Jon is standing inside what should be the saddest place in Omaha.
He started standing here just after dawn. He will stand here until dusk.
He is standing here by choice. He is standing here even though the odds say he shouldn't be standing at all. He is standing here, inside this grim piece of real estate, and he is doing something audacious.
Jon is smiling.
“Hello!” he bellows at an elderly couple who walk into the front door of Methodist Hospital's Estabrook Cancer Center. “Do you two know each other?”
The couple smile back. We have been married 60 years, the wife says.
“Darnit,” Jon says. “I was going to introduce you two.”
“Hello!” Jon bellows at a middle-aged man who gets off the elevator. If the man looks frail, it's likely because he just finished sitting on a tan recliner in Suite 250, where they covered him with a blanket and hooked him up to an IV drip and pumped a potent cocktail of toxic drugs into his veins. He won't be able to walk tomorrow. He won't want to eat. His hair has fallen out in clumps.
Jon doesn't appear to notice. “I like that hat!” he yells.
“Hello!” Jon says to a man he doesn't yet recognize. “Do you know where you are going, sir?”
“Yep,” the man says quietly. “Second floor.”
Jon knows what this means.
He understands because on Thursday nights, after Jon gets off work as a Methodist Hospital greeter, he goes to the second floor. He sits in a tan recliner in Suite 250 and hooks up to an IV and stares up at the ceiling. He understands because he has picked the songs that will be played at his funeral. Because after years of diagnoses and remissions and tumors the size of Titleists, he compares his life to a slot machine.
You might pull it and hit a jackpot or two, Jon says, but pull it long enough and it will empty your wallet.
He knows because he hears it in the man's voice.
“Have you been here before?” he asks.
“Nope,” the man says.
“OK,” says Jon McAlpin, retired firefighter, beloved hospital employee and terminal cancer patient. “I will take you up.”
They climb onto the elevator. Jon pushes the button for 2. He puts his hand on the man's shoulder. He's still smiling as the doors close.
* * *
On the night in April 2011 when they gave him the news, Jon lay in the hospital bed and planned it out, step by step.
When he was strong enough, he'd drive alone to a decent hotel. He would rent a room, and once inside it he would unzip his bag and take out the sawed-off 12-gauge.
He would stand and point the shotgun at his chest and pull the trigger.
He would shoot himself in the heart, so they could have an open casket.
Jon lay awake and he planned, and night turned to morning, and at 7 a.m the oddest of angels walked into his room.
He wore a white coat and looked like a cross between Wilfred Brimley and Groucho Marx, except wise, like Yoda. When he talked, he drew out the last syllable of every word, as if it were the most important word he had ever spoken.
“Mr. McAlpin, tell me about your cancer,” the odd angel said, elongating each word.
“Well, I know it's terminal,” Jon said.
“Who told you it's terminal?” the angel asked.
“Well, I was a firefighter, and I know if it gets into the lymph nodes ...”
The odd angel shook his head.
“I will make a deal with you,” he said. “If you keep a positive attitude, and it's vital you do, I will give you your life back.”
Jon looked up at Dr. David Silverberg. He thought about the hotel room and the sawed-off shotgun.
He nodded his head.
“That was the moment where everything turned exactly 180 degrees,” Jon says.
For his first 55 years, Jon didn't endure a health problem much worse than a bad cold. He had spent 21 years as an Omaha firefighter, the last seven as an instructor at the fire training center.
When every new crop of firefighting students walked into his classroom, John would tell them he hadn't yet had time to eat dinner. Then he would dump out a can of SpaghettiOs on a blue plate, then top the SpaghettiOs with Fritos, whipped cream and a cherry on top. He would begin to eat.
When a brave recruit got up the nerve to ask Capt. McAlpin what he was doing, he would smile and say, “At the Green Teepee Cafe in Moscow's Red Square, they will serve you the Blue Plate special, but only if you are from Texas, the Lone Star State.”
Understandably, this did not clear up the confusion. Not until Jon launched into a lesson about the four kinds of fire.
Green triangle — paper and wood combustibles.
Red square — flammable liquids.
Blue circle — electrical fires.
Yellow star — combustible metals.
He would point to his plate of food. He would repeat his line about Blue Plate specials and the Lone Star State.
Know these four types of fire, Jon would say. Never forget them.
In his seven years of teaching Omaha firefighters, not a single student missed this question on their next quiz, Jon says. And he didn't lose a single student to academic failure.
He retired in 2007, ready to putter around his house near 132nd and Fort Streets and spend more time with his wife, Jackie.
