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The Kansas City Star Sam Mellinger column

By Sam Mellinger, The Kansas City Star
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 31--The thing about life-defining moments is that we never know when they're coming. Never know exactly how we'll react. Are you ready for yours? Are any of us ready for ours? None of us knows. None of us can know until the moment comes. Tim Grimes didn't know.

To be honest, he never thought much about it. Why would he? He's 28 years old. Laughs a lot. Loves his Royals. Enjoys his sales job during the week, loves his friends on the weekends. Never had much of a reason to worry, not even when he made that appointment to get checked out a few weeks ago.

The doctor said it was just a mole. They took it out. Then the test results came back. That changed everything. Melanoma. The doctors didn't know much, but what they knew was bad.

"Is this going to kill me?" Tim asked his surgeon.

"Probably," she answered.

A few days later and the news was even worse. What the surgeon thought was a normal, fatty bump on Tim's shoulder turned out to be a black ball of cancer. That wasn't all. It was spreading. The disease was in his lungs. His liver. His spine. Stage IV, they call it. The doctors gave him six months to live. Twelve with chemo, and a 5 percent chance of surviving the next 18 months.

That was only Monday. Less than a week ago. Tim told some friends, and almost immediately, Research Medical Center was invaded. This is when the worst moment of Tim's life sparked what he says have been some of the best.

He saw old friends, some of whom he hadn't heard from since high school. He saw new friends, some of whom he'd known only a short time. Watched the Royals game in his hospital room that night, grateful for what he now calls his daily three hours of normalcy. By the next morning, his boss at the construction company set up a fund-raising account. Friends started a social media rally.

That's about when Tim got on his Facebook page.

"So despite receiving a death sentence yesterday, the past 24 hours have actually been pretty great," he wrote.

How would you react to the worst news imaginable? How would any of us? Are you ready? There is no way to know, of course, but we'd all be lucky to face it with a support system like Tim's.

The social media thing took off. Tim's been on the radio. On television. There's an enormous gap between what this fight will cost and what his insurance will cover. An increasing portion of that gap is being filled with love from both friends and strangers. He jokes that he's become the Joe Dirt of cancer.

"I didn't think I had a story," he says. "I thought I just had bad luck."

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Some of his buddies went to the Royals game the other night. They waved a sign: "TIM DRIVES THE BUS AGAINST CANCER." People noticed. If you know Tim, you probably figured this would involve his friends and the Royals somehow. His buddies are trying to tie their fund-raising with the Royals, asking for people to donate $10 every time Tim's favorite team wins.

Watching the Royals is starting to take a very different meaning for Tim. This is more than a team for him now. He was born in 1986, the year after the Royals won the World Series and last made the playoffs. His family moved here when he was 10, and he hooked on to the Royals almost immediately.

That meant joining in during the rudderless Board of Directors years. His first glimmer of hope came with the Beltran-Damon-Sweeney teams. His only winning season before last year was in 2003. As he says, he won't turn his back on his hometown team just because they stink. He'll cheer just a little bit more.

He's felt rewarded these last few years. Alex Gordon is his favorite player. He'll defend Billy Butler against criticism like a member of the family. One of his best memories watching sports was being on the party deck at Kauffman Stadium last year when Justin Maxwell hit the walk-off grand slam. This team means something very different to Tim now.

The other day, after hearing the doctor say "5 percent," one of his friends said that was probably around the chances people gave the Royals of winning the division this year.

"I joke about it, but it's a reality," he says. "I was going to the doctor, and we're talking about the playoffs. I was like, 'I hope I don't die before they make it. I may not have another 30 years.' Now's the time. I have to enjoy it while I can."

He'll be at the game on Sunday. Monday, too. A friend set up him up with some Crown Seats on Tuesday, when the Royals invited him to watch batting practice from the field. He also has tickets for Wednesday before the Royals go on what looks like a critical road trip through New York and Detroit.

There is no way to make sense of the importance sports give us in times like this. You probably have to be a fan to understand it. Why should it matter what a baseball team does at a time like this? You probably have to love sports to know not only why it occurred to Tim's friends to tie their fund-raising to the Royals' success, but why it's a great idea. In the first five days, they raised more than $20,000.

You probably have to love sports to understand how something as simple to look forward to as a baseball game every night can dull the sting of hearing doctors tell you that you are dying. Tim calls Royals games "my happy place." Danny Duffy is pitching on Sunday night. That sounds like a happy place to Tim.

The Royals' winning ways have given Tim and his friends a rallying point. They'd find something else without baseball, certainly, but it probably wouldn't be as fun.

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Dude, one of them texted the other day, I know this is serious but this is the most fun I've had in a while.

Tim smiled. Me too, he wrote back.

That sounds strange, doesn't it? Cancer is not fun, and that's not what Tim or his friends mean. It's just that, to Tim, everything that's happened since his diagnosis has been so unexpected, so overwhelming, so full of love and support. Friends he hasn't seen in a while are asking when they can bring by dinner. Others want to know if he needs a ride to the hospital when he starts chemo in a few weeks.

"Honestly, it's hard to be upset," he says. "It's pretty nice. People keep asking me how I'm doing, and I can't say anything other than good. I've just been getting so much support. So many people making me happy. It's hard to complain."

People sometimes ask if he's scared. If he wonders why this happened to him. Tim likes to drink, and he sometimes smokes cigars. At first, he thought that's why cancer went to his liver and lungs. But the doctors told him this has been in the works for a long time. He didn't do anything wrong. Cancer is just evil, and too often unexplainable.

So Tim has his way of thinking about it. Why him? That's the wrong question. Why not him? He's no more or less deserving of this than anyone else, and maybe he's been chosen because he's strong enough to pull through it. Because people are behind him. Because people are coming together, having fun, making new friendships. If that's what happens when he gets sick, then bring it on.

"Maybe if this would've happened to someone else, they wouldn't be able to deal with it," he says. "So I'm happy to be sick so they don't have to be. If my days are numbered, there's no reason to be angry. I'd rather go out with a smile and make the best of it."

Tim isn't stupid. He knows what's coming. Knows that, in his words, the easy part is over and the hard part is coming. He has all his energy. Hasn't even felt sick yet. The easy part is learning about this awful disease. The easy part is hearing the odds and the timeline and being completely sure he's going to beat both.

The hard part is the treatment. The hard part is the recovery. The hard part will be carrying and protecting this attitude through the road he has ahead. Of course he knows all of that.

He also knows this is the best way for him to deal with it. His life-defining moment is here. Turns out, he is as ready as possible.

"I haven't had the chance to be upset because everybody is making sure I wasn't going to be," he says. "I hope I don't let anyone down. If people are going out of their way for me, then I'm going to be positive.

"I've had a good life. If it does end soon, I can't complain because I've had a lot of fun. But I know I'm not ready yet. There's still a lot of trouble I want to cause."

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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