Distinguishing the difference between friend and acquaintance has often been my downfall.
The word ‘friend’ is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as: a person whom one knows well and is fond of; an ally, supporter or sympathizer.
Relationships built through everyday life bring with it a variety of titles. Other than the aforementioned titles, we often refer to a person as a co-worker, neighbor, fellow volunteer or business associate. Most recently I have come to realize that as these types of relationships end and our lives move in different directions the relationship of friend or acquaintance quickly becomes apparent.
By Webster’s standard and definition I do not know Oakdale High School graduate and local businessman Jason Turnage ‘well,’ however I do consider him to be my ‘friend.’ I do not know his favorite color, meal, music group, or vacation spot. I do know he is a devoted husband, father, son, brother and friend. As the co-owner of Apparel Graphics, Inc. he is the guy many in the community have turned to for years to have their shirts printed. From Jog-a-thons, to spirit wear, Mustang apparel and small jobs of half a dozen shirts, his company is the one that has ‘made it work’ for so many.
I also know that at a time when I relocated to a small town filled with many unfamiliar faces, he quickly became the smile that would greet me in the wee hours of the morning on his way to work or in the evening as he pulled out his trash can for pick up the following morning. Jason Turnage and his family entered my life as my ‘neighbor.’
In late summer of 2001 coming from an environment of only knowing a neighbor through a wave and occasional hand shake, the Turnage family: Jason, Rachel, Taylor, Ethan and Eli quickly taught me how invaluable a relationship with one’s neighbor can become. Our neighborhood hosted an open door policy, which brought with it a familiarity hard to put into words. As a somewhat guarded person, their family along with a few others, taught me not only to trust — but to lighten up and live.
Now, eight years later almost to the day of first meeting this family, I am challenged with telling their story. It is the first time in my professional career when I am unable to disconnect myself from the subject matter and just tell the story. Perhaps it is because this story — their story — could be anyone’s and that is something that troubles me.
For the most part the everyday life of the Turnage family is like most. Jason has spent over a decade working hard establishing his business with business partner Paul Riva. Rachel balances their home life tending to their three children and managing her dance studio, Pointe of Dance, which she opened in 2002. Like most of us, they are a family that works hard and plays hard, spending much of their off time traveling with their children and enjoying outdoor activities.
However, the past year has been anything but ‘normal’ for this family. In June of 2008, Jason was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. At the age of 35 and with no family history of cancer, Jason became the first. To say the diagnosis was shocking would be a gross understatement.
I still remember receiving the phone call from one of our past neighbors and mutual friends telling me the news. E-mails from community members quickly followed and Pray for Jay Day, a community fundraiser, was put into place.
When we were neighbors, I would often find Rachel watching the Food Network as she prepared dinner for their family. You know the scene, mom in the kitchen, the kids out playing and dad driving home from work. More times than not the meal would consist of lean meats or fish and organically grown vegetables. Their dinner table looked as I often wished mine could. She was dedicated to consistently providing a healthy menu for her family.
On weekends the couple would load up their truck with bikes and gear and travel to bike races. Jason grew up racing BMX bikes and was passing his passion on to his sons Ethan and Eli. Biking was his outlet, his release, a good way to just have fun and put his worries behind him.
Now, one year following his initial diagnosis, as the couple speaks of their present life and the turn it has taken in the last three months, they share honest feelings. Feelings of frustration and helplessness, as well as heartfelt gratitude.
“It’s not a matter of making bad choices,” Jason said of his cancer. “It’s a matter of this has happened and we can’t control it.”
Earlier this year ‘controlling it’ was something the couple felt they had a handle on. As an athlete and overall healthy guy, Jason chose to attack his early diagnosis with a better health and nutrition approach. He and his wife spent much time researching healthy alternatives to fighting the disease. Through months of testing and monitoring it was a method that seemed to be working.
Multiple CT scans indicated that his intestine resection surgery to combat the colon cancer had been effective. But while his scans were clear his blood work indicated something was askew.
“Finally they did a PET scan,” Jason said. “And it showed there were tumors in the liver.”
In June of this year, after undergoing aggressive chemotherapy to reduce the tumors, coupled with an alternative treatment plan, a liver resection was performed at UCSF.
“It was a removal of 70 percent of my liver, which had the three tumors,” he said. “Which puts me at Stage 4. They basically took the whole right lobe out.”
Despite his 32 -pound weight loss over the last two months and the drain that is temporarily affixed to the right side of his body, the couple remains optimistic.
“When everyone surrounds you with so much love and support, what do you do?” Jason asked.
Among the most recent acts of kindness experienced from their loved ones is a benefit concert being hosted on Saturday, Aug. 22 at the Reata, an event that was organized and put together in less than a month and spearheaded by local Realtor Rhonda Waddell.
“They were a second family to me growing up,” Rachel said of the Waddell’s and their relationship.
“The initial bands (The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit and Built Like Alaska) are all my peers and friends,” Jason said of the line-up, which has grown to include three additional bands. “I could listen to them play all night.”
The two shared their excitement for the benefit and the opportunity to get out and be surrounded by their friends and loved ones in a party atmosphere. The mission of the event, however, is something Jason is still adjusting to.
“It makes me kind of feel queasy in the stomach,” he admitted of the benefit being held on his behalf. “I’m really not comfortable with that.”
As he takes a moment to recover from the visible signs of emotion, he admits, “But I know for our family and my recovery it is necessary. It’s just not easy to accept.”
“It’s humbling,” Rachel added. “It’s amazing that people care so much and they want to do something for you. Those are the things in some ways that keep us going, because you know there’s been some dark times.”
As the couple learns to accept help from others, they are also adjusting to the physical changes and setbacks Jason has experienced post surgery.
The purpose of the drain he wears is to maintain and control the excessive internal fluid his body is producing. Post surgery and tube insertion, he shared that his appetite is non-existent and his stamina minimal.
“I go to work for a couple of hours to help my partner run the business and I am exhausted in like two hours,” he said. “Three months ago I was racing bikes across the country and now I am exhausted from sitting at my desk. It just sucks.”
Even in those ‘dark times,’ Jason isn’t one to dwell solely on the negative.
“Things could be much worse,” he added. “A lot of people are going through much tougher times and I feel fortunate and positive that things will get better.”
“Just remembering that there is a far greater plan,” Rachel said of coping with the day in and day out of life today. “We’ve been through tough times before and with God’s grace we’ll get through this too.
“You really learn one day at a time,” she added.
“I feel like I am indebted to the community,” Jason said of the overwhelming kindness and love given to him and his family. “I can’t wait to get healthy and be able to do something big for this community. I just can’t wait to give back.”
So … with a little bit of music, a lot of faith and one great party — the story of the Turnage family will continue.
As a reporter, I am grateful to this family for sharing their story in such an honest way. As a friend, I am proud of this family for the way they have approached the adversity they have had to endure.
Are they the only ones faced with such challenges? Absolutely not. Their story or a version of it can apply to so many whose paths I have yet to cross. The message here really is for each of us to remember we are not alone.
Regardless of the circle you run in or the hand you are dealt, we just need to remember to love one another and value each day — each moment as it comes.
In the words of a great friend, I end with this thought, “Things don’t always go your way, that’s just a fact. The trick is to do your best through it … Not everything is as important as we think it is.” — Jason Turnage
For further information on the Jason Turnage Benefit Concert call Rhonda Waddell at (209) 541-6858.