Don’t sweat the small stuff
Michael Fuller is not your average Santa Monica College student. In November of 2010, Fuller was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer after a routine check. The tumor is inoperable. He received his master's in architecture from University of California at Los Angeles in 1983, and this semester is his first year attending SMC. Fuller, 58, is taking an Art 20 drawing class to “calm down and get his mind off of the emotional turmoil” he is going through.
His friend Cesar, from his cancer survivor group, recommended the class after he took it. “He’s lucky, it looks like he’s going to make it, but I’m not. I don’t have much longer,” Fuller said. For Fuller, taking this class is about doing something he had not done in his life ever before. It is to, he said, “Connect to myself through art and unblock, free up my artistic side which allows me to open up emotionally and spiritually.”
Even as an architect for one of the biggest architectural houses in the world, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum in Culver City, he had never really allowed his creativity to expand fully. He judged himself and blocked it.
Fuller used to take the bus to school, but after a while his condition wouldn’t allow it - his left arm and leg lost some of their functions and slowly became unresponsive, so he had to be driven to campus and use a wheelchair to get around.
Tasks such as zipping something are challenging for Fuller, but he does not give up until he succeeds. To move around campus, he loaded his wheelchair with his belongings and pushed it around. Many times, things would fall off, but he would patiently put them back one by one.
“I’m just [going to] sit here and try to get quiet after all that struggling,” he said. He frequently needed to sit in his wheelchair and close his eyes for a few minutes to replenish his energy.
A week after meeting Fuller, he announced he was stopping treatments to “get [back] some kind of a quality of life.” Chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments were exhausting him. “I thought I had six months. I don’t have six months,” he said.
Still, Fuller keeps a smile on his face and an upbeat attitude about life.
“I read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’ and ‘New Earth’ which helped me realize that there is a bigger picture and not to sweat the small stuff. I feel connected to the universe, there’s something eternal that survives when the body fails, I don’t have to be resentful or fearful, I can let that go,” he said.
Since then, Fuller has stopped coming to his art class to spend the time he has left with his family, Mary Ellen, his wife who is also 58, Emily, his daughter, age 16, and Missy, their dog.
Having quality time is important to him. After Emily gets home from school, Michael takes a walk with her and Missy. It is not easy for him to do, but it allows them to talk about life and what he believes there is after life ends. “It has helped our relationship a lot,” he said.
He does not want his condition to be the focus of things, but he appreciates how nice and helpful people have been.
“The other day, I was helping Michael out of the car and I lost balance, we were both going to fall, but someone came running and helped us out, it was amazing,” said Mary Ellen.
Fuller plans on visiting campus with Emily so he can show her around. In a way, the visit will be like “passing the torch” or to retrace the last steps he took around SMC before using his remaining time at home with his loved ones.