Dear Tess and Stewie:
If you're reading this, or having this read to you, you know me through your childhood memory, supplemented by pictures, songs and what other people have told you about me ... Know this: Because of the mystery of birth and the grace of God, I'm in you...
If the doctors are right -- and the fates are with him -- Stewart Francke, a 40-year-old guitarist and composer, won't be sending this letter to his children for a long time. Still, he couldn't help putting pen to paper the way he often does to speed up healing in times of pain.
In June, Francke went to the doctor with an ache in his abdomen. The diagnosis changed his life forever: He had chronic myelogenous leukemia, a slow-moving cancer of the blood. On October 19, he had radiation therapy to kill the cancerous cells and clear the way for the healthy ones he received a week later from his older sister Kit Reece. While his prognosis is optimistic -- he has an 85 percent chance of full recovery -- his convalescence over the next few weeks will determine whether the cancer will go into permanent remission.
For Francke, these have been both the best and worst of times. In 1995, his debut CD, Where the River Meets the Bay, contained the hit single "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which underscored an episode of "Melrose Place." Since then, he's opened for the likes of Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow and Chuck Berry. His music has been used in soap operas and Showtime will feature his music in the upcoming movie, In Plain View.
But for someone whose future is full of silver linings, dark clouds can be especially hard to endure.
When I walk up to Francke's Huntington Woods Tudor, the door, framed by pots of pink flowers, is wide-open. I let myself in from the dreary October rain. It's two weeks before his hospitalization, and Francke is on the phone. He nods for me to have a seat while he wraps up the call.
Despite the encroaching autumn, the living room is bathed in summer colors -- creamy mushroom and taffy yellow. Gleaming white tiles frame the fireplace on one end of the room. On the other sits a shiny white upright piano.
"Want some water? Some tea?" offers Francke from the kitchen. He comes back with a glass of water and plops cheerfully on a soft chair. Behind him on a bookcase are pictures of Julia, his wife of 10 years, and their children Tess, 4, and Stewie, 2. Their faces, and Francke's easy smile, give no indication of the strain life under the spotlight has wrought these last few months.
But when he shares with me the letter he's written for his children in case he doesn't recover, it's clear that the pain runs bone-deep.
"When you're forced to face death at an age in which you didn't expect to, you find out that, 'Oh, God! I was operating under an illusion of permanence,'" says Francke, ignoring for a moment the voices of well-wishers coming through on his answering machine.
But in a strange way, he adds, his illness has given his life new purpose.
"In your 20s, you have so many nihilistic thoughts -- life is just one great void. Now I realize that life is about injecting meaning into that void.
"I say to God, 'I've got to live so that I can do good things the rest of my life. I'm no good to you dead.' Once I asked a friend of mine who's a nun, 'Can you bargain with God?' She assured me, 'A little salesmanship doesn't hurt.'"
Much given, more expected
(Y)ou are born with many talents and advantages. Employ these talents for your own enjoyment while you find a way to look after others less advantaged. Just care. Don't accept the notion that people spread by saying, "There will always be poor, always be sick, always be people set against each other." The people that say those things are lazy. Those facts just give you more purpose.
A week before our interview, people crammed into the opulent lobby of the Fox Theatre. Standing toward the back, Francke chatted with band members, all of whom wore sunflowers in their lapels.
Despite the leukemia, he's the picture of good health. After years of wearing his brown hair long, Francke's now a crop-topped blond. The cut shifts his image from a rust-belt rock 'n' roller to a contemporary pop artist bearing a vague resemblance to Sting.
"When I came home with this hairdo, Tess said my head looked like a sunflower," Francke laughs, lifting his hand to his hair. He liked the comparison so much, he incorporated it into the title track of his latest release.
The party at the Fox was both a celebration of Sunflower Soul Serenade and a fundraiser for his new purpose in life: Raising money to help leukemia patients find compatible bone marrow donors.
"When we started looking for a bone marrow match, we found out that the chances of finding a sibling match was about 28 percent," said Francke. "I'm lucky in an unlucky situation."
Not only was he lucky to find a sibling match, he's lucky that he's Caucasian.
"For Caucasians, the chances of finding at least one potential match with a preliminary search for a donor is 84 percent," says Cindy Irwin, a patient services manager with the Michigan Leukemia Society, noting that a preliminary "match" does not always mean the donor is compatible. "With African Americans that falls to 58 percent and 60 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders."
Francke took his good fortune as a call to arms. By the end of the summer he had established the Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation to provide financial support for patients who cannot afford a search for a matching donor. With his sister, Kit Reece, at the helm, the foundation was in full swing by September.
