Christina Feldman Wiegand, a second grade teacher at the Syracuse Latin School, takes part in what’s called the “mystery reader” program. In October, she needed someone from the community to stop by and read a book to her class, and to somehow relate it to life outside the school.
Michael Feldman, Christina’s younger brother, volunteered. It happened to be “pajama day” at the Latin School. Michael, 24, wore a pair of red “onesie” pajamas. He read a book called “Dragons Love Tacos,” and he brought along a special guest: His pet bearded dragon, Cleopatra, who sat on Michael’s knee.
He told the children about his work at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, in Syracuse. He told them about Cleopatra, what she eats and what she loves.
“It was the greatest,” Christina said. “The kids’ minds were blown.”
They applauded Michael, who spoke at 9 a.m.
Two hours later, he was in chemotherapy.
It is all part of his theory of Thanksgiving, a decision that leads Christina to call her brother "a rare breed."
Michael has cancer. It is a variety known Ewing’s Sarcoma. “Like Patrick,” Michael said of what the cancer is called, a reference to basketball legend Patrick Ewing, who by coincidence has the same name. The cancer showed up last winter. Michael felt pressure in his chest. He thought it was bronchitis. That’s what he told his doctor.
This will tell you everything about Michael, and how he looks at the world: He is the only guy who can share the story of how he learned about his cancer, and somehow offer it amid his own astonished laughter. The doctor, he said, called him at the zoo. Michael remembers how the doctor said, “Well, it’s not bronchitis, but I need you to come in. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Michael draws out each word. His eyes go wide. His face is a wild canvas of sheer expression.
“I said to him: ‘Dude. You've got to tell me. You’re freaking me out.’”
The doctor told him. Michael had a mass wrapped around his breast bone, his spine and his heart.
Ewing's Sarcoma. That would be devastating, unto itself. The family context is unbearable. Michael is the son of Bernie Feldman, a native of Akron whose dad worked at the old Westinghouse plant in Cheektowaga. Bernie met Michael’s mother, Nancy, after he began his career as a zookeeper.
The couple later moved to Syracuse, after Bernie was hired for a job with the zoo at Burnet Park. In 1988, they lost their oldest daughter, Laura, to childhood leukemia. In 1991, a year before Michael was born, Christina’s parents noticed dark bruises on her arms. The little girl, like her older sister, had leukemia. After years of treatment, she survived the disease.
Michael had another older sister, Sarah, the mother of 9-year-old Elizabeth, the first Feldman grandchild. In 2011, at 27, Sarah was battling a nagging cold. She took over-the-counter cold medicine, then decided to grab a nap to shake off the bug.
She never woke up. She died in her sleep.
For the Feldmans, the suffering seemed almost Biblical, more than any family should be called to bear. But it didn't stop. Eighteen months ago, Nancy began feeling intense pain. The doctors told her she had fast-moving colon cancer. She was only 57 when she died last October, just before the holidays. The last thing she said to Michael was:
“You’ll be OK.”
He went out and had those words tattooed on his arm.
Three months later, he learned of his own cancer. The doctors told him he had better get his life in order. They told him they couldn’t promise him six more months. They told him the cancer was encroaching on his spine, and he could wake up some morning with paralysis.
He decided on another tattoo, which became his credo. It involves two words. One is a profanity with four letters. The next one is “cancer.”
“F--- cancer,” Michael said, which is now his favorite tag for his memorable posts on Instagram. “It’s taken a sister I never met and my mother and my grandparents and hurt another one of my sisters. But it doesn’t tell me how to live.”
Ten months later, here he is.
“I tell you what,” Michael said. “It gives you a new life when they tell you that you might not see your 24th birthday.”
A birthday he has already celebrated, by the way.
Considering it all, this is his message: Michael was always a guy who loved nature. He will recount, in beautiful detail, the day a sparrow flew into a power line by his house, how he held the stunned bird until it awoke, how he watched in awe as it flew out of his hand. Even before he learned about the cancer, he could walk to a park and be amazed by the canopy of trees.
Now, he said, every tree becomes "the most beautiful tree you’ve ever seen.”
While the doctors say there is no environmental or genetic cause for all the cancer in his family, Michael has his doubts. How could one family, by coincidence, go through so much? Still, if cancer has taken far too much, he said it also has given him a gift:
What the rest of us too often forget, he never does.
His progress is good, much better than the dire expectations. He went through radiation. His chemotherapy continues. The tumor is shrinking. The goal is bringing it down enough to make it safe for surgery, so the doctors can remove part of it while staying away from his spine. Michael goes for consultations to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
“Kind of cool,” he said, “to go to the same place Bob Marley went.”
For now, during his treatments, Michael can’t work. He misses the zoo. He misses working the evening shift, when he’d walk the trails under the stars and the animals would be alert and moving. He could hear them. He could feel their awareness in the night.
Even so, he refuses to “wallow in my sorrows.” He spends a lot of time with his girlfriend, Lindsay Feraco. He has a new puppy, Duncan, a border collie he bought from an Amish family in the North Country. And he and a childhood friend, Kevin Metzger, who is studying classical guitar in New England, went on a coast-to-coast road trip in July.
Michael’s favorite stop was Yellowstone. He loved the bison, “their beauty, their power, their sense of who they are.” Kevin remembers how he and Michael walked up a trail to the Grand Canyon, and when they came upon it, when they saw the majesty of the vista ….
They both wept.
“Michael’s appreciation for life, for living, it’s unprecedented in anyone I’ve ever met,” Kevin said.
Thursday is Thanksgiving. The Feldmans skipped that celebration last year, but they are gathering this time to cook a turkey dinner. Michael and Christina and their dad still feel Nancy's absence in an intense, almost unbearable way. Michael, for his part, lives with pain he rarely shows. It radiates throughout his body, above his waist. Chemotherapy makes his food taste like chalk. If there is one comfort he misses beyond description, it is the reassurance of his mother's voice.
Yet he knows exactly what she would have him do. His job on Thanksgiving will be teaching Elizabeth, his niece, how to prepare Nancy’s famous holiday corn. The Feldmans intend to get out the family “blessing cup,” the one they pass around the table every year while giving thanks for what they have, for what they love.
Look, Michael explains, this is how he sees the world: If you’re waiting behind someone at a red light, and that driver doesn’t notice the light has changed, you have two options. You can rage and lay on the horn and spread your hatred to that driver, who will then pass it on to someone else.
Or you can raise a hand and smile, realizing: Waiting five seconds, once you understand what matters, is a gift.
“If you put hate out there, or you put love out there, it’s just that much more hate or love to dip into,” Michael said.
To him, Thanksgiving comes each morning. That choice makes him a rare breed.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his work in this archive. You can follow Michael Feldman on Instagram at @stepman_feldfather