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Sean Kirst: Without a voice, a hunter finds the words that matter

Once Jim Beiter could no longer speak, he had plenty of time to contemplate what he wished that he could say. He is a hunter and an angler, a guy who has spent a lot of quiet hours in the woods or standing alongside a pond.

He understands how to tell a great tale, how to pack all the meaning or humor into the crescendo. Yet he appreciates the communion that can be a gift of silence.

What changed about a year ago is that he lost the choice.

It was the most harrowing trial in a decade of struggle. Ten years ago, tests revealed Beiter had a form of melanoma. Nine years ago, it was cancer of the prostate. Seven years ago, doctors found a tumor wrapped around his spine.

All of it meant an ongoing spiral of treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, round after round of radiation and chemotherapy, until a day arrived when the tests revealed no tumors, when they finally gave Beiter what he describes as "a clean bill of health."

He went back to his family in East Amherst. Before long, he had difficulty talking. He felt a new and unfamiliar pain.

Fourteen months ago, he learned he had throat cancer.

His wife, Carol, said he accepted that jolt with extraordinary grace. Her husband, she said, doesn't allow himself to quit.

"He knows he's got a lot to live for," she said.

Beiter returned to Roswell for tests and surgery, procedures that – as he puts it – he would not wish on anyone. The doctors removed his voice box, then ran into more problems. Beiter needed two additional operations.

Throughout it all, he lost the ability to speak.

He is, as he puts it, an "old school" guy. He uses a basic flip phone. He is not one to send a text. During that time, his only way to communicate was by writing notes on sheets of paper.

Beiter handled it without complaint, which did not surprise his wife.

"He's a remarkable man," Carol Beiter said. They met when they were teenagers in Swormville. Carol knew Beiter's sister Margie. She told Carol she had a brother who was interested in a date, a guy the kids had nicknamed "Moose."

"He had a red '60 Chevy convertible," said Carol.

She went out on the date.

They were married in 1964. Her husband, 75, retired 15 years ago from the printing business. Despite fierce pain, Carol never hears him feeling sorry for himself. He manages to look forward to each morning. Even before the cancer, he lived by an essential truth.

He has three kids, seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren. He's always said that it's important to enjoy the time with them, that everything changes all too quickly: Before long, they all have their own lives.

Jim Weiss, an old friend who runs Mane Street Haircutters in the Town of Amherst, said Beiter is well-loved in Clarence and the surrounding community. Not long ago, a group of nine or 10 of Beiter's buddies showed up to help Beiter put a new roof on "Big Moose Lodge," the piece of land he owns in East Otto.

To understand why they did it, the qualities that generate such loyalty, Weiss offers a story.

He and Beiter shared a quest, a goal, that made them laugh every year. In a lifetime of hunting and fishing – a passion that took Weiss hunting for caribou in such faraway places as Alaska or Alberta – Weiss had never managed to bag a turkey.

Each spring, for the opening of turkey season, they went to Beiter's camp. The place is beautiful, built on "a ridge where you get up every morning," Weiss said, "and you look out across Springville."

Beiter had brought home plenty of turkeys in his life. His goal was to help his friend do the same.

This year, Beiter was struggling with his illness. He had yet to regain his voice. When Weiss suggested they call off the turkey hunt, Beiter shook his head and wrote down his response:

They were going.

Jim Weiss, left, and Jim Beiter have been friends for many years. Here, they are pictured in The Buffalo News studio on Monday, June 19, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

At camp, the weather was raw and damp. That night, Weiss listened as Beiter, clearly in pain, coughed and tossed and could not sleep.

"Just being out here is fine," Weiss told him. "We don't have to go out."

Beiter wrote on a slip of paper: "We can sleep anytime."

He has always admired wild turkeys. He's often said that people who speak of them as stupid have no understanding of their grace, their intelligence, the way they know how to survive.

To Beiter, they're "a marvelous bird."

You know how this ends. Beiter – unable to use a mouth call – used a box call. A turkey, alert and cautious, wandered over. "My God, I can get that bird," Weiss said to himself.

He used a shotgun to bag the turkey, then wrapped Beiter in an enormous hug, his friend so frail that for a moment Weiss was afraid he hurt him. They both understood:

None of this was really about a turkey.

Beiter finds healing in the peace, the isolation, of the camp. His family routinely joins him there. In recent years, he's often gone into the woods with his youngest grandson, Cory Andres, who's about to begin college at Daemen. They were together when Cory brought home his first deer.

As for Cory, he said those days were unforgettable. The hours went fast, whether they saw a deer or not. "He'd crack some jokes, or we'd really talk about anything that came to mind," Cory said.

He remembers how they stumbled into a cornfield where 100 turkeys were roosting, and how the birds rose around them in a wild, noisy whirlwind. Beyond all else, he remembers the grace with which Beiter handled his pain, the way he put their time together above everything.

"I think he's taught me patience," Cory said, "that you take life little by little, and to always be thankful for what you have."

That awareness, Beiter said, is one hard gift from cancer.

He made this point, time and time again: Until you get sick, you take an awful lot for granted. Once it happens, it's all different. Little problems just don't matter.

In June, the doctors inserted a prosthesis, a device that again allows him to speak. After the procedure, Beiter touched his throat and turned to Carol, who was with him in the office. He gave voice to his first sentence in more than nine months.

"I love you," he said.

It makes her cry, but the truth is, he's never needed words to say it.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at and read more of his work in this archive.

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