Gary on the Job: With Stage 4 Colon Cancer, Gary Olsen Teaches Us How to Work -- and Live.
As a boy, Gary Olsen, above, learned to build and fix things from his handyman dad. "He built our house in Sterling (Mass.) himself,"Gary said, "and he did it all from top to bottom. He was Mr. Everything."
Gary watched his dad and soaked it up. At age fourteen, he was doing odd jobs and was on his way to becoming a Mr. Everything himself. As his father did, he built his own home himself, in Oakham, Mass.
And now, at 52, he has been in the home repair and enhancement business for himself most of his adult life. His business card reads:
You need it done? Gary Olsen can do it. Over the years, he has done a number of jobs at my place: new roof, new front portico, new steps to the back deck, to name just a few. It's always a beautiful job.
Aside from being a perfectionist demanding the best work from himself, Gary is something else that is all too rare these days in his business. He is honest to the core.
When the steps to the back deck he built for me did not come out quite right, no problem. Gary did them over. No extra charge.
When I offered to pay him for the many additional hours, he wouldn't accept the money. "No," he said. "It wasn't done right and that's my responsibility. "
And what physical strength and energy Gary brought to the job! He could pick up anything. He was a perpetual motion machine, literally racing back and forth to his pick-up for a tool or material. Paying this guy by the hour, which I did, was -- I hate to admit it -- a steal.
Of course, after a while, Gary had done all that needed doing on our place. With everything he did holding up wonderfully, we hadn't needed him for the past several years.
With the passage of time and humidity, however, the deck had become covered with an ugly grime. Barbara and I were embarrassed to have anybody out there. We needed to restore the deck to respectability.
It was a job for Mr. Everything the Second.
I called Gary. But I couldn't reach him with the number I had.
After repeated calls, I decided to stop over at his home one morning after tennis. Gary has lived in the same second-floor apartment for the past 14 years with his wife Wendy, daughter Stacy, 25, and son Jared, 14. Gary and Wendy also have a son, Brett, 26, living on his own.
Gary lives about a mile away from our home in a very nice neighborhood. I pulled my car up, got out, and was heading for the front door when, by pure chance, I saw this tall stick figure in the driveway slowly walking up from the back yard. Head down, face gaunt with sunken cheeks, arms pencil-thin, this was not the muscled, robust Gary I knew.
Gary quickly explained: "Colon cancer stage four. Found out a couple of months ago. The pain in my stomach was so bad, I couldn't eat. No energy. Couldn't work. I went to the doctor. They did tests and said that the cancer has spread to my lungs. I'm doing chemo. They're saying months or, if I'm lucky and they can shrink the tumors, two years."
We stood there in the driveway looking at each other.
I didn't know what to say. Finally, lamely to be sure, I just said why I had come: " I've been calling you and getting no answer, so I decided to stop by. I have a job for you. My deck needs to be done. "
"Sorry, we got rid of our land phone. I wish I could do the job, but I don't think I can. I'm too weak from the chemo. I can't eat, can't sleep, I'm tired all the time. It wouldn't be fair to you."
"I understand, Gary. I'm so sorry."
After a little small talk, I left. "Be talking to you," I said. Driving off, I caught a glimpse of Gary, head hanging, walking slowly back down his driveway.
Stage 4 colon cancer, I thought, just like that and the most advanced stage. Plus it is metastatic, meaning that it has spread to other parts of the body. In Gary's case, it has spread to his lungs, probably through blood vessels and lymph nodes, the usual modes.
His being on chemo was a sure sign that Gary's cancer was too advanced for surgery; it would be too dangerous. Stage 4 colon cancer is not considered curable but chemo can shrink the tumors and make it possible for Gary to live for many months, even five years or more.
Knowing Gary's fierce determination, I figured that he was far from done with life and work. Plus I needed my deck done. I called him at his new cell number and asked him if he could come over and look at the job and at least advise me on it.
"Sure," he said.
