Gerald Williams took the stage Saturday in the Fogelman Arena to get his Juris Doctor degree and address the graduates who twice elected him class president in his three years at Tulane University's law school.
The ceremony was a far cry from where Williams found himself a year earlier, when he lay on the cold bathroom floor of his Lower Garden District apartment on April 9, 2018, crippled with stomach pains so bad he could barely move, let alone make it to class.
Williams had been battling what doctors said was Crohn’s disease, struggling quietly through bouts of pain and internal bleeding, discreetly using a heating pad to try to stay comfortable during law school lectures.
At about 150 pounds, he had shed a quarter of his weight in 12 months.
Two weeks later, after a battery of tests, Williams found out he had stomach cancer.
“I could not even speak; I just cried,” Williams said Wednesday, recalling his first phone calls to the dean, his mother and his twin brother.
But in January, Williams finished nine months of chemotherapy. He will find out in June if he is in remission.
Through it all, he said, he learned to open up and accept the kindness and generosity of those around him, particularly first-year law student Randolph McKinnie, whom Williams had been chosen to mentor.
On the surface, the two seem a study in contrasts.
Williams, 32, is from Brooklyn, New York, and speaks quietly with a warm, easy manner. McKinnie, 26, grew up in Campbellton, Florida, a tiny town of 200 people and one traffic light, and spent his high school years working on his grandparents' farm there. His voluminous sentences come rapid-fire, peppered with folksy aphorisms and drenched in a "Florabama" twang.
But in August 2017, McKinnie was among the new students assigned to Williams though the Dean Rufus Harris Peer Fellow Program, and he soon took notice of how Williams was struggling with his health.
One day in October 2017, he was helping Williams move into his new place at the Soulet Apartments and was struck by how utterly drained his mentor was. “It was almost as if his breath was completely gone,” McKinnie recalled.
Williams opened up and told McKinnie he had Crohn’s disease and suffered frequent bouts of extreme pain, loss of appetite and digestive problems. The pain and internal bleeding had started in June, when doctors told him it was likely due to changes he had made in his diet. It struck again when he was studying abroad in Germany, where he was diagnosed with Crohn's.
“I didn’t tell too many people because I didn’t want them to pity me,” he said of the months that followed. “I don’t know why I decided to open up to Randy about it, but I thought the only reason why is because he didn’t pity me.”
It might also have been because McKinnie gave him little choice in the matter.
“Put your pride aside. When you’re well, you can pick it back up,” he recalled telling Williams.
McKinnie grilled Williams about his diagnosis and his prescriptions, and he began cooking meals and driving Williams, who didn’t own a car, to class and doctor’s appointments. He even took him back home to Campbellton for Thanksgiving.
The help went beyond just everyday chores.
“Even when I didn’t need help cooking or with groceries, he just sat there and kept me company,” Williams said. “Because I lived alone, that was important. If I didn’t have work to do, I would spend most of the nights in my head, thinking, 'Oh my God, what’s going on with me?’ ”
McKinnie said Williams was well known for generosity among his fellow students, but he still had to be convinced he was the one who needed help.
“You’re busy pouring from your basin to other people’s cup. Who is replenishing yours?” McKinnie asked him.
In the months that followed, McKinnie saw firsthand what Williams had been going through, and how he had done it. He began rallying fellow students to lend a hand as well.
“One minute he’d be OK; the next he couldn’t get out of bed,” McKinnie said. “He’s never once complained. And I’ve never heard him turn anyone down or not do what he said he was going to do.”
McKinnie was also skeptical of the Crohn’s diagnosis. He said he knew people with the disease and pushed Williams to see other doctors and be more proactive about his care.
Williams said that in retrospect, he wasn’t assertive enough about his own care as he slogged through the pain and focused on law school and its myriad responsibilities
“I always say I was his mentor, but he became my mentor,” Williams said. “There were a lot of things, on a personal level, I needed encouragement with, and he was there to do that.”
In April 2018, when Williams finally did get that second opinion and the terrible news that came with it, he had to endure the flood of emotions that come with finding out you might be dying.
“It was kind of hard to face it at first,” he said. “We take life for granted, that (because) we are young we have so much time, and it’s not necessarily true.”
Williams had gotten accustomed to enduring chronic illness, but now he had to face a grim reality that touched everything. He bowed out of a summer externship at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“I had my life planned for the summer, and there it goes.” he said.
Williams said he could see the fear and concern in the faces of old friends who came to town to visit him. For the next few weeks, sleep mostly eluded him at night.
He said he girded himself for chemotherapy the following month through prayer, and with the help of his mother, who came down from Brooklyn to stay with him. He said that seeing her care selflessly for him during the first months of treatment helped him emerge from the depression that enveloped him during the summer.
By August, three months into his chemotherapy, Williams had started to feel better, and doctors told him he was responding well to his treatment and surgery.
“It gave me hope that maybe I still have a story to tell,” he said.
He decided against taking time off from law school, where his studies kept his mind off his cancer diagnosis. Chemotherapy would occasionally knock him down, but he was able to keep up with support from classmates and teachers, who recorded classes and extended deadlines.
McKinnie, no longer the only friend driving or cooking for him, wasn’t as ever-present, but he would still check in and tell Williams he didn’t need him because he was doing so well.
But when he found out Williams was at a friend’s wedding in the Dominican Republic earlier this spring, McKinnie fussed at him for taking a such a taxing trip. Sure enough, Williams got sick and had to go back into the hospital for a brief stay — an anecdote that amuses them both.
After graduation, Williams will go back to Brooklyn to work as a disability advocate with Manhattan Legal Services, fulfilling his dream of fighting the kind of discrimination his mother, a veteran, faced when she almost lost her home due to an injury.
McKinnie, also the child of veterans, still has more law school to go, but he similarly hopes to work on behalf of the people in poor, rural communities like Campbellton.
Williams doesn’t know what lies ahead with his illness, but he said he has emerged from the experience grateful for how it changed him.
“It’s really true when people say what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger,” he said. “Because of this, I’m motivated to be the best attorney for those who really need me, because at my weakest, people who didn’t know me were there for me.”