiosyncrasies,” Fournier said. “What makes him different, what makes all of our kids different, is what makes them special.”
Ron Fournier and Richard Deming both are right.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.