O'Brien's Song

After years of fighting everybody and anybody, now the ornery, annoying civil rights activist has to concentrate on fighting for his life.

"At first, I cried a lot," he says. "I didn't get angry. I cried. I just went through this with my dad. But then it's quickly to practicality. I am a practical person. I don't have much money. I've got like $18,000 in my retirement from two years working at Baker Botts. All of my wife's resources have gone toward my Ph.D. and that was a bad gamble. She's not gonna be able to benefit. But that's the worst-case scenario and I'm thinking positive."

But he does sometimes give in to dark thoughts. Looming large in his mind is the fate of his wife and child should he lose his battle. Until the birth of his daughter, O'Brien had always figured that his wife could return home to Korea should he die or they get divorced, but now that she has a half-American child, that is no longer such an easy option. Korean culture still openly frowns on race-mixing, and half-American kids there face years of taunts. "They would be treated like dogs," O'Brien says.

What's more, O'Brien's treatment would be at Ben Taub. O'Brien calls his experiences there "the Ben Taub Shuffle," and says that since his diagnosis, he has become indigent. "They have drained all my resources, and now I have a Gold Card." True to form, he is battling all the way through, confronting nurses and doctors he perceives to be treating him shabbily or perfunctorily.

O'Brien's preschool-age daughter Yuna, seen here riding her dad's shoulders...
Photos courtesy Tim O'Brien
O'Brien's preschool-age daughter Yuna, seen here riding her dad's shoulders...
...and helping hoist a banner, often accompanies him on his protests. She is also a co-plaintiff in one of his lawsuits against UH.
Photos courtesy Tim O'Brien
...and helping hoist a banner, often accompanies him on his protests. She is also a co-plaintiff in one of his lawsuits against UH.

"You gotta be strong," he says. "I am a fighter. I am too busy with my dissertation, fighting my social justice battles and enjoying my life...I don't have fuckin' time to sit around crying. My minister told me, 'When you have a pity party, the Lord leaves the room.'"

Looking back on his life, he is proudest of winning the respect of people like Johnson and Gladys House, the woman whose activism landed Freedmen's Town on the National Register of Historic Places. As for regrets, he claims to have none: "I don't live like that," he wrote in an e-mail to the Press. "It's not a productive way to think. My friend Peter Case has a lighthearted song called 'Coulda Shoulda Woulda' which comes to mind with your question. Life is too short to regret what you did not do...today you're alive, so go out and do something." And he says a verse from a song by Scott "Top Ten" Kempner is also bouncing around his head a lot these days: "Some people live for the money, some people live for the fame. There are those who like to play for whatever rewards might be paid, but I think the fun's in the game."

And true to form, he didn't take his original misdiagnosis lying down. He smiles as he recounts the following story:

Shortly after getting the grim word of his melanoma, a likely death sentence, he marched back to the clinic that told him to "take no action" and demanded, and received, his $200 back.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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