As Cary Mock stepped onstage at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood last Christmas Eve, no one knew what to expect.
Least of all Cary Mock.
He hadn’t rehearsed much. A run-through in the car on the way to the church and a backstage rehearsal before the 7 p.m. service — that was it. He had hardly sung at all since he had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year, and he hadn’t performed publicly since Easter.
Yet, there he was.
Forget that he was about to walk out and sing “O Holy Night” in front of thousands of worshippers at one of the largest churches in the metro area. It was a marvel that his legs still held him, his lungs still drew breath, his heart still beat.
He’d had enough experience with cancer striking relatives that he knew many in his shoes have wished for “one more Christmas.” It was not lost on him that many never got to see it.
So, waiting in the wings, stage right, Mock did what many like him would have done.
He bowed his head and said to whomever, whatever was listening, “Lord …”
J. Kent Barnhart knew something wasn’t quite right.
It was the fall of 2014. Barnhart and Mock were performing together in “Cheek to Cheek” at Quality Hill Playhouse. It was an homage to Fred Astaire, with a couple of dance sequences from “Royal Wedding” and “Top Hat,” and Barnhart had written the show specifically around Mock’s skill set.
“He’s very versatile,” Barnhart said. “A great soloist. A wonderful musician, so he can sing the four-part harmonies that I write for our arrangements. He’s also a pianist. He has a wonderful stage presence. And he’s a dancer.”
Offstage during the run of “Cheek to Cheek,” however, Mock would complain of back pain.
“Sharing a dressing room with him, I knew something was up,” Barnhart said. “But of course I didn’t ask him.”
Mock, meanwhile, did the manly thing. He ignored it.
He spent the early days of 2015 traveling to Iowa, St. Louis, southern Missouri, Abilene, Kan., auditioning anywhere and everywhere in-between. That was his life at the time. Hustling, setting up work for the coming year.
He did not feel well.
His stomach hurt, and he attributed it to gastrointestinal distress. There were days he was hunched over with a bloated abdomen, but he’d straighten up, go on a stage somewhere and sing his guts out in an audition, only to nearly collapse afterward into the arms of his wife, Alicia.
“He’d go on a walk with me and he’d go, ‘These hills!’ ” she said. “And I’d look back and go, ‘This is not a hill; there’s something more going on.’ ”
After enough times of picking him up off the bathroom floor, Alicia finally convinced him to go to the doctor.
Coincidentally, this was right around the time Chip Miller, assistant artistic director for Kansas City Repertory Theatre, decided to give Mock a call.
“We had seen him at ‘Cheek to Cheek’ at Quality Hill and wanted him to audition for ‘Sunday in the Park With George,’ ” Miller said. “He had done such a wonderful job and had such a wonderful voice, we wanted to see if he would be a fit for us.”
This was a big break, the thing Mock had been working toward — a shot at performing at one of the premier theaters in the Midwest, one with a solid national reputation. It would be close to his Overland Park home, and it was a Stephen Sondheim musical, to boot.
The call from the Rep came while Mock was in the hospital. From flat on his back in his bed, he turned them down. He had been diagnosed with myelofibrosis, which eventually would progress into leukemia.
Glimmer of hope
Mock grew up around Council Grove, Kan., about 120 miles west-southwest of Kansas City. His mom taught art, his dad, music.
He followed in his dad’s footsteps, thinking he’d be just like him: teach music in another small town and find a way to contribute to that community.
Though he eventually gave up teaching to become a full-time performer, Mock looked up to his father and all the things he did for his community, as did Mock’s oldest sister, now Missy Beatty, who teaches in the Park Hill school district.
“We didn’t stand a chance,” she said of growing up to become a musician and teacher. “We were going to be involved in music one way or another.”
Another sister, Ryann Myers, lives in Winfield, Kan., and teaches art there. It was Beatty who was deemed a suitable bone marrow donor for Mock’s treatment in June 2015.
The process was simple. A mouth swab showed she was compatible. Then she took injections of the bone marrow stimulant Neupogen in her abdomen for four days in a row.
“They felt like bee stings,” she said.
On the fifth day, they hooked Beatty up to an apheresis machine, which took blood out of one arm, ran it through a centrifuge and returned what Mock didn’t need back to Beatty’s body through her other arm.
“I basically just sat there for three or four hours,” she said. “I’m a marathon runner, and the only time I noticed the fatigue was when I was out on a run. It was very easy.”
He showed some initial improvement after the transplant. Welcome news, considering doctors had told Mock he was in such an advanced stage that the bone marrow had only a 20 percent chance of working.
Subsequent test results, however, showed the graft wasn’t taking.
“As a donor, I was banking all of my hopes on my cells being able to save him,” Beatty said. “I was just convinced I would be able to do that job, as I’m sure anybody would be. To find out that it wasn’t working was pretty devastating.”
In August at a check-up appointment, Mock’s doctors told him they couldn’t do anything more for him. He should go home and settle affairs with his family.
“Basically,” Beatty said, “they sent him home to die.”
Returning to life
There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
Q. How do you make God laugh?
A. Make a plan.
In his Overland Park home the other day, Mock, 50, noodled on a white electric piano near the front window of his “fortress of solitude.” Wearing a newsboy cap, a big gray cable-knit sweater, jeans and a scarf, he looked like someone from another era. A ghost of Christmas past, perhaps, or, fitting the sign on the piano that read “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a character from a Frank Capra movie.
Mock said he didn’t get a lot of sleep the night doctors told him to set his affairs in order and make plans for end-of-life care.
“It was about as rough as you can imagine,” Mock said.
“Our stomachs were all hurting, and there was this kind of darkness kind of pressing down,” his wife, Alicia, said.
Even before his official diagnosis, Mock felt like he might be nearing the end. On a family ski trip in Colorado in March of 2015, he talked with his oldest daughter about things she could do to help her mom and her three younger siblings. It was a hard conversation that didn’t get any easier.
“Later, I was talking to my son and telling him, ‘You’re going to have to step up and be the man of the family,’ ” he said. “The poor guy was 8 years old, and I was heaping this kind of pressure on him. And, bless his heart, he was willing to step in.”
Mock had avoided going to the doctor for a long time because he feared the worst. He admits it was stubbornness and stupidity, but he had seen family members die of cancer, and he didn’t want to put his family through the treatment process.
“It’s just a long, drawn-out thing that was going to end up with me gone anyway,” he said. “I justified it thinking I was protecting them from something.”
Even though his doctors said there was nothing more they could do, Mock’s weakened immune system meant they sent him home with a long list of don’ts.
Don’t be around little kids. Don’t take other pills or supplements. Don’t be around animals. Don’t shake hands. Don’t eat at restaurants.
“What do we do in Kansas City?” he said. “We eat out! And we’re really good at it.”
He ignored most of the advice.
“Because my doctors were so apologetic — ‘Oh, I’m sorry we can’t do anything more for you, really’ — it sort of convinced me that maybe they’re right,” he said. “But something was really nagging at me, and I knew in my heart it was not my time to go.”
He moved out of the germ-free apartment where he was living and back into the house, where he could be with his wife and four kids — the same house where his wife runs the Adventure Arts Academy preschool.
He consumed Juice Plus, flaxseed smoothies, kombucha and kefir. They bought a bulldog. He greeted people at church with hugs and handshakes. Though he was really careful about what he ate, he had the occasional meal from Jimmy John’s, Minsky’s or Rosati’s Pizza.
“I tried to get as much exercise as I could, though I felt really lousy,” he said.
Through the journey, Mock and his wife posted on social media, candidly describing what he was going through.
“Thank God for Facebook,” Mock said. “We’d get all these amazing responses and encouragement, and a huge outpouring of financial gifts that sustained us that whole first year. We had hardly any income at all. It just blew us away.”
And slowly, strangely, his health improved. So much so that in October, they decided to try another transplant from his sister. This time, it took. Soon after, against all odds and predictions, doctors declared Mock cancer-free.
“They saved my life,” he said. “I did kind of ignore their cautions. But I haven’t refused any sort of treatment or tried to do it all on my own. I just tried to add to what they gave me.”
By Christmas of last year, he was ready to sing again.
The hardest performance
Years ago as kids, Mock and his sisters had a front row seat — and often participated in — a community Christmas custom.
“It was always expected that my dad was going to sing ‘O Holy Night’ on Christmas Eve,” Beatty said. “It kind of became a tradition. Not just that my family members expected it, but other people in the church expected it. They would always ask him, ‘Are you going to sing ‘O Holy Night?’ ”
Both his parents are retired now, and Mock said his dad doesn’t sing much anymore, maybe because he thinks those days have passed.
“For many years, he sang for every funeral in the county,” Mock said. “We used to kid him that people were just dying to see him sing.”
Those Christmas time memories, however, are pretty vivid.
