Terminal cancer—and the band Toto—is bringing my family together for my parents’ last date | Bleader

Terminal cancer—and the band Toto—is bringing my family together for my parents’ last date

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As a baby with my parents, Mark and Jan Smith, in 1977
  • As a baby with my parents, Mark and Jan Smith, in 1977

I was only mildly aware of the band Toto on the Tuesday in May when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I'm a child of the 80s, and we all know at least "Africa." It was an omnipresent hit in the early days of MTV, when music videos were low-budget affairs: usually stitched-together concert footage, surrealistic short films, or a disjointed combination of the two.

Like a lot of those primitive videos, the clip for "Africa" is charming, goofy, and kind of nonsensical. I remember trying to puzzle out the imagery and lyrics as a kid. So, there's some beefy bearded dude singing in a library in Africa, and I guess he's trying to find a book that matches some torn page he carries? Whose arm is that throwing a spear at the library shelves? And why did they try to squeeze in a line about the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro? These questions don't bother me so much now, but I always stumble on that line whenever I try to sing "Africa" at a 4 AM karaoke bar.

Up until last month, you could say the word "Toto" and the first thing I'd think of would probably be Dorothy's dog from The Wizard of Oz. I'd occasionally catch the guitar riff from "Hold the Line" on the radio, and even though it would rattle around in my head for hours, I couldn't tell you who'd recorded the song. In my head, most of Toto's music got lost amid a shapeless jumble of yacht rock and early-80s soft-rock classics. "Rosanna"? That's Christopher Cross, right? Steely Dan, maybe. I dunno.

Not anymore. Now I'm a slight Toto obsessive. I can tell you about their underrated work on the Dune soundtrack, and that Paula Abdul makes a wonderfully cheesy prefame cameo in their video for "Till the End." Also I want to cry every time I hear their sappy breakup ballad "I Won't Hold You Back."

My relationship to Toto changed suddenly and permanently on May 30, the day doctors delivered my father, Mark, a surprising but unequivocal death sentence. Stage four liver cancer, they said. Six months to live, more or less. Surgeons had essentially stumbled upon it during a relatively routine gallbladder surgery. In the process of removing his gallbladder, they discovered cancerous tumors on his liver.

Even more shocking, the diagnosis said this cancer was squamous cell carcinoma. It's the second-most-common form of skin cancer, but very rarely found on the liver. In an online medical journal, I found a study from a hospital where only 0.2 percent of all liver-cancer cases were determined to be squamous cell carcinoma. It's such a remarkable case that my dad is being tended by a roundtable of oncology specialists. But even when all those experts put their heads together, they couldn't figure out how to save him. Too many tumors, too little time.

My dad delivered this news via a long but matter-of-fact group text message, and it hit me hard. I left work a few minutes later and called him while walking to my apartment on South Halsted, trying hard not to sob in public.

My first birthday in 1978
  • My first birthday in 1978
It's irrational, I suppose, but part of me had always considered my dad's body something of an impenetrable fortress. Even in his mid-60s, he's still six foot four and 350 pounds, with huge biceps built from decades of weightlifting. And between my parents, he's the healthy one. My mom, Jan, suffered a major stroke almost a decade ago, and she's never fully recovered physically, mentally, or emotionally. She spends the vast majority of her waking hours on the couch and only very occasionally ventures outside. Her body and mind, she tells me, feel like a prison she can't escape. For the past ten years, and increasingly as time has gone on, my dad has been not just her husband but also her primary caregiver.

Now what? I asked my dad on the phone. What are you going to do with the rest of the short time you have left?

Just enjoy it, he said. I'm not going to do chemo. I want to die with dignity. And I am still determined to go to that Toto concert.

Weeks before my dad's cancer diagnosis, my parents had purchased tickets to a June 28 Toto show at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. The fact that they'd planned to drive the three-plus hours from Springfield to the Chicago suburbs was already a small miracle: my mom hasn't left Springfield's city limits in several years or attended a live event of any kind in the decade since her stroke. My dad had to order her a wheelchair so she could go, because she's never tried to get anywhere that required one before. This was a huge leap of faith for her.

What was it about Toto that inspired my mom to finally conquer her fears and physical limitations? I still don't quite know. My dad is a lifelong bass guitarist and loves prog rock from that era, but the only nonreligious music I'd ever heard her express much passion about was the Beatles. Something clicked for her after she watched video of a live show Toto had played in Poland as part of their 35th anniversary tour in 2015. "They're just so amazing and beautiful," she told me when I went to see my family a few weeks ago. "They just really touch me." On that visit, I watched hours of Toto videos with my parents.

After that painful phone conversation with my dad, I wiped away the tears and searched Spotify on my phone until I found the album The Essential Toto. A poignant truth hit me while listening again to "Africa": this upcoming Toto show will likely be the last real date of my parents' 40-year marriage. That's when I decided to do something about it. I had zero control over my dad's cancer or my mom's condition—but this concert? Maybe I could become my own Make-a-Wish Foundation, so that this night would be even more meaningful for them somehow.

Jan and Mark in the late 80s
  • Jan and Mark in the late 80s

Some furious googling led me to Toto's manager. I e-mailed him a few times to tell him my parents' story, but he told me finally that there was nothing he could do for them. Sorry, the beginning of a tour is just too chaotic for special requests, he said.

I didn't give up there. I went to Twitter and reached out to Toto front man and guitarist Steve Lukather. I posted an old picture of my parents on Instagram to relay the story. I thought I'd tagged Toto's official account in the photo, but the next day a River North plumbing company called Toto messaged me: "Our hearts are with you during this difficult time, but we think you may be looking for Toto the band and not Toto the plumbing company."

My last-ditch effort was to contact the Arcada Theatre, hoping the people who run the venue could do something—anything—for my parents' last date. A few minutes later, Ron Onesti, owner of the Arcada, wrote me back: "Let's make this amazing for them!" He called me shortly afterward and was incredibly empathetic and generous: Extra tickets for friends and family. Dinner. Maybe a meet-and-greet with Toto?

Then Lukather messaged me back on Twitter and told me he'd love to meet my parents. Amazing. I called my parents to tell them, and my mom broke into tears of joy almost immediately. "This isn't real, is it?" she asked me incredulously. "Are you making this up?"

toto-africa.jpg

As the show approaches, it still seems unreal to them. Last week my parents got a postcard in the mail from a Toto fan living in the Netherlands who'd seen my Instagram post and offered them well wishes. "I feel like I'm in some kind of dream," my mom told me on the phone. My dad has started calling this Toto concert "my wake before I sleep," because ten family members and friends are all going to St. Charles to share this experience with him and Jan.

The whole thing might sound strange. Your bucket list probably doesn't include seeing a rock band that's decades past its most recent hit. If you had a chance to attend your own wake, you might not do it at a Toto concert. But I don't know. Maybe you would obsessively listen to your parents' favorite band to feel a connection with them from 250 miles away. And I'm sure you can at least relate to the powerful way that music can move us to do great things. Unexpected things. Inexplicable things. Like write the wonderfully ridiculous lyric "As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti."

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