So Gary and his wife Wendy, whom he refers to as "my little love," came to our house. The three of us sat out on the grimy deck. One would expect the conversation to be all about cancer and the horror and unfairness of it. It was not. While we did talk of the cancer, much of the talk was of how horrible looking my deck was and how badly it needed to be done.
"I wish I could do it," Gary said.
"Tell you what," I said on the spur of the moment, "what if you do it, but at your own pace? You work an hour or two hours or three. Sit down and take a break whenever you get tired or just stop and go home. Instead of getting paid by by the hour, you get paid by the job."
"It wouldn't be fair to you getting paid by the hour."
"So what would be a fair price for the whole job?"
"I don't know. I always work by the hour." But he gave me a figure.
"Sounds fair. But, you know, Gary, the best part is that it will be like old times. And I know you'll do a beautiful job as always."
Gary gave a searching look to Wendy. The look said, "What do you think?" Besides being Gary's wife, she is also his protector. She nodded approvingly.
They left on the understanding that we would give it a try.
But when days went by and I did not hear from Gary, I decided to stop by again one morning to see how he was doing. I knocked on the door, once, twice. Getting no response and finding the door unlocked, I opened it and went upstairs.
Gary was in the living room sitting on the couch.
"George," he said. "Sorry, I didn't hear you."
"Oh sure, you don't show up and I decide to do a surprise inspection and what do I find? On a work day, you sitting on your ass on the couch!"
"Sorry, I've been so tired, sorry."
We chatted awhile and I left with Gary's promise that when he felt better, he would come.
A few days later, he did. And he came to work. But after walking up the stairs to the deck, he was out of breath and had to sit and rest. "The chemo is killing me," he said.
"Sorry, Gary," I said. "Tell you what. What if you tell me what to do and I work right with you? What if I do all the heavy lifting and running around? What if I'm your bitch?"
He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "You heard right," I said. "We could give it a shot. With me working right with you and doing all the fetching, I bet we could get this job done."
Gary let this sink in. Then -- with a little too much enthusiasm, I thought -- he started ordering me around like some new-found personal bitch -- get this, go there, do that, no not that way, this way. We put in a solid couple of hours prepping, hauling stuff, rolling on cleaning compound in preparation for power washing and staining.
But even with my help, Gary was exhausted after a couple of hours and had to leave. He rested up for a day and then showed up saying he felt better.
The two of us put in a solid 4 1/2 hours. We were on a roll. At one point, no lying, Gary stood on the deck railing and power-washed green mold from the back of the house. A guy who a few days before had trouble walking up the stairs was balancing himself on a railing while blasting away with the power washer.
Moments before, honest to God, he was working standing on the railing at right. Sorry, Wendy, he got up there so fast I couldn't stop him.
Power-washing the house wasn't even part of the job. To Gary's way of thinking, however, it had to be done. He couldn't have my friends and family sitting on a beautiful finished deck and looking up at green mold.
As work on the deck progressed, Gary also talked about wanting to put the finish on the front portico, which I had power-washed. That was also extra work not in the deal.
So was getting his bitch up to speed. In addition to all the basics (eg. rail outsides first, deck surface last) he explained finer points (eg. amount of pressure on the roller, squeezing paint from the brush, avoiding drips, etc.).
And, surprise of surprises, I got a lot of work done. In the photo at left, I am rolling stain on the railings. I did all the railings around the deck, inside and out.
And so it went. On days that Gary did not feel up to working, I was out there. When Gary had to stay away for a full six days after chemo, I power-washed, and rolled on the cleaning mixture (a combination of equal parts TSP liquid, bleach, and water), and stained on my own.
When Gary saw what I had done, he said, "You've just done the hardest, most time-consuming part. Thank you. A beautiful thing."
My work was certainly not up to his lofty standards. He could not help pointing out, gently, how I had fallen short, such as little places I had missed. Nevertheless, with what I had accomplished, the pressure was off him. The end was in sight.
