By Amanda Dyslin
The Free Press
When Matthew Weber opened the cover of the book written for him and his brothers, he couldn't help but let a few tears go reading his father's words.
"I hate writing this letter, but I would hate not writing it even more," wrote Lt. Col. Mark Weber in the opening letter of "Tell My Sons." "Nothing can replace the long talks I hoped to have while fishing or driving to some far-off adventure with you, just as I got to do with my dad.
"But, thankfully, I've been blessed with enough time to pass along the most compelling experiences of my life. As sad as the reasons are for writing any of this, let's see if we can squeeze some joy out of it before I have to leave."
Weber of Rosemount, on medical leave from the National Guard, wrote what he described as a "modest, self-published effort" filled with life experiences he wanted to share with his three boys before he died.
Matthew, 16, sees it as even more than that. It's a way to still get his dad's advice, even after he dies, he said.
"I will probably come back to it a lot," said Matthew, Weber's and wife Kristin Coughlin's oldest son.
The Webers have been surprised the rest of the world has embraced the book in the same way, finding his story to be compelling and heartbreaking.
Weber is dying of intestinal cancer. In 2010, following a massive surgery that failed to stop the cancer, doctors gave him four months to live.
"Since then? Well, they have no idea," said Weber, 41. "Anyone else in my condition and with my surgical complications just doesnÕt survive this long, let alone do what I've done."
What he's done is the second part of the story that has touched so many people. Facing death at any time, feeling sick many days, Weber has taken his story public so he can share an "embrace life now" kind of message with as many people as possible.
His next stop is his alma mater, Minnesota State University, on Jan. 30 for his "Last Lecture."
From one battlefield to another
There's a dark sense of irony that Weber is dying so young. He's been to war and came back unscathed. Now this.
A St. Paul native, Weber enlisted in the Army and joined the ROTC in 1989. After graduating from MSU with honors in 1994, he went on to an Army career that included multiple deployments, one of which was in Iraq working on the personal staff of Gen. David Petraeus in 2005-06. He served for 16 years before transitioning to the Minnesota National Guard in 2009 to be near his father-in-law, who had cancer.
Petraeus chose Weber in 2010 to serve as an adviser to the Afghanistan interior minister. Two weeks later he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and had to decline.
Weber had been misdiagnosed with an ulcer for several years and then misdiagnosed again with pancreatic cancer, finally learning it was intestinal cancer on Thanksgiving 2010.
"I thought, "This is what happens to other people." And I immediately felt a crushing sadness for my wife, who had already endured 16 years in the active Army -- four years short of my retirement -- and would have three young boys to care for without me."
Matthew was 14 at the time.
"It was really unexpected for me, so intense and confusing at the time," Matthew said. "Sitting on the couch and just looking at him and the way he said that he had cancer, and you don't know how long he's going to live -- I was shocked. Too shocked to do anything."
Weber had a risky surgery that included removing part of his intestine, pancreas, his gallbladder and 60 percent of his liver. After surgery, the cancer rapidly spread in what was left of his liver, he said, going from five tumors to 17. He's been on non-stop chemotherapy ever since.
With the realization of his fate sinking in, Weber knew he had to start making plans for after he was gone. A big part of that involved his wife and his sons, Matthew and 12-year-old twins Joshua and Noah, who wouldn't have a dad to ask life's little and big questions to.
His book gave him that opportunity. He had kept journals over the years, and those entries became the basis of the book.
It begins, "Dear Matthew, Joshua and Noah, I wrote a book for you. I started writing it long before any of you were born, and even before I met your mom, but it was always written for you."
Weber goes on to say he had hoped to share the stories from his journals with his boys and grandchildren in person, but his body was giving out sooner than it should.
'I may look invincible in my Army uniform or while cutting down trees with a feeding machine strapped over my shoulder, but to suggest that I'm not dying is just dishonest. ... Along the way, I hope you'll consult these pages as often and as casually as you would if I were still here and you could pick up the phone. I hope you'll ask this book different questions at different times in your lives. And I hope you'll find answers or perspective to match."
The message is one of "empowerment, encouragement and inspiration -- to focus on what you have and what you can do with life when it doesn't go the way we want it to." And it's reached more people than Weber imagined it would.
Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams was so inspired by Weber's story, he wrote the foreward. And the book -- a Minnesota Book Award nominee -- has been given rave reviews by Mitch Albom, best-selling author of "Tuesdays with Morrie," former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others.
Leaving life behind
Josh and Noah are too young. They haven't read the book yet, which is fine with Weber. They will consult it when they are ready.
Matthew said that the twins being 12 years old makes it hard to know where their heads are at with everything, but he thinks they're strong and can handle what comes. That goes for him, too.
"It was really hard at first. Now I've come to terms with it, and I can understand the bigger picture in the world. People die all the time," he said. "It does make me sad, and I think about it every once in a while. But I don't dwell on the fact that he's going to die. It's just, "Have this time and enjoy it while we have it.'"
Weber feels the same way. He does have concerns about the boys being able to comprehend losing their father, but he has even more faith that they will be OK.
"I think kids are far more resilient than adults. They don't have any baggage, which means they are capable of more readily adapting to the attitudes of Kris and I on this experience, and they clearly do," he said.
At first, Weber had no desire to go public with all of this.
"But over time I was convinced to take a longer view -- that we are all thirsty for life examples that reflect unyielding hope, fierce determination and inspiration. And there aren't enough of us willing to share that if we experience it," he said. "I wondered what people would get from my story, but having sold 4,000 copies of the book in just one month and hearing the feedback that I have, I no longer hope for what people will learn from it all. I can see and hear what they're learning from it."
At MSU, Weber will share stories from his life and career, which include honors such as the Legion of Merit; Bronze Star; Combat Action Badge; The Mission Continues Annual Compass Award in 2012; 2009 National Officer Recruiting Chief of the Year; 2002 U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award; and 1994 U.S. Army General George C. Marshall Leadership Award, among others.
He'll talk about the book and its message: Life isn't fair; it's tragic in too many ways. But it's about how you choose to deal with it that counts.
"When it comes to the adversity of life, too many people say "can't" when what they really mean is "don't want to,'" he said.
And he'll talk about which of his life's many achievements mean the most to him. When asked, he's quick and direct with his reply.
"Four of them -- Kris, Matthew, Joshua and Noah," he said. "I know that may sound corny, but I mean it. Nothing has brought me a fuller and more sustainable vigor of the human experience -- the pleasure and the pain and adversity of it -- than the honor of being husband to this woman and father to these three boys."
Time running out
Weber is candid about how he's feeling these days.
"Underneath my clothing and inside my body I am an absolute train wreck. I have a permanent, visible hole in my abdomen that I call the "bullet hole" because that's what it looks like. I leak the contents of my stomach 24/7. A permanent catheter connects the remaining 20 percent of my liver to my body and dangles from my side to drain excess fluids Ñ 24/7."
He's in the middle of his fourth trial of chemo, but the inoperable cancer in his liver is growing. One of his tumors is the size of a grapefruit.
Weber didn't mince words when emailing MSU about the possibility of him delivering a "last lecture" at the university, urging them to be quick in their response about scheduling the talk.
"Time does not afford me the ability to be timid on bold suggestions," he wrote. "I'm operating on about 20 percent of my liver, and the cancer is slowly consuming what's left. My eyes and skin are already yellow and the toxin levels in my blood are eight times normal. There's actually a lot more I'm dealing with, but I imagine you get the point."
However, Weber said, if you passed by him on a good day, you'd be hard-pressed to know he's sick. Around the house, he's still pulling dad and husband duties, even cutting down and clearing trees.
"Some people jokingly say I'm faking my own death because there's no way a guy with cancer and such complications should be able to do what I do."
Weber plans his life about a month in advance with regard to his physical health, but when he contracts sepsis, the timeline changes to days or even hours, he said. On bad days, he experiences "really low lows" and is in constant pain and discomfort, but it's less noticeable when he's active.
"I guess part of me believes that if I keep moving, the "enemy" can't pin me down," he said. "Seems to be working."
Mentally, Weber seems at peace.
"I'm not afraid or upset. My faith tells me what's next, and how can I be upset when I've been able to do what I have for the past two years?" he said. "I think most of the fear and anger in life comes from mulling over options that don't exist. I accept and take action on the options I've been given, which is death or just one more day."