“Sitting in the pews, grinning proudly as he sang,” Mock said. “It wasn’t Christmas unless Dad sang ‘O Holy Night.’ ”
Kevin Bogan knew the song was special to Mock when he asked him to sing it last year at Church of the Resurrection.
“We did two services that night, and I thought, ‘Cary needs to do that,’ ” the director of traditional/blended worship arts at the Leawood campus, said. “We didn’t really even know if he would be with us at Christmastime. So it seemed like a special time for a comeback.”
In a video of the performance his sister posted on Facebook, Mock takes his spot on a stage overloaded with white and red poinsettas. He stands in front of the full choir and orchestra looking confident but frail in clothes that hang a little loose from the weight he’d lost fighting the cancer.
“It was the hardest performing moment of my life,” Mock said.
Bogan said that even though Mock looked a whole lot better than he had in months — he’d last performed at the church in the spring — he wasn’t quite back to his old self. And he was a little nervous.
“You could tell in the first few notes that he sang, he was a little shaky,” Bogan said.
As the song goes on, though, his voice gets stronger. When the choir comes in at “Fall on your knees/O, hear the angel voices,” he’s hitting his stride.
Then the big finish: The high note at the end.
“I was planning on pulling up and singing the lower choice, but at the last minute I thought, ‘I can do this,’ ” Mock said. “It was so cool.”
When the song ended, he looked down for a moment, then, hearing the applause, he looked up to see the entire auditorium — all 3,000-plus worshippers — on their feet. Most of them didn’t know him. Most didn’t know his story.
“Our pastor (Adam Hamilton) is not very emotional, but when Cary finished, I’m pretty sure he had tears in his eyes,” Bogan said.
Mock, too, is overcome recalling that moment.
“To realize that I really was still here,” he said, his voice wavering. “I knew that I had been cured. I just knew that I had a long road to go before all the symptoms were all straightened out. The cancer gone. The myelofibrosis, gone. I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep living.’ ”
Last week at his home in Overland Park as his kids — ages 15,13, 10 and 9 — came home from school, Mock talked about his bucket list.
Like a lot of baritones, his dream gig is to some day play Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” but he has checked off a lot of other items.
He was able to take the family to the beach this past spring. Soon, he’ll be a grandfather as his son from a previous relationship is planning to marry and his wife-to-be is expecting.
Mock and Alicia and the kids have adopted another bulldog because the one they adopted after he left the hospital died.
“I outlived her, so that’s rather ironic,” Mock said. “She choked on a bone. Sad day.”
He made it to his “one more Christmas,” and it looks like he’ll make a few more.
Currently, he’s dealing with graft versus host disease, as his body’s cells are fighting with his sister’s cells. GVHD manifests itself in different ways, he said. Ankle swelling. Kidney troubles. Hampered breathing.
“It comes out in the strangest of places,” he said. “They claim that I have a little bit of it in my right eye. It doesn’t really diminish my eyesight so much, but it dries my eye out. So I use eye drops. At one time it was coming out of my skin. It looked like a rash. It didn’t really itch or anything, it just kind of came out there.”
He still has a long road ahead. He had hoped to be performing this Christmas with Quality Hill Playhouse, but a nasty respiratory virus has wiped out his stamina. He had to call Barnhart and decline the offer.
“You almost feel guilty that he’s the one going through all of this,” Barnhart said. “He’s been a real inspiration to a lot of people. He’s been really attentive to his friends and making sure they know he’s all right.”
Which goes back to the prayer he said before going onstage to sing “O Holy Night” last Christmas Eve.
Praying was about all he could do before he sang that night. Though he laughed and said one of his prayers was, Lord, just let me get through this, he really wanted people to hear that old familiar Christmas song with new ears, that it would be important to them again, somehow.
“There was so much emotion behind that performance,” he said. “One silly little song. It’s like the national anthem because if you mess up the words, everybody knows it. And when you hear it year after year at Christmas, you forget the significance of the lyrics and the magic of the melody and the combination of the instruments and sounds that can be heard in a song like that. For me, it became an important song again. Like it was when I was a kid, hearing my dad sing it with the out-of-tune piano at our old church.”
These days, Mock feels like he’s making three steps forward and two steps back in his recovery, but at times when the ratio is the opposite, he opens that video from last Christmas to encourage himself.
“Whether I get another opportunity like that, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care if I do,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Besides, as Mock fully knows now, it doesn’t make sense to craft a lot of future plans anyway. No one ever truly knows what’s going to happen next.