What Don't Kill Me Just Makes Me Strong
is a survival memoir that recounts Stewart Francke's remarkable journey through leukemia and a bone marrow transplant, complications and recovery. Understanding he is, as a survivor, part of the “lucky unlucky,” Francke finds the silver lining in his struggle and then some.
Each chapter begins with guides to survival--through any adversity, not just cancer. These informed aphorisms lend What Don't Kill Me a spiritual dimension, making it both literary memoir and a guide to living. As a young father and renowned musician, Francke describes the relationships with his family, friends, medical team and muse with poignant detail, humor and love. He ultimately comes to treat each breath as a gift and grows to understand that a life in service to others is a life lived with true purpose.
The trip from initial biopsy to full recovery is often horrific, but Francke writes as an unflinching advocate for his own condition, and comes to understand that both surrender and faith are choices. He continually chooses the latter, and finds only death is irrevocable. All else either makes us stronger or can be learned to live with. Although this is a somewhat singular journey through illness, faith and family, Francke makes it everyone’s story.
In March of that spring, I was invited out to Aspen with several friends to visit Debby, a wonderful friend and artist several of us knew from Michigan. Our old friend was living an illuminated life—she’d married a successful arbitrageur, an older guy, and they were both incredibly magnanimous with their good fortune when it came to friends. We stayed in lavish style overlooking Aspen Mountain and skied every morning for a week. I was writing most of the songs that would make up a record of mine called Sunflower Soul Serenade, although at the time I was so heavily under the spell of Pet Sounds that I found myself merely constructing intervals that reminded me of Brian’s songs. It was my first try at pure pop songwriting and an exploration of late ’60s pop specifically—The Beatles, Bacharach and David, The Searchers, Jimmy Webb, Sly Stone, Big Star, Byrds and early Who. I was listening to Pet Sounds’ dynamics, learning how to stack and arrange strings, or sing counterpoint vocal lines and build intricate harmonies. I was even trying to cop the guitar interplay of Barney Kessel and Billy Strange, and of course imitating Carole Kaye’s bass playing, with those floating melodic thirds and emphasis on the downbeat, on the one, the first beat of each bar. Pet Sounds was written and arranged by Brian Wilson, but played by the famed LA session group known as The Wrecking Crew, with a sound more malleable than the distinct energy of Motown’s Funk Bros. The Wrecking Crew played on hundreds if not thousands of hit records in the ’60s and ’70s, but they could sound very different from artist to artist and session to session. The Funk Brothers, whom I later had the joy of recording with, always sounded like The Funk Brothers.
I was creatively free while constitutionally happy, making this honkified soul pop music. But I was still writing lyrics with precise narratives, trying to bridge bits of literary ideas with sweet songs. One such song, “Every One Hurts and The Last One Kills,” looked at lives that were stuck in small Michigan towns—people repeating dead end activities in my examined home town of Saginaw. The title was an offhand line that James Joyce once threw at his wife, so a throwaway line by Joyce was good enough for a title for me. It was my intent to write about my place and my people—the little patch of land I came from at the Saginaw Bay and the people I’d grown up with and knew so well. My main men were the poets James Wright and fellow Saginaw native Theodore Rhoetke, whom I loved and was influenced by almost as much as Lennon and McCartney or Springsteen or Seger.
Now, Aspen is about as far from Detroit or Saginaw as you can get—in income, attitude, industry, style, consciousness, ethos and climate. Skiing in the morning and writing on a Steinway in a mahogany library with the afternoon sun streaming off the Rockies, lighting up the gilded titles on the books, seemed like an utterly unreal way to live: the artiste blissfully working away, unconcerned with the shoddy details of the real world. But I knew it was nothing but a brief romantic break, and by the fourth day, I missed the harsh bustle of Detroit, my real life and its limitations, and my family.
Physically, I didn’t feel like myself on this trip. I got very cold skiing and became winded easily. And my legs were like Jell-O, an unfamiliar feeling for me, as I’d been athletic most of my life, earning a scholarship to college and even playing a European ATP satellite tennis tour in 1980. The next to last afternoon before I left, I stopped mid-mountain, puked my guts out without warning and had to sit in the snow for quite awhile just to make it back down the mountain. I recall that one of my friends on the trip with me, Linda Fanelli, was waiting at the chairlift; the others had gone back up. “You all right?” she asked. “Just out of shape and unused to the altitude,” I responded. Finally I didn’t think much about my heavy breathing or weariness on the Aspen slopes. I came home thankful to my gracious hosts and excited to begin recording the pop songs I’d written out west. It was a short trip, but exposure to the finest things can change your life quite quickly. And I loved our gracious hosts, Debbie and Marty, and was appreciative of the glimpse they’d given me of another kind of living.
Later that spring, while stretching to go running in May of 1998, I felt an oblong, doughy lump on the left side of my stomach, just beneath my rib cage. When I took a breath it would move up and down, in and out from under my ribs. I wasn’t alarmed; I thought it was a part of my stomach that I could feel now that I’d lost some weight. I was pleased with the weight loss—in the music world image is, for better or worse, a large part of the deal.
Spring became early summer. Over Memorial Day weekend I told Julia that I just didn’t feel right, that I felt tired in an odd way, and I’d noticed that my tongue was coated with this thick, lead-colored crap. My upper lip line had also somehow lost its bowed definition, and my fingernails were clubbed, raised and lined in a vertical prominence. I was set to go play my weekly tennis match with my friend and basketball legend Joe Dumars, something I looked forward to and loved doing, and had to call him and beg off. “Just no vitality,” I told Joe.
Now a little worried and wondering about the croissant shaped lump in my gut, I went to a walk-in clinic at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, the hospital where my children were born. It was a Friday in June. I recall I was wearing all black that day: the de rigueur uniform for a rock ’n’ roller. Or a gravedigger.
The resident physician who saw me was young and very direct. He examined the abdominal lump and drew some blood and ran a full CBC. I’d been so healthy my entire life; I’d never even had my blood drawn. I waited about an hour and he came back looking a little older—pale and drained.
“Your white blood cell count is 128,000,” he said.
“What’s that mean?” I asked. I knew very little of anatomy, and concerned myself with my own health remotely; like a lot of us in the healthy world, I took it for granted.
“Well, normal is around four to five thousand. Something’s very wrong, but I’m not exactly sure what. It could be an aberrant infection. However it’s likely leukemia or lymphoma. Your blood might be viscous. The lump in your abdomen is actually your spleen, bloated with red blood cells.”
“This can’t be right,” I said, stunned. “Could the blood test be wrong?”
“Well, we’ll order a bone marrow biopsy for Monday,” he said. “Those results are the absolute, the gold standard, in telling us what’s going on. Call this number and your biopsy will be scheduled for Monday morning.”
Then he quickly broke eye contact, dropped his head, handed me the paper with the numbers and dismissed me with a detached compassion, tapping my knee.
I couldn’t tell whether he was used to handing out bad news or not. The phrase “gold standard” was hopeful—it seemed to suggest there was some doubt to his diagnosis and maybe more to uncover. What I could tell by the way he treated me was that something had changed: I had definitely entered the world of the afflicted, and could sense I was in big trouble.