David Menasche is a light packer. Four days of clothes, basic toiletries, a voice recorder, a laptop and a cell phone are all he needs. Oh, and his red-tipped cane, to help him navigate now that he is almost completely blind.
His quest is heavy on purpose and light on itinerary. His goal: to see the Pacific Ocean before his vision is completely lost, and to visit as many of his former students as possible along the way.
Think it’s impossible for a blind and crippled cancer patient to travel across the country alone riding on trains and sleeping on couches? You don’t know Menasche.
Menasche started his teaching career at the brand-new Coral Reef Senior High School in 1997, just months after graduating from Florida International University with a degree in English education. His love for words and language was contagious, and he used his youth to his advantage, mixing Walt Whitman and Tupac Shakur into his poetry lessons.
He has already defeated the odds once. He was given two months to live after being diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer – and that was over six years ago. Since then he has had three brain surgeries, two and a half years of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation. And he’s still ticking.
The turning point came last summer, when a seizure took away 80 percent of his vision and nearly all mobility in the left side of his body in one fell swoop. Though he had continued working through his treatments, this was the final straw. Menasche was not going back to school that fall.
It was a crushing blow. Teaching was his passion, his life’s mission, his purpose.
“I was part of David’s very first class,” says Ayxa Vecino, a fellow FIU grad. “I was in his first period English class on the very first day Coral Reef Senior High School opened its doors [in 1997]. From that very first class, I could tell my experience in his classroom was going to be special.
“Every student walked out of that room every day having learned something new,” remembers Vecino.
His passion for his work defined his life. His friend Eric Sanders saw how tough it was for Menasche to leave the classroom.
“It had to have been one of the most difficult things that he had to go through because he went to work last year every day even though he had chemotherapy and radiation,” says Sanders, who hosted Menasche at his Oregon home in early 2013. “That’s what his life was about.”
Less than a month after his seizure, with no job to return to in the fall, Menasche hatched an ambitious plan – he would road trip across the country alone. Over the course of his cancer treatments, he had lost large portions of his memory. This was his chance to rebuild what he couldn’t recall about his life and find a new purpose.
“I understood cancer would take my future as soon as I was diagnosed, but I didn’t understand it would take my past,” he said. “On this trip my capabilities continue to decline, so I’m losing my present. If not now, then when?”
He consulted a few friends and his doctors. Most of them were supportive, and there was little more that could be done to treat his cancer. His doctors agreed that more treatment could buy an extra few months, but at the expense of quality of life.
His former students were a huge part of his life and his purpose, so he started there. He posted his plans on Facebook with a call for couches, and ended up with 73 offers in three days. He left Miami on Friday, Nov. 2, with a list of 150 available couches across the country.
On Jan. 28, Menasche stepped up on a bluff in Marin County, Calif., and looked out at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. He had defied the odds yet again.
Though his journey has been fulfilled, Menasche is not yet ready to stop. At the time of this writing, he had spent 101 days on the road, visited 31 cities and spent time with 75 former students. He is working on a book chronicling his journey. And he is enjoying every second he can.