MEMPHIS – Last November, Jimmy Carter spent a day here building a house, then vowed he’d be back to work on something even bigger. In a remarkable turn of events, he made good on that promise.
It’s not the sight of the nearly 92-year-old former president hammering away in the oppressive Delta heat that’s so startling. This is Habitat for Humanity’s 33rd Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, after all, meaning that America’s most famous pair of married do-it-yourselfers are well into their fourth decade of building houses for a week each year all over the world.
Rather, it’s the way Carter beat his dire cancer diagnosis that’s surprised so many people — including the former president himself.
In an interview at the end of his second long day of work here Tuesday, Carter spoke about everything from the newfound responsibility of being the “face” of cancer to the number of games he might attend next season when his beloved Atlanta Braves start playing in Cobb County.
Carter revealed his serious cancer diagnosis just over one year ago. He said that he found a new lease on life just when he thought his days were seriously numbered.
“When I thought I wasn’t going to live but just a couple more weeks, I was still very grateful for the life I’d already had,” said Carter, a pair of what he called “Habitat socks” (bright yellow hammers on a dark background) peeking out from beneath his faded jeans.
“I was thankful, primarily, and not afraid of death. But I was very grateful, obviously, to be given you might say a second chance.”
Last August, Carter revealed that the melanoma cancer originally found in his liver had spread to his brain. The world responded with prayers. Standing-room-only crowds packing his weekly Sunday school classes in Plains, Ga. — and later rejoiced right along with him at the news that he was in remission.
This month, friends in Plains surprised him with a cake to mark the anniversary of the day he said he was sick.
“He was surprised. I think he’d forgotten about [the significance of the date],” Jill Stuckey said of the moment when the cheesecake topped with a chocolate number “1” was brought into her dining room. “He’s not sitting around thinking about the past and instead is looking forward to the good things he can still do.”
Maybe so. But the very next morning, Carter went into Sunday school and talked about the experience of his year with cancer, from initially thinking he might have only a few months to live to deciding to fight with a combination of radiation therapy and a groundbreaking new form of immunotherapy treatment.
Jan Williams, another close friend, recalls that talk: “He threw in that he knew his time might be limited, so he should use it for the best.”
Indeed, this is not quite the same Jimmy Carter of a year ago. As he promised at last August’s extraordinary news conference where he discussed his diagnosis at length, he’s handed over the chairmanship of the Carter Center board of trustees to his grandson, Jason, and significantly cut back on his grueling international travel schedule. And he’s had to adjust to the added responsibility of becoming a symbol both of hope and help to other cancer patients.
“I don’t feel a burden, like a responsibility would be,” said Carter, who gets letters from people with cancer, a few of whom have even started showing up when he’s teaching Sunday school. “But it’s gratifying for me to know that additional people have hope and expectations for the future.”
He also knows he’s one of the lucky ones. The type of immunotherapy treatment that saved his life is expensive and only works for about 40 percent of patients with his type of melanoma, Carter said.
“When I got it, it was strictly experimental and they didn’t have any idea if it would work or not,” said Carter. “I don’t have any doubt that the cost will come down some.”
As befits a man given a second chance, he enjoys a good joke. He’s also willing to admit to the occasional mistake, as when he recently told Stuckey that he probably shouldn’t have taught back-to-back Sunday school classes on the weekend after he started radiation treatment.
“I was kind of surprised when he said, ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’ ” Stuckey said.
Five long days building houses for Habitat for Humanity is another story. Carter’s unwavering commitment to doing hands-on work for the organization was best epitomized at last Sunday’s opening ceremony. He heaped thanks and praise on excited volunteers as well as many of the people whose homes they’d be helping to build. Then he delivered the punchline with a serious message underneath:
“We’re going to have a photograph made with every work crew on the project before we leave,” Carter said. “So, the rest of the week, do not come to our [work site] to try to get pictures, or to try to get autographs. Because if you do, you won’t be working and you’ll be keeping me from working!”