A tribute to a cowboy who left us too soon. Kris Wilson died September 8, 2016.
It’s a blessing to write about ranching families, especially when I happen to know the people and understand how certain life events hold a heightened significance to them. On page 18 we have included a story about a day set aside for the young kids of the Bell Ranch to handle branding duties. All of the cowboys on this historic New Mexico cow-calf operation are husbands and fathers, and teaching their children how to flank, vaccinate and brand calves was well worth the extra time and energy spent on that long day last spring.
Kris Wilson has managed the Bell since 2010, and no cowboy may have cherished that day more than he did. Kris, who has a wife and two small children, is battling Stage 4 kidney cancer.
I met Kris nearly 15 years ago while he was pursuing a master’s degree at Texas A&M University. From there, he earned a doctorate degree in animal science from Texas Tech University, then worked there as a professor and as the coach of the college’s ranch horse team. After a few years, he and his wife, Cara, decided to pursue a livelihood more conducive to raising a family and fulfilling Kris’ dream of working on a ranch. They spent a year on the Matador Ranch in West Texas, and then Kris was offered his position at the Bell.
In 2013, at the age of 35, Kris received a startling diagnosis. Several weeks after getting run over by a heavy steer during the ranch rodeo at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, he went to the doctor with back pain.
“My back hurt really bad,” Kris says. “I thought it was just an injured muscle. But I went to the doctor, and lo and behold I found out I had a tumor on my kidney. That calf stepping on my back had caused it to bleed. Doctors say that saved me because they were able to find it before it spread.”
In April of 2013, a few days after Kris and Cara welcomed the birth of their second child, Kris underwent emergency surgery to remove the kidney carrying the cancerous tumor, which by then had grown to the size of a football. Extracting it required the removal of a lower rib, and at some point the surgeon accidentally punctured Kris’ lung. Recovery was long and painful, but Kris and his family were relieved with reports that the cancer was gone.
However, in May of 2014 doctors discovered that cancer had spread to his other kidney, his lungs and, oddly enough, to his right foot. They performed surgery on the foot, followed by 10 rounds of radiation. Kris also began receiving chemotherapy.
“Cara and I prayed, and we had a lot of people praying for us,” Kris says. “But when doctors say you’ve got Stage 4 kidney cancer and you have a 7 percent chance of living the next five years, it opens up your eyes. You hate to say this, but you’re kinda like, ‘Why me?’ There was a point when I was kinda feeling sorry for myself.”
Eventually, his outlook changed. He began to learn to live moment by moment, and gained a deeper appreciation for his family, friends and ranching lifestyle. Rather than receiving treatment in his pajamas, he showed up in his boots, starched jeans and hat.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to act sick anymore,’ ” he recalls. “I began to approach things a lot differently, and it’s a lot less stressful. God comes first, family second, and then my job. And I could not be in a more perfect situation than the place where I work.”
Kris continued his role as manager at the Bell, although he spent more time working from behind the windshield than in the saddle. He says his cowboys and his bosses have been “incredible,” picking up slack when necessary and supporting him beyond expectation.
Due to treatment schedules and bouts with severe pain, riding and showing in ranch horse events was hit and miss. He qualified a horse for the 2014 Ranch Horse Association of America national finals, but was unable to compete at the event. He qualified another horse for ranch pleasure at the 2014 American Quarter Horse Association World Show, but again couldn’t attend. He felt healthy enough to enter the Fort Worth Stock Show’s ranch rodeo in January of this year, and won its Top Hand Award.
“I ride fearless now,” he said shortly after claiming the title. “I’ve got nothing to lose. [When roping] I don’t swing one more time over the cow’s back. I let it fly. It’s liberating.”
Some may chalk it up to cowboy grit or the strength of the human spirit. But Kris credits a higher power. He recalls a specific turning point in May of 2014, shortly after beginning his second battle with cancer.
“One day we were sitting at the house, and I told Cara, ‘I miss that Bible study with the students we used to lead at Texas Tech,’ ” Kris says. “Why don’t I just do that same Bible study, but do it on Facebook? I’ll write something each week and let people respond.”
The “Western Faithbook” page on Facebook he started, and where he posts a devotional each Tuesday night, now has more than 3,300 members. Along with Kris’ writings about faith, rejoicing in trying times and helping others, the page fields prayer requests and praise reports from followers in the ranching community and the horse industry.
“I’ll be honest with you, if you get a bad report from the doctor, it’s hard to write something encouraging,” Kris says. “But the courage I receive from those members has been incredible.
“And I try not to make it about what is happening to me. It’s not about me. It’s how the Lord has helped me through this struggle. He gave me an opportunity to do something that has helped others, and that changed my perspective a bunch.”
Cara has witnessed a transformation in her husband during the past two years. “He doesn’t take a minute for granted, and he has taken his love for people to another level,” she says. “He’s kind of become a counselor for others, and that has helped pull us through.”
Despite more than a year of intensive treatment, cancer has now spread to his left foot, but Kris has learned to handle bad diagnoses. He recalls a conversation months ago with a friend, who wished doctors or a drug could have eradicated his cancer in the early stages.
“They said, ‘Then you wouldn’t have had to go through all these things,’ ” Kris recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that would’ve been great.’ But I was really troubled by my statement that night, because I feel right now I’m a better Christian, a better father and a better husband because of these trials.
“I’m praying for total healing. But if the cancer goes out of control and takes me, fine. I have to have faith that my family will be taken care of. I’m thankful for my relationship with the Lord and the way He has led me. Now, I honestly live every day for what it’s worth. And I think by doing [Western Faithbook], I’ve found my purpose. And it’s not for me; it’s for Him.”
This story, written by Editor-in-Chief Ross Hecox, first appeared in Leading Off in the September 2015 issue.