Though we had to take a few days off when we ran out of stain and had to order more, we got the job done. We did it together., thumbing our noses at his cancer as we worked. It was just like old times. With each little accomplishment, he would say, "It's a beautiful thing, a beautiful thing."
Thanks to Gary Olsen, I got tuition-free instruction from a master in the finer points of deck restoration and today I have a clean, beautiful deck to enjoy for years.
What did Gary get? Well, for one, he got paid his full price. When I handed him the check, I told him that, just for the heck of it, I had kept track of his actual hours worked. "Guess what," I said, "you are getting your usual hourly rate. Is that amazing or what?"
Smiling, Gary reached for my hand. "Thank you, George."
Gary also got a chance to do what he loves to do, which is work. When I called him, he had not worked for weeks. "People are not calling me any more," he said. But I called him, paid his asking price, got my money's worth and much, much more.
Gary reminded me that nothing in life is more important than family. On Father's day, Gary and Wendy had all three kids with them. "We were all there as a family," he said. "It was a wonderful day, a beautiful thing. I feel so blessed."
As we worked together, Gary, who starts off every day with a prayer, regularly spoke of how "blessed" he feels. His main worry is not himself or the cancer, but how Wendy and the kids are going to get on when he is gone.
Their only income is what Wendy makes cleaning houses. With both hips replaced and one again acting up, she still manages a full work schedule. "My little love is hurting," Gary said, "but she still gets out there and works all she can." He wishes she didn't have to.
The Olsens are struggling to pay their rent. (Years before, in a divorce, he had lost the house he had built himself.) Though the landlord has made it clear that he wants his money, Gary has nothing but kind words about him. He says the landlord is doing everything he can to help them. From her modest pay, Stacy has begun helping with the rent.
Gary has applied for Social Security Disability, but is finding that the process takes forever. "They are telling me that I can't get payments until November,'" he said. "What are we supposed to do in the meantime?" Still, Gary says that the woman at Social Security working with him is a "very kind and caring person and is doing her best."
With his remarkable positive attitude, courage, and devotion to family while dealing with a terminal disease and serious financial stress, Gary teaches us all what is really important in this life.
Thank you, Gary, for that -- and for my beautiful new deck.
P.S. Gary, I do NOT want to catch you again sitting on your ass on that couch on a work day. Understand? Listen, I was wondering, could you pop over and advise me on painting the front portico?
So long and keep moving.
Update, Feb. 21, 2013: In an unannounced visit, Gary's wife Wendy opens the door at the bottom of the stairs and greets me with a warm smile. As we walk up the stairs to their apartment, she says, "He's having trouble breathing. He's on oxygen but he's doing good."
"I'll give him some crap."
"He'll be glad to see you," Wendy said.
Entering the living room, I said, "So, on the couch sitting on your ass on a work day. What about that paint job at my place? Huh? Huh?"
Gary got up with a big smile on his face, clasped my hand, and said, "Thank you for coming, George, I appreciate it."
We chatted and joked around for about 15 minutes. If not for his thin face and frame and the oxygen tubes, you would never guess that Gary was dying. Here was a man thinking more about his family than himself and, hard to believe, enjoying life.
His Social Security Disability benefits came through.
"I'm living every day," he said.
Update, April 13, 2013: When Gary's wife Wendy went to wake Gary up early in the morning, he was still. He had died in his sleep. "It was a peaceful death," Wendy said. She was grateful for that. "And he did not die alone," she added. "We were there for him 24-7." There is to be a wake, followed by cremation.
NOTE: Something Tells Her, my new e-book, is now available on Amazon.
Jane is abandoned as a baby and raised in multiple horrific foster homes. After her latest abuse, a sexual advance from her latest foster parent, she screams "NO!" and runs out the door Twelve years old, on the street, alone, no family, nobody, no money, how can she possibly survive? She can't -- except that Jane is no ordinary foster kid. She doesn't understand "can't." Read excerpts.