I’d like to introduce the world to a humble man who inspires me daily, Charles “Gus” Gustafson, USAF Veteran (1980-1995), son, brother, and loyal friend. I have only known Gus a little over a year, but I feel like our connection was immediate. Thanks to Bill Bowers and his invitation to help write Nighthawk, I had the pleasure of meeting Gus at the 3rd SPG Reunion in Las Vegas in June of 2017. In less than ten minutes after meeting, we were chatting like we had known each other our entire lives.
Before our actual meeting, I thought Gus to be the strong, silent type. I even had an inkling that he was a little shy. Boy, was I wrong. He won me over with his humor, wit and ability to pull off pranks like I had not seen in a while. He was also fiercely protective of those he cared for most. I was honored to become one of those people. There I was in Las Vegas, among many people I did not know, and Gus stepped up to the plate in a very fatherly way. Let’s just say, we had each other’s back, but I think I almost broke his.
Fast forward to the reality of life. Gus was doing what he did best- juggling work, looking out for others and navigating his way through every day’s little struggles. He had noticed some changes in his body, so he headed to the doctor. He knew something was wrong, but the news he received blindsided him and threw his immediate future off course.
Gus’ diagnosis was the beginning of a story that mingles the power of faith, friendship, love, brotherhood and cancer. He went from a cross-country truck driver to a full-time, unpaid, all-consuming full-time warrior fighting Stage IV Colon Cancer. In a matter of hours of his diagnosis, he began working around the clock to educate himself to gather the necessary tools to fight like hell. Gus learned that being knowledgeable and aware of the latest research was the best power to start his fight.
He quickly learned that managing and living with cancer was no easy task…not to mention it’s expensive as hell! As someone living with cancer, the daily practices and concoctions/remedies seemed endless and were totally time consuming. Everything about life the way Gus knew it, flipped upside down. His daily routine was no longer so daily as it would now switch as his circumstances changed. He found himself altering his to-do list to meet his needs of the day.
All Guns Blazing
Those of us who know Gus, were blown away by his attitude following the diagnosis. He came out “with all guns blazing” ready to annihilate. His spirit grounded in hope and the fact that he was going to beat cancer one day at a time with everything he had.
Win The Day
He quickly adopted the motto, “Win The Day!” His family, both immediate and brothers and sisters from the Air Force, along with his friends suited up to fight this battle by his side.
The Word Cancer
Gus quickly taught us that when we hear the word cancer, it’s not associated with death; it is associated with determination, inner strength and the will to fight like hell. We watched as Gus became immersed in research to the point where he was consumed by the information. Little did we all know, this was exactly the right thing for Gus to do. He didn’t sit around and wait for answers, he walked into the oncologist for the first time knowing he was well armed with knowledge.
His mentality was, “if anyone can beat cancer, it is possible, and I will.”He was ready to kick cancer’s ass and we were ready to help him. He seemed to know that despite what any medical professional said, he would find a way to overcome the odds placed against him.
The treatments began, and we sat on the sidelines praying and reminding Gus he was loved. We worried with him, not for him. We celebrated the highs, and we prayed harder through the lows. Gus has shared his journey on Facebook, because he knows how much others care for him. He’s not shy and we get the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, we get the funny! Gus can truly turn the most horrible things into something we all laugh about.
For me, I have talked him through some of those days when he was sicker than he ever thought was possible. Guess what, he ended up making me feel better. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time for worrying, mostly because he sees it as a waste of energy that could be better used making someone smile! I know he has felt alone, but I also know he is surrounded by an ever-growing community who has his back.
I am amazed at how Gus looks at cancer and lets the disease know it will not take anything from him. He refuses to back down. His joy, his happiness, his laughter and his life belong to him and he has essentially given cancer the finger.
I truly believe Gus will conquer this disease and use his life to advocate for research, to help those who need help, and to gain a better perspective on what life truly means – loving and being loved, giving and sharing, happiness and laughter.
Through Gus’ journey I have learned that the human spirit is much more resilient than I had imagined. I have found that friends appear, unasked and undemanding, just when they are needed most. I have learned to appreciate every day, every smile, every conversation and every interaction with others. Gus showed me that the right attitude assures every day has the potential to be better than the last.
Gus continues to be excited and passionate about life. He has a long list of things he wants to see and do. He is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive and healthy and live a life of meaning and purpose.
Gus doesn’t see anything “brave” about how he is living his life. Bravery implies a choice. Someone who lays down their life to save another human being is brave. He didn’t choose to be affected by cancer and he doesn’t believe being placed on the courage pedestal helps him to continue living. Just because he has cancer, it doesn’t mean he cannot make mistakes or be selfish.
As a matter of fact, when some of us worried about the financial burden Cancer was bringing to Gus, we organized a fund raiser. I was overwhelmed by the number of donations we received. When things wrapped up, Bill called Gus to transfer the funds and Gus eloquently refused the money. He let Bill and the 3rd SPG Veterans Foundation know that he was getting by. He asked that the money be used for someone who really needed it. I still cannot find the words that will convey just how remarkable Gus is.
When I asked Gus if I could write this piece, he immediately agreed with the stipulation I remind all of you to get screened for Colon/Rectal Cancer. If you are feeling crappy, go see a doctor and find out what is wrong. Stop putting stuff off because you are busy or can’t be bothered. Life is short folks, and you only get one. Start living a life of purpose today and be as healthy and strong as humanly possible.
He also read this piece and said in his very humble way, it almost felt like this was written about someone else. I wish I could help him see just how much he has taught us all. Personally, had I been the one with his diagnosis, I am not so sure I would be able muster up near as much strength and positivity.
Be inspired by this story. Dig deep into your arsenal, gather your weapons and wake up each morning ready to “Win The Day!” Remember life is about living as well as possible, coping, acceptance, gentle positivity, setting short-term, achievable goals, and drawing on support from those closest to you.