John Cardinale is 8 years old. He's been sleeping on the sofa in the living room of his parents' San Francisco flat for the last five years. His father is an alcoholic. Life in North Beach is unpredictable, many times dysfunctional. In the quiet of the night, when the chaos has subsided, when the silence creates the illusion of peace, young Cardinale makes a pledge to himself.
"This (life) isn't going to happen to me when I grow up," Cardinale thinks. "I'm going to work hard. I'm going to make a better life for myself. I'm going to have a family. I'm going to have kids. I will be there for them every day. Every day."
Cardinale then closes his eyes and sleeps the way only the indomitable can sleep, secure in the knowledge his life is his to control. Freedom arising from willpower is emancipating, enhancing.
And so it came to be. Cardinale graduated from San Francisco State, the first one in his family to graduate from college. He was a sportswriter for five years at the Contra Costa Times newspaper, and by the winter of 2010 Cardinale had made good on his pledge.
"I had everything I wanted," said Cardinale, 47. He was in his 16th year of marriage to Andrea, had two daughters, Emma and Lauren. He was entering his 15th year at then-Infineon Raceway, in charge of media and community relations. He was a star in the business, having been named three years earlier by NASCAR as directing the best public relations staff in stock car industry. He didn't smoke, didn't drink, exercised at least three times a week and there was no history of cancer in his family. None whatsoever.
"Things were perfect," Cardinale said.
In December 2010, Cardinale felt a persistent pain in his right side. He was in Las Vegas at a NASCAR awards banquet. There was a twinge in his stomach but the ache in the side caught his attention. He thought it relatively benign, like a gallstone or a kidney stone. Exams were taken, such as an upper endoscopy. The result: He had Stage IV gastric cancer.
"It was like I was punched in the stomach," Cardinale said.
Thinking that possibly a punch wasn't a powerful-enough image, Cardinale later amended his response: "It was like someone dropped an anvil on my head." His oncologist, Pleasanton's Dr. Rishi Sawhney, said Cardinale should begin to get his life in order, be it finances, spirituality, relationships, anything that would have a loose end attached to it.
"He said I had six to nine months to live, the cancer at that point has spread from my stomach to my liver," Cardinale said. "It was very aggressive."
The two-year anniversary of that conversation comes next month on Feb. 10.
"I shouldn't be talking to you right now," Cardinale said. "I should be dead."
And thus we begin the story of how one good man got this far, who sees more in the distance, who finds life now deeper and richer and sweeter than he could ever have imagined. Knocked down but not out, Cardinale took that determination he had at age 8 and expanded upon it, developed it to the point that he'll be damned if he'll surrender. He didn't then and he won't now, both for the same reason.