KIMBERLING CITY, Mo. • When she emerged from surgery that removed a plum-sized tumor from her brain, one of the first things Jeanine Duncan remembers hearing from her doctor has become a mantra for her recovery.
"I don't want you making a 'bucket list,'" the surgeon at Missouri Baptist Medical Center began after the August procedure. He mentioned the number of treatments available. They agreed the only scenarios to discuss were "best-case scenarios." As she demanded optimism from everyone around her, Jeanine found a way to convey her faith in the future with three words:
No bucket list.
Sitting beside her husband, Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, at their home overlooking Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri earlier this week, Jeanine used the phrase several times. When they would meet a new doctor, she didn't want to hear the phrase "worst case." No bucket list. When asked about the size of the tumor removed, she only briefly acknowledged the microscopic tendrils left behind. No bucket list. When describing all the things she had become thankful for, many of them were ahead. No bucket list.
"Her positive attitude through everything is so contagious," said Shelley Duncan, the couple's eldest son and an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians. "She's going to beat this. I know it in my gut. I know it so deep in my heart. It's a nasty thing that she has, but she's going to beat it. I take her as an inspiration."
In late August, Dave Duncan took a leave of absence from the Cardinals to be with his wife as she recovered from surgery and sought treatment for an aggressive, malignant brain tumor. Jeanine was diagnosed with glioblastoma, and she has spent the past three months fighting it. With her for every step has been her boys — husband Dave and their two sons, Shelley and former Cardinal outfielder Chris.
This baseball family, so defined by their connection to the game and its competition, had to put baseball aside this fall to contend with something unexpected, something Chris called "overwhelming." But they found fortitude in the one family member never to wear a major-league uniform. The end of this round of chemotherapy is in sight and as Jeanine readies to host Thanksgiving this evening, her optimism is no longer the rule.
It is their reality.
"My strength comes from her," Dave said.
"Her spirit has never changed," Chris said. "It's like Shelley said when he told us what this means for our family. He said, 'This sets the tone for our whole family.' We'll tell our kids about what she is doing. She was dealt the toughest hand and she fought it and fought it and fought through this. It is something that will become what it means to be in our family, and it's something we'll talk about for generations."
Dave Duncan was with the Cardinals in Chicago in late August when he received a phone call from home. Jeanine had been in an accident.
On her way to get the mail at the entry to their neighborhood, Jeanine had driven a golf cart off the road. The family's dogs, two golden doodles named Jack Buck and Champion, had, in Jeanine's words, "did the Lassie thing" and barked until neighbors came to help. The call to Dave told him about the accident, but also the context. For a few days, Jeanine had been dropping things from her left hand. She was bumping into things on her left side. And she drove the golf cart off the left side of the road.
Dave reached out to a Cardinals team physician.
Get her to a hospital in St. Louis now, he was told.
"I was," Dave recalled this week, "in shock."
On Aug. 21, Jeanine had 95 percent of a tumor removed, the family said. Immediately, the Duncans began exploring options for Jeanine's continuing treatment. Dr. Andrew Youkilis at Missouri Baptist, Dr. Allan Friedman at Duke University's Preston Tisch Brain Tumor Center and several other physicians became what she called "Team Jeanine." Her first steps, literally, came with Dave. For eight or nine days after surgery, Dave helped her rehab, helped her walk, helped her regain strength, and helped her do daily things like put on makeup.
He did so, as his pitchers would guess, meticulously.
"Dave is my hero. Dave has been more than a husband, he has been my best friend," Jeanine said. "He's held me. He's cried with me. He's laughed with me. He's such an intense guy. His whole life has been baseball. That's how people know him. But here he is, putting on my makeup for two weeks. He was my light."
Dave said that medical benefits offered by Major League Baseball allowed them to seek out the best treatment possible, and that drew them to the Duke University Medical Center. Dave reached out to Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, who was diagnosed in May with glioblastoma, and was encouraged by his experience at the Tisch Center. They offered optimism. Dr. Henry Friedman, a deputy director at Tisch, told The New York Times in an article about Carter's diagnosis that "there are some programs like ours that are seeing long-term survival in an ever-increasing, albeit small, minority of patients."
Jeanine was enrolled in clinical trials and has made three trips to Duke. During one she had chemotherapy wafers — dime-sized, biodegradable wafers soaked in the medication — placed on her brain to attack any remnants of the tumor.
Before the surgery she asked if she could get the chocolate wafers.
"They don't come in chocolate," she was told.
On Dec. 21, Jeanine will return to Duke for a scan of her brain to determine the effect the wafers have had. She described the anticipation as "exciting." It's the second of two treatment milestones approaching. Each weekday, Dave and Jeanine make the two-hour round trip drive from their home to Springfield, Mo., for ongoing chemotherapy. In early December, she'll have the 33rd and final treatment of this round.
"That will be 'Happy Feet,' penguins' happy feet," Jeanine said.
Jeanine has returned to the yoga she enjoyed before surgery. She's back on the treadmill. She loves cooking so she cooks. Normalcy has become a great ally. Dave said that every test has come back "encouraging," and that influenced his decision to return to the Cardinals as pitching coach for 2012. He expects Jeanine to travel to spring training with him.
The more things Jeanine is able to do like she did before the tumor was discovered the more tangible recovery becomes.
"This is my normal," she said.
After being with the family at the initial surgery, Shelley returned to finish the season with the Indians. He felt his dad and brother allowed him to focus on baseball, so when his regular season was over he wanted to return the favor. He moved into his parents' home so that Dave could join the Cardinals for the playoffs. Shelley monitored Jeanine's medication, chauffeured her to treatments and, yes, watched her preferred television shows.
He was able to channel his concern into action.
"We wanted to be the best support staff we could possibly be for her," Shelley said. "I could take on some organizational responsibility so there's no stress in Mom's life. No worries. We just wanted Mom to be Mom."
The twists and turns and dread and euphoria of World Series Game 6 were too much to sit through, so Jeanine Duncan grabbed a bundle of her husband's shirts and started ironing.
Chris, who has a burgeoning career in St. Louis sports radio, drove down to the family's Table Rock Lake home to be with his mother and brother as they watched Dave and the Cardinals face the Texas Rangers for the title. Sitting still was difficult as the Cardinals twice came to their final strike of the game and rallied before eventually winning on David Freese's extra-inning homer. All of them took turns pacing or preoccupying themselves. And when the game was over they all looked at each other and shared a realization.
Why weren't they in St. Louis?
"Everything Mom had gone through put things in a different perspective," Chris said. "It was more a focus on family than baseball. But you've been in the game as long as we have and it's Game 7 of the World Series. This is once in a lifetime, and it is about family. We had to get there. How cool would it be for my dad for her to be there? You want to have that moment with family."
Chris had sold his tickets to Game 7, and they had to be replaced. Stuff had to be packed. And a four-hour (or so) drive had to be made. But it all came together. Shelley and his wife Elyse, Chris and his wife Amy, and Jeanine bundled together in the crowd. When the Cardinals took the lead and zoomed toward the 11th World Series title in franchise history and the third for Dave Duncan, they "all started sobbing," Jeanine said.
After the final out, the Duncans swam through the crowd and toward the clubhouse. Jeanine stayed in a side room, removed from the epicenter of the celebration. But the players and officials who filled her hospital room with more flowers than there was space for circulated through to see her.
The image that stays with Shelley is the moment Dave saw Jeanine after the first game she attended since the surgery.
"This is our team here, together, and Mom is the captain," Shelley said. "Dad hadn't seen her in a while and they have this moment together. That's why we had to be there."
For Thanksgiving, Jeanine pulls out her mother Adele's recipes, including the consensus favorite — Grandma's pineapple casserole. Shelley, the family's pie specialist who makes even the crusts from scratch, won't be attending tonight's dinner, waiting instead to host his parents for Christmas. The rest of the baseball family will be there with plenty of thankfulness to share.
"I'm thankful for every day," Dave Duncan said. "The boys. The family. Being as fortunate as we have been."
Sitting in the home office, surrounded by trophies from his and his sons' careers and other collected mementoes, the Duncans looked back on where the past three months have taken them and listed all the reasons to be thankful. This is, after all, a season of lists. Wish lists. Guest lists. Shopping lists. Santa's list.
Jeanine quickly added to their reasons: "No bucket list."
Every day is better than the previous one, she said.
Thankfulness is optimism's constant companion.
"It doesn't come all on one day, and it's not something you think about only on one day. It builds," Jeanine said. "As I had all this time to think about it, so much of it is how grateful I am for my life. I was never grateful enough for all the things around me. I'm thankful for it all, for every day. ... Your eyes are opened up to it."