Dying man’s quest a study in determination
April 28, 2008
SEOUL - Chip Bremer woke up one morning six months ago with a deep, echoing cough that he shrugged off, though his wife insisted he go to the hospital immediately. That day, Army doctors told him he had lung cancer.
A few weeks later, the 53-year-old had started chemotherapy and a computer science class at Osan Air Base. It was the last class he needed to earn the bachelor’s degree he had started working on nearly 20 years earlier, when he was a soldier at Camp Red Cloud.
On Saturday, Chip’s wife, Michelle, and his daughter, Sarah, walked across the stage and accepted his diploma. It was a day after his third wedding anniversary, and less than four weeks after he died on April 1.
“He wanted to show his daughters he was really excited about studying,” Michelle said. “He wanted to show them to study hard in the future.”
‘A great guy’Chip and Michelle met through friends at Yongsan’s Main Post Club in 1996. She was a Korean book editor in her mid-30s and divorced; he was a new car salesman from Long Island, N.Y., in his early 40s and in a troubled marriage.
She could understand English, but couldn’t speak it well. Chip, a retired soldier, understood what she was saying.
“He was a really nice man, really positive. All the time, he tried to make people laugh,” said Michelle, 47. “If he was here, you would laugh already.”
Over the years, they became friends, and after he separated from his wife in 2004, they bonded over talks about being single parents to their young daughters, just a few years apart in age.
They married by signing paperwork in 2005, three months after his divorce, and had a traditional ceremony in the garden of the Dragon Hill Lodge the next year.
“I really believed that with Chip, we’d become grandma and grandpa together,” Michelle said.
A few years before he married Michelle, Chip began taking classes regularly through University of Maryland University College to finish the computer science degree he had started working on in 1990.
Around the same time, he was hired as a video teleconference coordinator at Command Post Tango — a critical job for U.S. Forces Korea, whose officers need to talk frequently with other leaders across the Korean peninsula and in the United States.
He almost didn’t get the job; his former boss, Scott Bronson, kept shuffling Chip’s resume to the bottom of the stack because he didn’t have experience in the field. But after five people told him to hire Chip, he brought him in for an interview.
“He was in my office for no more than five minutes, and I knew he was the right guy — so outgoing and so willing to get the job done,” Bronson said Friday. “It was just the way he carried himself. You could tell this guy was a great guy to be around, just a hard charger.”
‘I won’t die’On Nov. 13, 2007, Chip went to the emergency room at the 121st Combat Support Hospital at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan complaining of chest pains, according to medical records. Because his father had died of a heart attack, doctors checked his heart but told him he was fine, Michelle said.
He went back to the hospital for a follow-up appointment the next day. On the 18th, he went back to the emergency room complaining of chest pain and a fever. The doctor took an X-ray, and his face grew serious as he looked at it. He asked Chip if he had ever cut his lungs. Chip said no; the doctor told him he had cancer.
Doctors told him he had six months to live, maybe one year if he underwent chemotherapy. Chip, who had quit smoking 10 years earlier and exercised daily, started chemotherapy almost immediately at Seoul’s Samsung Medical Center. Doctors soon found the cancer had spread to his leg and his neck, but Chip told his wife he would be fine.
“He said, ‘You should trust me. I won’t die,’” she said.
Even with the chemotherapy treatments, Chip continued with his last college class at Osan, a one- to two-hour drive south.
Michelle, who had traveled through Seoul by subway and taxi most of her life, had gotten her first driver’s license in April. But she made a deal with him: She would drive him to Osan, about 90 minutes away, as long as he could sit through the classes. He agreed.
“He didn’t want to stop his life even though he was getting chemotherapy. He wanted to live his life like before,” she said.
Chip arranged to leave the hospital so he could go to class. He told his professor, Jeon Jin-ah, that he had cancer and might be late sometimes because of the drive from the hospital.
“He was always smiling and he was always working hard in class, so I thought he was getting better. He didn’t complain about getting worse,” Jeon said.
Michelle drove Chip to Osan on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sometimes with a high fever and his whole body shaking and stinking from the drugs. His eyesight worsened, and his daughter typed his papers for him. Jeon gave him two extra weeks to finish the assignments for the course; he earned a B.
‘We didn’t say goodbye’As the weeks passed, Chip grew worse. Michelle made a foundation to hide the dark circles under his eyes when he went to work. She drove him to his office at CP Tango, and later to Yongsan after his boss decided the commute there would be easier for Chip. She brought him healthy lunches of fruits and vegetables that were supposed to fight the cancer, and waited while he took naps in the car during his lunch break.
When Chip went for a checkup in February, he didn’t feel any pain in his lungs, but his skin was yellow and his stomach was hard to the touch. A Korean doctor told them the cancer had spread, and part of Chip’s intestine needed to be removed.
The chances that he would die during the surgery were high. But Chip, whose eyes were so swollen that he couldn’t close them even when he was asleep, knew he had no option.
“He didn’t want to wait to die,” Michelle said.
The diploma didn’t come, but graduation gave Chip a goal: Make it to March. Then, make it to April.
Chip had the surgery on March 27. He woke up afterward and even joked with his wife. But he became weaker and weaker, and three days later, he died.
Michelle said she dreams that the doctors will find a cure for Chip’s cancer. When she wakes up, sometimes she still thinks she’s going to the hospital to see him.
“We didn’t say goodbye, so I’m still waiting. He visits me in my dreams,” she said.
Michelle has a green card but is waiting to get her U.S. citizenship so she can get a job at Yongsan, but she doesn’t know how long the process takes. She, her daughter and stepdaughter now live in Seoul with her parents because she has no income.
His family planned to have a graduation party for Chip on Saturday night.
“He wanted to get the degree really bad,” said his daughter, Sarah, 16. “He said, ‘When I get a degree, you should try hard like me.’”
Jeon, his instructor, was surprised when she heard he died.
“Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he was working hard. He actually did what he wanted to do,” she said. “That’s the kind of person I want to be.”