He listened intently to each of the young kids at the Hutch School tell a little piece of their story: their names, ages, what family member is in the care of the doctors and nurses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Small details, some given nervously, others with a giggle. They didn’t have to say anything more. Country singer-songwriter Mike Brookshire already knows the bitter fight their relatives are going through.
“For those of you who have family here, keep your chin up,” he told the 16 kids participating in the Hutch School’s free summer program while their loved ones receive care. “It works.”
Back in 2000, Brookshire had all the reason in the world to doubt that his own fate would turn out okay. Stricken with mantle cell lymphoma, a non-Hodgkins variety of the cancer, Brookshire had been doing chemotherapy for two years and the future was looking bleak.
That’s when his doctors in Atlanta suggested he visit Dr. Rainer Storb at the Hutchinson Center for an experimental stem cell transplant. Brookshire spent nearly a year in Seattle getting treatment, giving up a recording contract to do so, but it was worth it. He’s been cancer free for 12 years now.
“It changed my life,” Brookshire said of his experience at Fred Hutch, as the center is known colloquially. “I’ve been there. I know how hard it is. You just have to keep fighting.”
Brookshire is back in Seattle this week to reunite with Storb and the nurses that helped him beat his cancer and to also play the bike-ride fundraiser Obliteride’s Gas Works Park celebration, a private affair for riders and “virtual riders” who have raised at least $1,060. One hundred percent of the money raised through Obliteride goes toward cancer research.
“It was a lot of emotions. Just to see his face was the most amazing thing,” Brookshire said of his Thursday morning reunion with Storb. “I’ve been wanting to do this for 12 years and I finally got the opportunity.”
Brookshire, who has played with big country acts such as Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood, is a member of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame. Despite his successes, getting cancer changed the entire arc of his career.
“It made me appreciate the songs I play, it made me appreciate the people around me, the fans,” he said. “It hasn’t really affected my songwriting that much but the overall idea of what my career is about.”
While he could have ended up signing another recording contract after getting healthy, which Brookshire said was an option, he decided to face his career on his own terms.
Instead of being “tied down to the road” Brookshire plays on the weekends, driving all across the Southeast. It allows him to be closer to his family, which includes two grandchildren he never would have met if not for the care he received at Fred Hutch.
Before he headed off to meet a group of the nurses who helped care for him for lunch, Brookshire got out his guitar and played a few tunes. He started out with “(May I) Never Ride Alone Again,” a song he wrote, and finished up with “Thank God For Kids” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison,” which had the young crowd clapping along.
Brookshire left the kids with one last piece of advice.
“You’re in the best place in the world right now,” he said. “So keep a big smile on your face. Everything’s going to be okay.”
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails