Early June. There’s work to be done at Quail Ridge Golf Course.
Head pro Mark Midford shakes off the dull, yet persistent pain in his groin. It’s been there for weeks, so he goes about the task at hand: aerating the greens.
Before Midford was well known in the area as one of the most affable pros you’d ever meet in a clubhouse, he was a hockey player in his native Connecticut. So when a youngster wanted to mess around with Midford, the old Whalers fan didn’t mind the idea of mixing it up the kid — play-wrestling style.
Rolling around the green, everything was fine. Shirt-tails of collared-shirts flailed in harmony with arms and legs, smiles beamed and laughter wafted over the rolling green hills.
In a flash, everything changed.
Less than 24 hours later, Mark Midford was in the operating room.
Holly Midford works as a nurse in the labor and delivery unit at Central Carolina Hospital. She had been there as a patient just two months before, giving birth to the couple’s second child, Madelyn.
But new life, she has trouble saying now, was not the first thing on her mind.
“Our babies. All I could think about were our babies,” she recalls. “And living without my husband, not having him around to help me raise our children. When you hear ‘cancer,’ the first thing you think of is a death sentence.”
For a few weeks, Mark had been experiencing pain in his groin. But he could tough it out, and so he did. But after taking an inadvertent kick to the area, he could stand it no more. This was a different kind of pain.
“We got a little nervous, so we felt like we should go get it looked at,” Midford recalls. “After an ultrasound, I could see four or five doctors in the other room looking at something. I knew then it was something else.”
That night, June 8, the 36-year-old with a loving wife and two young children, got the news: testicular cancer.
The pain, somehow, in the moment he heard the words, went away. In its place, numbness.
“We were both shocked,” Midford says of he and his wife. “But the reaction was, ‘OK, do whatever you need to do.’”
In surgery, Midford had a tumor removed. A CT scan indicated the cancer had not spread through his body, but chemotherapy would still be needed. More tests have been scheduled to determine just how much chemo Midford will endure.
Thing is, looking at him, and talking to him, you’d never know it.
A week after having a non-seminomatous germ cell tumor removed and being diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer, Mark Midford went back to work.
Longtime friend Tony Lewis, who had visited Midford in the hospital, had to see this with his own eyes.
He didn’t get a chance.
“He still had his staples in from surgery,” Lewis says. “I know that. But I came in the clubhouse looking for Mark, and the guys told me he was out playing golf. I was like, ‘Is he crazy?’
“But that’s just the way he is.”
It was the way it had to be.
“I don’t know how to explain that,” Midford says of his need to get back to work. “I just felt like I needed to keep on going like nothing had happened, even though something major did happen.
“I played golf, and everybody thought I was crazy. I figured, if Lance Armstrong could get back on the bike after two weeks, I could be back playing golf in two days.
“I just didn’t want too much time to sit around and think about it.”
But Midford does have to think about it. Often. Because as soon as a friend sees him, Midford knows the question is coming.
How are you doing?
“I get that a lot, like about 20 times per day,” Midford says, laughing. “I just try to tell them that everything is OK, that I’m feeling good. I get pretty tired at times, but just about all the pain is gone. All I’m thinking about is the next step.”
There’s a lot to think about in the Midford household these days. With Holly on maternity leave, the family didn’t have health insurance at the time of the surgery.
They do now, but to try to defray some of the hospital bills, a golf tournament raising money for the family has been planned for Aug. 7 at Quail Ridge. On Nov. 13, a dance at the Elks Lodge will also be held to raise money.
All 256 spots in the tournament are filled, and hole sponsorships are going fast. It’s enough to stop the normally stoic Midford in his tracks.
“Emotional is not the word,” he says. “It’s overwhelming. I always felt like I was the type of person who just wanted to look out for other people and not expect anything in return. But all these people doing stuff for my family and me…
The house is quiet. Holly is sleeping soundly next to him. Midford, though, stares at the ceiling. He gets up from bed, and looks in on his children, 4-year-old Connor, and Madelyn, just 3 months old.
These are the times when Mark Midford, with forearms like iron rods and a resolve like few others, breaks down.
“When the kids are sleeping at night, when Holly’s sleeping, I’ll just watch them,” he says. “I look down at every one of them, and I just start to cry.”
His mind drifts to the phone call he made that dreadful week to the guys at the pro shop. And the call to his mother. God, the words he had to find to tell his mom.
All of that, and still he’s glad it’s him, and not them.
“If this had happened to any of them, to Holly, there’s no way I could be as strong or as supportive as they’ve been for me,” he says. “They’ve all been absolutely phenomenal. Without them, without Holly, I wouldn’t be able to get through this.”
The sun is shining. The heat bears down. Titanium meets a Pro-V1, and then another.
The course is busy, and Mark Midford rings up another customer, shakes another hand, gives another “I’m feeling good.”
Chemo is on the calendar. At least two rounds. Maybe three.
“Personally, I don’t know how he does it,” Lewis says. “I don’t know if I could handle it that way. He’s just normal, always positive. It’s always, ‘Let’s go,’ from the very beginning.”
“He’s been fighting from the very beginning,” Holly says. “There have been some emotional times, but he doesn’t let them get in the way. We’ve put our faith in God, and God will get us through it.”
It all goes back to that day.
No, not the diagnosis.
A week later.
“I asked him why he felt like he had to go back to work so soon,” Holly recalls.
“He tells me, ‘To prove to everyone that I’m alive and not dying.’”
That’s right, Mark says.
“Hopefully, nobody can tell that anything is different,” Mark says. “It’s not an act.
“I guess I really do have something to prove.”