Profiles In Fear

On Jan. 26, just four days after visiting the doctor for what he thought was severe indigestion or maybe an ulcer, Russ Kunkel got the dreaded news: A malignant, fist-sized tumor had metastasized between his stomach and liver. It was cancer.

Russ Kunkel with wife Judith and son Jake.

Right then and there, faced with the prospect of a life-threatening disease, the 34-year-old Florissant, MO, husband and father of three drew a deep breath and made a firm resolution to himself: I am not going to fight this. I am a dead man.

On Feb. 20, less than a month after he was first diagnosed, Kunkel died following a brief, cowardly battle with stomach cancer.

"Most people, when they find out they've got something terrible like this, dig deep down inside and tap into some tremendous well of courage and strength they never knew they had," said Judith Kunkel, Russ' wife of 11 years. "Not Russ. The moment he found out he had cancer, he curled up into a fetal ball and sobbed uncontrollably for three straight weeks."

Said Judith: "I can still remember Russ' last words: 'Oh, God—I'm going to die! Why, God, why? Why me? Why not someone else?'"

According to Russ' personal physician, Dr. James Wohlpert, the type of cancer Russ had generally takes at least four months to advance to the terminal stage. But because of what he described as a "remarkable lack of fighting spirit," the disease consumed him in less than one.

"It's rare that you see someone give up that quickly and completely," Wohlpert said. "Cancer is a powerful disease, but most people can at the very least delay the spread of it by maintaining a positive outlook and mental attitude. This, however, was not the case with Russ."

Russ' friends and acquaintances saw that same lack of fighting spirit.

"Russ did not go quietly, that's for sure," said longtime friend Bobby Dwyer. "He did a tremendous amount of screaming."

"During the three days he spent at work before the pain got too bad, I saw a very different Russ," said Arnold Tolliver, a co-worker at the Florissant electronics store where Russ had been employed for the past six years. "He was always telling the customers how tragic it was that he wouldn't outlive his kids, reminding me that every day is a gift cruelly torn from his fingers, and grabbing somebody, anybody, by the shirt and screaming into their face that he didn't want to die."

In those final days, like so many who realize their day of reckoning is near, Russ Kunkel turned to a higher power. "Russ came to me in his time of need," said Pastor Charles Bourne of Holy Christ Almighty Lutheran Church. "But when I tried to comfort him by saying he would be with God soon, he only stopped bawling long enough to say, 'Fuck God. There is no God.' I had to get a couple acolytes to help me pry him out from underneath the pews."

When the end finally came, Russ Kunkel died red-eyed, trembling and hysterical in the attic of his home, where, in the depths of his fear, he was convinced the Reaper would look last. On that day, his 5-year-old daughter Bailey awoke to an unnerving quiet, the usual terror-choked sobs and shrieks of her father strangely absent from the morning air. Alarmed, she ran to her mother's side.

"Bailey was yelling, 'Daddy stopped crying! Daddy stopped crying!'" Judith said. "Somehow, though she's still very young, she understood."

On Monday, Russ Kunkel was laid to rest at Shady Grove Cemetery in Florissant. More than 200 people gathered to bid farewell. And just as Russ had requested shortly before his death, the funeralgoers wailed loudly and gnashed their teeth, cursing the heavens for the unfair hand dealt their loved one.

"The day before Russ died," Judith recalled, "he took my hand and said to me, 'At my funeral, I don't want people to wear bright colors and smile and laugh fondly at the wonderful memories of the precious time we spent together on Earth. Tell them to wear black and cover their faces with ash. Tell them to weep bitter tears and rail angrily against the cruel God who took me at so young an age. Do this for me, my beloved.'"

Added Judith: "He also told me not to move on from this tragedy by one day finding love in the arms of another. He said he couldn't bear the thought of me with someone else, and that the best way I could honor his memory was by never building a new life for myself."

"They say it is in times of great trial that a man's true colors show," said Russ' best friend, Larry Ahrens, summing up the feelings of those who knew the man. "And in Russ' case, he had a yellow streak a mile wide."