"I'd never done anything like this before," says Reece, two year's Francke's senior, and the mother of two infant girls. "All I knew is that this happened to Stu for a reason, and now we know what that reason is. We know people who have spent $20,000 and still haven't found a match. It will be our lives' purpose to help people with their search for a cure."
At the Fox, Francke took the stage as fans cheered him on.
"This must be the first time cancer got a standing ovation," he laughed.
At a time when alternative rock is pushing its alienation into the mainstream, Francke's fans still crave music to live by -- folk, gospel, country and rock 'n' roll. He launched into "Two Guitars, Bass and Drums," a tune which immediately calls up the Beach Boys and the Beatles.
"Since I've been diagnosed, the band's relationship with the audience has been so different," says Francke later. "The music has a way of accelerating friendship. Now I get to the good stuff without going through a year of pleasantries."
The event raised $40,000 for the foundation, a feat Francke credits to the many volunteers and his sister's determination.
"What Kit accomplished in three months boggles the mind," says Francke. "It isn't enough for her to save my life. She's got to try to save everyone else's, too."
Something to be said for the light
Although his chances of recovery are excellent, Francke stays awake with worry. While we talk in his living room, he fingers a bracelet of huge plastic beads.
"Tess made this for me," he explains, adding wryly: "It glows in the dark. That's what I need most now -- something to light up the darkness."
What keeps him up most nights is wondering if his children will be able to remember him if he should die.
I can't control what's happened to me. My spirit, however, is alive. ... I know I'm constantly loving you and guiding you. I know this because I feel guidance from people that I've loved that have died before me.
But his faith has kept Francke from dwelling on the nagging question, "Why me?"
"That's so arrogant. When you're sitting outside on a beautiful day and the kids are running and you think you're the most blessed person on the earth, you don't stop and say, 'Why me?' With this, I've said, 'Better me than my children.'"
Still, as the date of his hospitalization draws near, Francke finds himself struggling with the gravity of his situation. He keeps busy, even participating in a Channel 4 tribute to the Temptations.
He will remain in the hospital until mid-November to give the new white blood cells time to regenerate his immune system. Then he will return home and endure months of isolation during which any infection could prove lethal.
He says his wife's support, along with prayers from his friends, fans and family, will get him through.
"There's a physical thing that happens to me when I pray. Prayer works," says the devout Catholic. "I finally understand the role of faith ... It requires social action, which I used to think was a bunch of crap. .... You have to physically put yourself out there in order to reap the full benefits of life."
Even when you have no inspiration or passion for living, when you're very low, there are unseen things moving you toward a happier day. This is called faith, believing in what we cannot see. You need faith to love deeply; you need faith to sing; you need faith to let God love you; you need faith to know that I'm loving you. Have faith. Believe.
The Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation helps patients meet their match.
According to the Leukemia Society of America, every five minutes someone in the United States learns that they have leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells which causes them to reproduce out of control. Lymphoma causes tumors in the lymph nodes. And myeloma attacks the bones, making them brittle or spongy.
With chemotherapy, anti-cancer drugs, radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants, the survival rate for all kinds of blood cancers is 42 percent.
In the first stages of chronic myelogenous leukemia, the patient usually doesn't have any signs of cancer, but may experience extreme fatigue, fever, loss of appetite and an enlarged spleen.
New technologies in transplantation make it possible for CML patients to receive healthy stem cells directly from a donor's blood, alleviating the need for the more intrusive bone marrow transplant.
Donating stem cells is generally as non-intrusive as donating blood. (Donating bone marrow, on the other hand, requires a hospital stay, as the marrow is extracted from the pelvic bone under general anesthesia. Afterward donors report a pain similar to a bruised tailbone.)
A lack of minority bone marrow donors makes it more difficult for patients of color to receive life-saving transplants. And the $5,000 registry access fee, together with the $80 test for each potential donor, can make finding a match cost-prohibitive.
The Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation is planning a donor drive in the spring to increase the number of possible donors in the National Marrow Registry. The Foundation is also hoping to enlist the help of the Detroit Pistons in reaching donors in the African-American community.
To raise more money for the Foundation, a compilation CD will be available at Harmony House before Thanksgiving. Entitled Two Guitars, Bass and Drums: Songs for Survival, it includes tracks from Francke along with Marshall Crenshaw, Jill Jack, Days of the New and Mitch Ryder.
"This is not about ego," says Francke. "It's about love. If I don't leave a legacy that I helped someone, my children will never understand that, basically, they live in a good world."
You can contact the Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation at 248-828-2865 or at www.sflf.com. Call the Michigan chapter of the Leukemia Society of America at 810-778-6800.