But then an annual checkup led to a prostate cancer diagnosis. He had his prostate removed. The cancer went away.
And then he got dizzy while shoveling snow, and the doctors found a golf-ball-sized tumor in his intestine, and he had another surgery.
A post-operative scan found cancer in his lymph nodes. That's when the oddest angel, Dr. Silverberg, entered his hospital room and they struck a deal: a positive attitude in exchange for Jon's life.
It wasn't easy, not on the first Tuesday morning they hooked up Jon to an IV in Suite 250, the Methodist chemo ward.
On Wednesday he sat in his recliner at home, too drained to read a book, too scattered to watch a movie. Same for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He would start to feel like himself by Tuesday — and know that he'd be going back to Methodist in another week, to do it all over again. Every two weeks for six months.
The cancer went away again. Six months passed. Another golf-ball-sized tumor appeared. This one lived near major blood vessels that feed into his intestines. Dr. Silverberg broke the bad news: There's no way to remove this one.
Jon bought his tombstone. He started giving away things in his house. He picked the photos to be shown at his funeral, the Bible verses he wanted read, the songs he wanted the mourners to hear.
And then the phone rang. It was the odd angel calling.
Dr. Silverberg had been studying the biopsy, talking to colleagues, scheming ways to attack the exceedingly rare type of cancer in the small intestine.
I have a hunch, he told Jon. Be at Methodist for chemo on Wednesday morning.
Jon started another six months of chemo, this time taking a cocktail of drugs roughly similar to patients suffering from colorectal cancer.
He sat in the tan recliner in Suite 250, and he went home and he fought to get out of bed the next morning. He developed a weird craving for bread pudding. He kept going.
At the end of the six months, they did another CAT scan. The golf-ball-sized tumor had shrunk.
It had shrunk to the size of a pea.
Maintenance chemo, 90 minutes once a week, could keep it that size for months. Maybe for years.
As Jon left Methodist one day he passed Dr. Silverberg in the hall.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he said to the man in the white coat.
“You are welcome,” the oddest angel replied, stretching out every last word.
Jon walked out of that hospital, and he was confronted with a new and wondrous problem.
* * *
“Hi, Jon, how you doing?”
It's noon, and Jon has been at work — standing and greeting the cancer patients that walk in and out of Methodist's cancer center — for nearly five hours.
Estella is a familiar face, and so she and Jon fall into an easy conversation as she waits for a hospital valet to fetch her car.
They talk about the weather. They talk about how neighbors' leaves always fall on your lawn. They talk about whether her husband, Willie, has climbed onto the roof and cleaned out the gutters. It is a normal conversation between normal people.
After she leaves, Jon leans over to me and says, “Radiation. She's here every single day.”
Jon figured out what to do when he left the hospital with a cancer that's in remission for the time being.
The answer was simple: He'd go back to the hospital.
Last spring, one of the two longtime greeters at Methodist's cancer ward retired.
Many people applied for her job. Jon scored an interview, put on a suit and tie, and got it.
On his first day, Jon stood in the lobby of the cancer center and quickly realized he could do more than hold open the door for women or fetch wheelchairs for the elderly.
He felt like an instructor again. He felt like someone who could take the previous couple years of his life, bottle it and pass it out.
He felt important. He felt alive.
“I think we probably all wonder what our reaction would be to the news that we are dying,” he says. “Would we be stoic? Would we fall apart?
“For me, my reaction was, 'I haven't done enough for people.' So that's what I am trying to do.”
Dr. Silverberg has no good way to calculate how much any of this matters, and in fact studies on cancer patients with positive attitudes land all over the map.
One study of lung cancer patients shows that a positive outlook leads to longer life expectancy. Other studies say that a overreliance on optimism actually harms cancer patients, because they don't prepare either medically or psychologically for the fight to come. And still other studies find that optimism doesn't affect a cancer patient either way.
So Silverberg can't tell you if Jon's chances of survival jumped from 1 percent to 3 percent when he decided to fight.
And he can't tell you how much he can transfer that spirit to the patients who now walk by Jon twice daily.
He can't calculate how much this matters. But he knows it does.
“He gives them hope,” the oddest angel says.
So this is what Jon McAlpin will do until he can't any longer, until he pulls the slot machine arm one time too many and the casino cleans him out.
He will be standing here, the first face you see when you enter for cancer treatment. He will be here, the last face you see when you leave.
He will wave and he will smile as you walk out the sliding-glass doors and back into the world.
Have a nice day, Jon McAlpin will bellow. See you soon!