Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 2, 2013

CHINA GROVE — A dozen teenage boys play football on a sun-drenched clearing at the top of the hill. A few folks fish down by the pond. Teenage girls giggle in tight knots. Banked by granite slabs, the fire glows orange, its flames burning just right.

Welcome to the Deal wiener roast, an almost-annual event at which friends and family of Bill and Sharon Deal have gathered for the past decade or so. When Bill was diagnosed with cancer this summer, his two daughters decided the event was a go this year — in a big way. Nearly 150 people will gather on this Saturday evening for the biggest wiener roast yet.

Bill, 77, had been losing weight. He just hadn’t been feeling well for the past eight or nine months, says Sharon, who turned 72 last Tuesday. And that was unusual for Bill, who loves nothing more than tending his garden and riding his Gator utility vehicle all over the family’s 60-acre spread in China Grove.

Doctors were treating Bill for pneumonia, and he had a CT scan on July 11. On July 14, he went to the emergency room because his heart rate was elevated. The results from the scan were right there on his chart — he had lung cancer, most likely stage 4. Bill and Sharon were both shocked, as were their daughters, Laura Rousey and Amanda Smith, when they arrived a short time later.

Bill met with his oncologist July 25, who confirmed the diagnosis, because the cancer had left the lungs. Bill started chemo July 31 and has had three treatments so far.

“I’m determined to beat it,” he says. “I’ve had some real good support from a lot of people.”

His family history does not work in his favor. Bill is one of 10 siblings, all of whom have had cancer, some more than one kind. His only living sibling is Sue Gallman, 74, who lives in Georgia. She’s had 80 percent of her pancreas removed because of cancer. She is in remission.

From the time he was 15 until he was 36, Bill smoked about a pack of cigarettes a day.

“That was the thing to do back then,” he says.

“The family genetics caught up with him much more than the smoking,” Sharon says.

Sharon holds a thick notebook on her lap, full of Bill’s test results, treatment plan and the like.

“I’m the record keeper,” Sharon notes.

Bill winks in affirmation.

“She’s just the joy of my life,” he says of his wife of 54 years come Nov. 28.

Sharon looks away, embarrassed.

“Well, she is,” Bill says.

Folks start gathering on the gently rolling property around 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Once or twice, someone pulls a fish from the pond. An orange tractor sits a ways off, its trailer loaded with hay for the hayride to come later on.

Bill holds court in a lawn chair. Plenty of folks come to say hello. He walks around, too, a bit gingerly, leaning on a cane probably more than he’d like. He’s grateful he’s had no ill effects from the stronger round of chemo he took a little more than a week ago.

“I’m so lucky and thankful,” he says. “The Lord has blessed me with family and friends. People have come here from everywhere.”

“You look good!” said Gail Autry. She lives across the street from Sheldon and Amanda Smith in Cornelius.

“I feel pretty good,” Bill tells her.

Her father’s diagnosis brought Amanda, a self-described control freak, to her knees.

“I’ve been daddy’s little girl ever since I can remember,” she says. “Laura and her family live right next door, but I’m the child who left and never came back.”

When she lived at home, Bill was the parent she called for in the middle of the night.

“My first husband left me at midnight,” Amanda says. “I picked up the phone and said, ‘Daddy, he’s gone.’ He said, ‘Your mother and I will be there in a minute.’ And he was there within 45 minutes, packing me and the boys up to come home. He’s always been there to pick up the pieces.”

She continues, “He’s a hard man to love. When I was growing up, they were the strictest parents on the face of the earth. He had high expectations, and by golly, you just had to live up to them.

“He’s always been the one who has taken care of us girls — Mom, Laura, Amanda. All of a sudden, you’re looking at the possibility of him not being here. I don’t know how to do this without him around. He makes me crazy, but I know that when push comes to shove, all I have to do is call him.

“We know we’re buying time. We hope we’re buying good time. Hence, the wiener roast. In our minds, we need to have good memories. We need to have fun.”

Once everyone has arrived, it’s time to eat. Sharon gathers the crowd around for a welcome.

“This was all Bill’s idea,” she says. “We started this because the grandkids had never been to a wiener roast. Our girls had so much fun that they started inviting their friends, and this year, we have 140-some people. You know about Bill’s diagnosis. We are here to celebrate life and celebrate friends and family. We celebrate God’s grace and mercy. Bill has done well, and we are thankful for every day. This is a journey, step by step. We are wrapped in God’s love. So this is a party to celebrate all of this.”

Bill’s blessing is short and sweet, and then it’s time to dig in.

And, oh the food! Hot dogs that each person grills over the open fire, served with every kind of side dish you can imagine: baked beans, slaw, potato salad, corn, pasta salad, macaroni salad, a whole table full of potato chips, a fancy couscous dish from Amanda’s Cornelius friends and a whole nother table full of yummy desserts. Gary Ritchie couldn’t come, but he sent over a giant pan of his delicious banana pudding. It disappears quickly.

Wife: “You’re not going back for more banana pudding are you?”

Husband: “No. Another hot dog.”

After supper, there’s more visiting and football tossing and kids generally running around. Amanda wants a picture of the whole family — all 10 of them — so that takes a few minutes to orchestrate. It’s about like herding cats.

Nearby, Bill’s good friend Tom Grady from Concord watches the production. He’s not really sure how the two met — it could have been that Bill asked Tom to do some legal work for him. However it happened, the two have been good buddies ever since.

“There’s not a finer man around than Bill Deal,” Tom says.

As darkness begins to fall, one of Amanda’s twin sons tears around the yard with a whole Gator full of friends. Bill doesn’t hesitate to call them down. Reece slows down. In a few minutes, the hayriders return, and Bill sees kids jumping off the wagon before it stops.

“That makes me so durn mad!” he says, pounding his cane into the ground for emphasis.

He wants the kids to be safe. He’s always watching.

The fire begins to die down, and folks are drawn to its perimeter, seeking a bit of warmth against the chilly evening. With no warning, the sons-in-law and grandsons set off a grand fireworks display. Out of nowhere comes whistling, popping and cracking as bursts of red, gold, green and purple light up the dark sky. There’s oohing and aahing as the fireworks boom overhead.

Like everyone else, Bill is looking skyward. His face is lit intermittently by the kaleidoscopic display, and he is smiling.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.