Pam and Johnny Brawley
Pam and Johnny Brawley

Archived Story

A benefit for, rather than by, the Brawleys

Published 9:19am Friday, August 28, 2009

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

For some, the moment when confronted with devastating news such as a loved one being diagnosed with cancer can be an ultimately defining moment.

And it might have felt that way, for Pam and Johnny Brawley, the very day before Johnny turned 43, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

But if the Brawleys have a message for cancer it would be that it will – in no way – define them.

The Brawley name is synonymous around Niles with giving back to the community. The family has held a longstanding tradition of fish fry dinners to benefit anyone who might be in need of a little help.

Now, years of giving to others is coming back to the family in a way they might have never expected.

The tradition was started by Johnny’s grandfather, “years ago for somebody who just needed help,” said Pam. It has continued through generations to Johnny’s parents, who he said put on anywhere between six and 12 dinners per year.

He and Pam “will just step up,” as next in line, Pam said. “It’s just a natural progression.
“I think it’s really important for us to pass on to our kids the importance of community,” Pam said. “You have to be an example.”

Their example has now manifested into an outpouring of support after Johnny was diagnosed with colon cancer in July. Since then the benefit of the spirit of giving to others has returned unto them.

Since Johnny’s diagnosis, Pam said, “I haven’t had to cook a meal.” The family now has a friend, otherwise known as their “meal coordinator,” who helps handle the endless donation of food and meals coming in from family, friends and neighbors.

An entire performance of Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in da Moonlight” by the Elkhart Civic Theatre at the Bristol Opera House on Thursday, Sep. 24 is being held exclusively to benefit the family with tickets available for a minimum of a $10 donation.

There is also a golf outing planned for October -those interested are encouraged to sign up now – which promises to be filled with several activities and plenty of golf.
And of course – the family will put on one of their own famous fish fry dinners.

“It comes back…10 fold,” Johnny said. “That was good at the beginning. Because we were so overwhelmed.”

“People still want to help,” added Pam.

Generosity is not lost on the Brawleys, to be sure, but in the same sense, neither is humility. Pam said  she, Johnny and their two sons Quinn, 13 and Jake, 12 weren’t quite sure at first how to accept the sudden outpouring of support.

And then a friend, Pam said, told she and Johnny “do not deny them the blessing of helping you.”

And so they have, and so the help continues.

And, added one of Johnny’s coworkers, “with all they (the Brawley family) have given, it’s just a small way of putting back.”

Johnny’s diagnosis and following scans have revealed that the cancer has metastasized to both the liver and some of his lymph nodes. It’s not the best news, but the good news is that his doctors are optimistic for “permanent remission”, thanks in part to his youth and the fact that he is, otherwise, very healthy.

The Brawley household now operates on two different playing fields… weeks when Johnny undergoes chemotherapy treatments and weeks when he doesn’t. Treatment leaves him exhausted. But on off weeks such as this one, Johnny is back at work, a constant stream of friends and coworkers in and out of his office. The diagnosis did not only enhance those friendships, it has opened up the door to more of them.  Johnny said he now has a new, very special group of friends who share his experience. Shared, is a unique bond, he said.

“You can’t explain it…it’s something that is inexplicable to other,” he said about being diagnosed with cancer.

The bond between Johnny and Pam, however, shines through in just their proximity to each other – high school sweethearts and best friends.

“I’ve been in love with him since I was 16 years old,” Pam said, tears welling in her eyes. Just about the entirety of each of their families, she added, reside in Niles – where she and Johnny were born and raised.

Rather than escape from the upheaval that cancer can sometimes impose on a home, Pam confronted it and has been documenting the days since Johnny’s 43rd birthday online with her blog, www.thefightingtoad.blogspot.com, a nickname for Johnny that has stuck since childhood.

It has served as a means of catharsis, she said. “That has been the number one benefit for me.”

And the support of family and friends is also not lost on either husband or wife. “It’s been the best thing ever,” Pam said, to have family around.

Against the glow of a computer screen, with the sound of keys being punched on a keyboard, Pam keeps those in she and Johnny’s life abreast of the highs and lows of their current ordeal.

“This is the day that I never expected, never wanted and never prepared for, but it is here. Johnny’s 43rd birthday. Colon cancer diagnosed yesterday. CT today. Liver metastasis. I can’t comprehend it, yet I have to.”

It’s been some time since that initial post and to read the blog is to follow along as the Brawleys battle the bad days and truly revel in the good.

As event planning builds, a new perspective is seen by Johnny, who has been raised to help out his community. “Now,” he said. “You’re on the other end.”

“We have a new normal,” Pam said. “It has come about pretty quickly.”

As Pam quotes Johnny on the blog from back in July, “Johnny just said to someone on the phone, ‘Today is a peak; I’m staying here as long as I can. I know the valleys are still coming, but I’m not in a hurry to get there.’”

Asked what they think when they look to the future and the two high school sweethearts have the same things in mind. Well sort of … Johnny sees himself off on his annual fishing trip next spring – Pam sees the family in Florida Keys for sun, relaxation and celebration.

Either way they plan on enjoying themselves.

Upcoming benefits for Brawley

It’s going to be a big one: friends are organizing a golf outing in October to benefit the Brawley family, it will be plenty busy with golf, raffles and prizes. The ‘Fighting Toad Golf Outing’ will be held Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Hampshire Country Club, 29592 Pokagon Highway, in Dowagiac. Games begin at 9:30 a.m. with a shot gun start, the cost is $50 per golfer and teams/players should sign up now. Contact Larry Larson to reserve your spot: Larry.Larson@Express-1.com.

A traditional family fish fry will also be held for Pam and Johnny on Oct. 16. For details keep watch at Pam’s blog, www.thefightingtoad.blogspot.com and in the Niles Daily Star.

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