Hope Black calls it “Spencer’s Mountain,” and she is only slightly exaggerating.
The unpaved driveway leading to her Greene Township home meanders up and up and up … a full quarter-mile, where the neatly appointed A-frame sits on a flat expanse, nestled against woods.
She and her husband, Dave, share their domicile with two of their adult children and two dogs. Minutes after arriving, a visitor realizes the family shares much more: love and adversity, both in profound quantities.
This closely knit clan from “Spencer’s Mountain” has been dealing with mountains of woe in recent times. Hope’s mother, Ruby Wise, who lives nearby with her husband, had a massive stroke in 2014 that paralyzed her right side.
Then, on Sept. 7, 2016, almost exactly a year ago, Hope and Dave’s daughter, Brittany, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It is the most common of childhood cancers; however, according to webmd.com, “it is the least common type of leukemia in adults.” Brittany is 26.
Mountains of woe, indeed. Mountains of challenges, too, that they have to navigate – literally, in Dave’s case.
For the past three years, the family patriarch has been a driving force in a less-traditional sense. He has chauffeured his mother-in-law to numerous treatments and therapies in Morgantown, W.Va. And for the past year, he has driven and accompanied his daughter to chemotherapy treatments at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, and to UPMC Shadyside for platelets, blood transfusions and four- to seven-day admissions for another type of chemo. She also receives spinal chemotherapy.
Dave’s round trip between the Steel City and the outskirts of Garards Fort in Greene County is a grueling 120 miles, and Brittany’s care is intensive, sometimes requiring weekly excursions. She began her latest multiday treatment Thursday.
“When they go, it’s not just a four- or five-hour ordeal. It’s all day,” Hope said.
But that doesn’t dissuade Dad.
For his selfless service to family, Dave Black is the Observer-Reporter’s ExtraORdinary People person of the month. “Dave deserves this award for being the person that he is,” Hope said in nominating her spouse, now the undisputed king of his mountain.
He is a thin retiree with a long, blond ponytail that belies his 67 years. Dave, who has a winning smile and personality, and speaks easily and modestly, is a longtime former employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Point Marion Lock & Dam.
Hope, 52, is a payroll specialist for NexGen Industrial Contracting, an engineering firm in Rices Landing. The company specializes in steel mill, excavation, mining, oil, gas and electrical services.
Though each has been married more than once, Dave and Hope have been together for 27 years – a true commitment. Both are originally from southeastern Greene County, where they reside now on 87 acres. Between them, they have six children and six grandchildren.
The Blacks are a loving group, which was evident during a recent interview outside the home with Dave, Hope and Brittany. They sat on separate chairs near one another, alternately slinging arms around shoulders or embracing, and did the same while posing for photos and video.
Asked how this disease has affected the family, Hope and Brittany said almost in unison, “It’s made us closer.”
Brittany, because of her vulnerability, is often a focal point. She has a rare and aggressive form of leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that affects white blood cells. Her treatments seem endless, and the effects are physically and psychologically taxing. Her immune system also has been compromised.
“I’m not sure I want my picture taken,” she said sheepishly, pointing to her mostly hairless head. Then she backed off, began to smile and allowed a sensible, well-spoken woman to emerge.
In May, eight months after Brittany’s diagnosis, Dave and Hope fulfilled one of their daughter’s most fervent wishes: a Florida beach vacation.
“It was worth every penny and every credit card charge to give her this experience,” Hope said. “She got better and better while we were there.”
As with the vast majority of cancer patients, Brittany has good days and not-so-good days.
“I feel well in the morning, but sometimes it’s tough,” said the 2010 graduate of Mapletown Junior/Senior High School. The ordeal prevents her from working at Albatross Ventures in Carmichaels, where she was a manifold attendant, but where she hopes to return once she is sufficently healthy.
Brittany now has a lot of spare time and watches a lot of TV. “And fight with the dog,” her father said playfully, referring to the young woman’s German shepherd pup, Chloe Chanel.
The young woman is devoted to her mother and father and decided months ago to legally change her last name from Elli to Black. She is so devoted, in fact, that she said something that was downright shocking.
“I have two goals in life,” Brittany said. “My first goal is to live for a little bit. My second goal is to go before my parents go. ... I don’t want my parents to die.”
Hope and Dave quickly shushed her, encouraging their child to fight hard and prevail in this tough but winnable war. The couple want Brittany to ultimately assume the driver’s seat in this race for life.
Dave is certainly accustomed to the driver’s seat, and doesn’t mind going the extra mile – actually, thousands of extra miles – for his daughter. He is as satisfied being king of the road as he is king of his mountain.
“Dave is everything,” Hope said of her extraordinary spouse. “The world needs more people like Dave.”
Editor’s note: As part of the ExtraORdinary People award, Dave Black will be given $500, underwritten by the Observer-Reporter and Range Resources, to donate to the charity of his choice. He has selected Unity, A Journey of Hope, as the recipient of the donation.