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02.22.10

"The Gift of Cancer"

Mark McKinnon was living a charmed life—until his wife Annie discovered she had an aggressive cancer. The Daily Beast contributor reflects on what her valiant battle with the disease taught him about how to live.

I was contacted recently by some dynamic women representing TEDxAustin about the possibility of being a speaker at the annual conference set up to share cutting-edge ideas from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design. I assumed at first they wanted to hear my usual bit about politics and media. But after my presentation to the TEDsters, we repaired to my office, where they asked about a jar of beads on my desk. And after I explained, they said, "That's what we want you to talk about." And so Friday at the inaugural Austin TEDx event, I did. Here’s what I said.

Not long ago, I got hit with a really big lucky stick.

When told she was in a 15 percent survival category, Annie just stuck her chin up and said, “Well, I sure feel sorry for those other 85 percent.”

I’ve been crazy lucky most of my life.

I was born lucky into a pretty normal family. Of course, normal in the '50s and '60s meant alcoholism, prescription drug addiction, and divorce. But I was loved and encouraged.

I was lucky to be healthy as my sister has suffered years of crippling pain and 30-plus operations to fuse her arthritic joints and my brother was paralyzed in a high-school gymnastics accident.

I was lucky the folk singer Judy Collins babysat for me and instilled in me an early passion for music.

I was lucky when in high school that passion got recognized by Kris Kristofferson, who tried to get me a record deal, which never panned out. Not surprising if you heard the tapes (which you never will because I’ve burned ‘em).

Undeterred and convinced I would be the next Bob Dylan, I dropped out of high school, and hitchhiked to Nashville, where Kristofferson put me up and put up with me for several years.

I was lucky to get invited to the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1975 and moved to Austin shortly thereafter, and kicked around the Southwest playing music for a few years.

I was lucky when I recognized the limits of my musical abilities. Plotting the trajectory of my rate of musical progress, I figured I was going to end up at 50 years old as the front act at the Pfluggerville Holiday Inn.

So, I switched gears. Got some higher education at the University of Texas. Married my passion for writing to journalism and politics.

I was lucky that I got hired to work for Lloyd Doggett’s U.S. Senate campaign. Despite getting crushed, I discovered in politics it’s easy to fail upward. I went to work for Governor Mark White, then helped elect a Louisiana governor. Then I went to work in New York for David Sawyer, one of the godfathers of the political media business, and got to work all over the U.S. and in foreign countries doing campaigns around the world.

Then I came back to Austin and was lucky to get an invitation to help get a firm called Public Strategies off the ground.

Over the next 20 years I was lucky enough to work for amazing companies, causes and characters—including Ann Richards, “Good Time” Charlie Wilson, George Bush, John McCain, Bono, and Lance Armstrong.

But one day my luck ran short. I learned my wife Annie had a deadly form of cancer which she was unlikely to survive.

Now, you have to know this about Annie. She’s perfect. No kidding. Just hands down the most thoughtful, caring, wonderful woman on the planet. If you’re lucky enough to get to know her, you’ll agree.

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Courtesy of Mark McKinnon

I fell in love with her at first sight. She was walking down the stairs of East High School in a pair of horizontally striped bell bottoms.

I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet. So, she had to drive on our dates.

And I knew instantly that I wanted to marry her. And 10 years later I did.

Over the years we had our ups and downs, like all marriages. I was often neglectful and ignored our relationship. In short, I took it for granted.

But, now suddenly, it was going to be taken from me. And all the lucky things I’d gotten to do and interesting people I’d met in my life were meaningless. Instantly, I was filled with regret for all the days I’d wasted not loving Annie more and better. And I could see the pain and fear in our young daughters’ eyes as they were thinking not just of losing their mother but also thinking, “Who’s going to do, like, everything?!”

But Annie had massive attitude. Damned if she was going to let those girls be raised alone by me and not see her grandchildren. When told she was in a 15 percent survival category, Annie just stuck her chin up and said, “Well, I sure feel sorry for those other 85 percent.” And despite radical radiation, aggressive chemo, and surgery to take out basically all non-essential organs, Annie beat the terrible odds. She turned out to be Lance Armstrong in a skirt.

And, suddenly, my lucky streak was alive again.

And Annie and I fell in love all over again. We refer to the gift of cancer, because despite the hell she went through, it delivered us heaven on earth. It gave us gratitude for every blessed second we have together.

Roger Ailes is a famous character who elected presidents and is the architect of Fox News. He was stranded one day in La Guardia Airport. Having recently fathered a child at a very advanced age, he was bemoaning the fact he was at La Guardia and not with his child. And he conjectured about how many days he might live if he were lucky. And he said, “I want to spend as many of those days with my kid and not in La Guardia.”

And the story got me to thinking. How many days might I be around if I’m lucky? How many days to spend with Annie? Because given her genetics and ability to kick cancer in the shins, she is now surely going to outlive me. So, I looked at my family history, my general health and determined that if I’m lucky, I may have another 10,136 days to hang around. And I determined that I didn’t want to waste a single one of those days; I wanted to be sure and remember to be thankful for every extra day with Annie.

So, I went out and bought 10,136 beads and put them in a jar. And every day I look at the jar and think, “That’s all you got pal. Make ‘em count.” And every day, I withdraw a single bead and put it in another jar that right now is not very full.

And someday if I’m lucky the empty jar will be full and I’ll start putting beads back in the original jar. Those will be my “extra” days.

But every day when I take out a bead, I stop for a moment, close my eyes, and say a prayer of thanks.

Thanks for my health. Thanks for my friends. For my two incredible daughters. Thanks for a lucky, lucky life. And thanks most of all for Annie.

Because when I look at this jar, and I look at this amazing woman, I know that I am so damn lucky to have been blessed with another day and another chance to prove my love to her and let her know that she is the best thing that ever happened to me...

And that I am not a TOTAL dick.

And if I’m lucky, some day Annie’s going to be driving me around on a date again because I’ll be so old and infirm that my driver’s license will have been taken away.

From before I could drive until I can’t drive anymore: One hell of a ride with my pal Annie.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.