The older Slattery boys, Sean and Ryan, call home often, concerned about Ed. How is Dad feeling today?What tests does he have this week? The younger sons help with Dad’s medical regimen.
Ed and his wife Lisa, both 42, involve them in as much as possible. All try to stay positive and keep their days routine. This is their new life. They are adjusting to the change.
The “old” life began in 1991 when the Slatterys were married at St. Florian Church, West Milwaukee. Over the years they were blessed with four sons, and before long Ed found himself coaching them in sports. A self-described sports fanatic, Ed found he loved working with kids and seeing their confidence emerge.
Coaching was a natural extension of Ed’s relationship with his sons, a way for him to be involved with them on a regular basis. After he and his family became St. Matthias parishioners in 1997, he began a 15-year coaching career through the parish athletic program.
Guiding his sons and countless other boys through many seasons of basketball and soccer proved immensely rewarding. It touches Ed when former athletes, now adults, still call him “Coach.”
A new normal
Life as the Slatterys knew it changed drastically in May 2011 when Ed developed a canker sore that would not heal. His dentist referred him to an oral surgeon who immediately sent him to an ear, nose and throat specialist. A biopsy provided the diagnosis: Stage 2 head and neck cancer.
Ed Slattery Benefit Fish Fry
Ed underwent surgery in June to remove cancerous tumors. Afterward, they struggled with the day-to-day issues of incision and scar care, and the intense discussion over whether to have radiation. Doctors ultimately ruled radiation was not warranted.
After recovering from surgery, Ed was faring well. In fact, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan in February 2012 came back clear.
Ed came home from work one day last June and told Lisa he felt a lump under his chin. The next day he saw a doctor and was given antibiotics for an “infection.” Uneasy with this diagnosis, he visited doctors weekly; all insisted it was simply a stubborn infection. Eight weeks after that June day, a biopsy had returned. The cancer had returned.
Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy followed. Doctors could not avoid severing a nerve that controls swallowing and speech. Ed was paralyzed on the left side of his mouth. His speech has been adversely affected, but mealtimes have been his biggest challenge.
“Swallowing has been an issue,” he said. Eating is a painstakingly slow process. “On Thanksgiving I was only able to eat a nickel-sized sample of everything, but I did try everything,” he said.
Prior to Ed’s second surgery, doctors had prepared him for possible permanent loss of his voice. With Lisa behind the camcorder, the couple set out to record Ed’s voice as a remembrance for his sons. When asked what was captured on the recording, Ed took a long pause.
“I said a few things … family things.” He briskly continued, “I also said my ‘quirky’ things,” some of his favorite catchphrases. He often yells, “I am a man!” to his boys when he is horsing around with them, performing antics like running outside barefoot in the snow.
“Shaka-brah,” is another household exclamation, borrowed from television animated characters who hollered it as they ziplined down a hill. Ed and his sons enjoy a different kind of downhill adventure.
“I am a roller coaster enthusiast,” Ed said. “When I talked my youngest son, Eddie, into going on a ride with me, I held his hand, and before we’d go down a hill I’d yell ‘shaka-brah!’”
Accompanying that catchy phrase is a special hand signal – an unmistakable thumb and pinky salute. When Ed awoke from surgery with an unexpected tracheotomy, and uncertain yet as to whether he would ever be able to speak again, he greeted his boys with the shaka-brah signal.
Father and sons
All the Slattery boys are close to their dad.
“Dad is the fun one,” Lisa said.
Eddie, 11, concurred. He and his dad share a goofy handshake.
“We do this after something awesome. Like seeing something funny or making a basket at a game,” said Eddie, a student at Edgerton Elementary School.
Sean, 20, and a junior at UW-Madison, appreciates a more solemn side of his dad. In tough game situations, “My dad taught me to always keep my head up,” he said. Important life lessons weren’t just learned on the court.
“He has taught me a lot of valuable things, like always look after my little brothers,” he said.
His dad has meant “everything” to him.
Ryan, 18, and a freshman at UW-Madison, confirms his dad’s exceptional qualities. “He truly wants to make everyone, especially family, happy. He’s that role model that you want to grow up to be like … qualities I want to have as a father,” he said.
Ed’s third son, Kevin, 13, a student at Whitnall Middle School, echoed similar affection for his father. “My dad taught me to be a leader and that is what I am today in all of the sports that I play,” Kevin said.
A benefit in the works
One of five children, Ed is not the first of the Slattery siblings to face cancer. His brother, Tom, who was a reserve in the Wauwatosa Police Department, battled the disease for nine years before passing away in 2010. During Tom’s struggle, Ed, his other brothers and sister, Julie, organized a benefit for Tom along with the police department.
To help ease the burden of high medical bills and lost work time due to treatment and recovery, the siblings began planning another benefit, this time for Ed. Julie approached the police department for advice. Wauwatosa’s law enforcement community jumped at the chance to help the Slattery family once again.
St. Florian parishioners Michael Gill and his wife Maggie joined the benefit efforts early on. Michael, Lisa Slattery’s brother, suggested having the benefit at St. Florian’s due to the proximity to St. Matthias, and for a more pressing reason.
“We are having the fish fry at St. Florian since it is well known, voted best by the readership of the Catholic Herald,” Michael said. Chuckling, he added, “There is no one more discerning than the readership of the Catholic Herald.”
Suddenly serious, Michael said of his parish hosting the benefit, “We consider it an honor.”
What makes St. Florian’s fish fry the best is not only the fantastic food but also the topnotch workers. Michael began frying fish there 28 years ago and was quickly drawn to the friendliness and camaraderie of the help.
“The first guy I was introduced to met me with a smile and a beer,” Michael said. “The volunteers were so terrific, I just stayed.”
Catholic community support
The Slattery family has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the St. Florian and St.
Matthias communities. Many people from both parishes offered help for the benefit, and
ask what they can do for the family. Parishioners have dropped off meals. Prayer chains
have been formed.
Ed is especially grateful for his boyhood friend, Jeff Johnson, former athletic director
at St. Matthias.
“Jeff has helped out a great deal, taking my son nearly every day to football. Jeff is the one who first got me involved in coaching. He’s the one who picked me up and took me to the parish festival when I was worn down from all of the treatments,” he said.
Jeff was eager to show admiration for one of his best buddies.
“Ed and I go way back. Lots of same values. He is a family man,” he said. After a moment of reflection, he continued. “I have a daughter with Down Syndrome. I measure people a lot by how they treat her. He treats her just like anybody else,” and gives her the hugs and attention she loves, he said.
Personal support of friends like Johnson, and the wider support of the two parishes “shows the generosity of the Catholic community,” Ed said. “I’m grateful for people wanting and willing to do this benefit. Financially, it will help me get through some tough times.”
As the Slattery family anxiously awaits recent biopsy results, Ed works at holding his head high.
“I’m trying to be a survivor. I’d do whatever treatment is necessary. My mom already buried one son,” he said.
When he runs into acquaintances, they hug him, big grown men with tears in their eyes,
and ask him how he’s doing.
“I tell them, ‘I have God on my side.’ I have a lot more living to do, coaching to do,” he said.
Ed treasures the support he receives from his boys and especially Lisa, a steadfast partner every step of the way. This past December they celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary. Ed received a special gift from his bride.
“My wife gave me a ring,” he said. “On it are the words, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’”