It’s almost bedtime in the Sugarman home, and pandemonium has broken out. The 2-year-old twins, Kyle and Erin, are clamoring to be chased, their baby shoes thumping as they race, pink-checked and shrieking, from room to room. Soon Randy and Hone Sugarman will round up their son and daughter in preparation for a favorite nighttime ritual: The whole family makes a train as the toddlers chug off to bed, chanting, “Na-na-na-na, choo! choo!”
It is a scene that is remarkable only for its ordinariness. And yet for the Sugarmans, both 39, the ordinary is remarkable indeed. “It’s been an amazing journey,” says Randy, laughing over the din and flashing a warm glance at his wife.
“There are so many things,” Hope concurs, “that could have gone the other way.”
Hope Stolley Sugarman came to Los Angeles from New York City in 1989 to work. She was 31, and nothing in her life had worked out the way she’d planned.
Her father was a successful journalist, and she’d always had high expectations for herself. But everything seemed to fizzle, from her attempts to become an entertainment manager to the live-in romance she had struggled to sustain.
A new city, a fresh start–that would be the ticket. She moved to Los Angeles and took an entry-level job as the assistant to the music director at a film studio. She lived alone and buried herself in work.
Two years passed, and Hope felt as isolated as the day she’d arrived. She resurrected a relationship with an old boyfriend, but it ended painfully. Then she tried the dating circuit, which left her depressed: “You get to where you’re thirty-three years old, and it’s like, `I don’t want to do this anymore.'”
So she decided to forget romance for awhile and focus on friendship. And she knew just where to start. There was a nice guy who happened to be her boss’s business manager and best buddy. “I thought, He’s funny, he’s a good conversationalist–he’s everything I’m looking for in a friend.”
To those who knew him, Randy Sugarman had it all. The son of a successful movie producer, he was raised in the whirl of Hollywood society. Yet he managed to impress people as “the most regular guy you could ever meet in your life,” as a friend put it.
He never lacked for dates, and was constantly being fixed up with single women. When he quit the entertainment management firm where he’d worked and later started his own company, the transition proved seamless.
One day Randy’s luck turned, in a way that no one could have foreseen. He noticed a lump in his groin that refused to go away.
His general practitioner sent him to a urologist. The urologist performed an ultrasound. And on a Friday afternoon in March 1992, the physician delivered the bad news.
“He said, `I’m going to be very direct with you. You have cancer,'” Randy recalls. The words were so stunning that at first, Randy found them impossible to absorb. He went numb. There was a roaring in his head.
“I looked at everything in my life and thought, It all stops. I’ll never have the wife I’ve dreamed about. I’ll never have the children I’ve dreamed about.”
As Randy struggled to focus, the doctor laid out the facts: The cancer was treatable; it had been detected early and the prognosis was good. But it was testicular cancer, which would demand a special kind of emotional fortitude.
Testicular cancer afflicts some 7,200 American men each year, according to the American Cancer Society, and in terms of trauma and shame, it is the male equivalent of breast cancer. For most men, the diagnosis leads to the removal of one or both testicles, as well as surgery to remove any lymph nodes to which the cancer has spread.
Though the treatment does not necessarily render a man impotent, the chemotherapy combined with the surgery may leave him sterile. Randy’s doctor told him he could freeze and bank his sperm before surgery, so he could still have a family.
“He told me the chances were better than ninety percent that I’d end up a healthy, happy guy,” Randy remembers. “But of course, when you hear that, you think: Ten percent. One out of ten. I’m not coming out of this.”
It was a monday morning when Hope strode into the office of her boss, Mitchell Leib, and told him s e was going to call his pal Randy Sugarman. Stunned, Leib just looked at her. There was a long pause. “You haven’t heard,” Leib finally said.
He and Randy had been friends since junior high, and Leib was devastated by the news of his friend’s illness. But when he told Hope, she decided to stick to her plan. “I thought, Well, I need a friend. This is still what I want.”
She invited Randy to dinner, and they talked about everything in their lives except his cancer. It was a surreal sort of evening, Randy thought, but then everything in his life had become surreal. One day you find out you have cancer; the next, you’re having dinner with a beautiful blonde who’s laughing at all your jokes. He was flattered, but so shell-shocked he couldn’t even imagine where Hope’s interest might lead. When the evening ended, Randy planted a polite good-night kiss on her cheek.
After that, Hope became a regular among Randy’s cavalcade of well-wishers and visitors. When he went into the hospital for the removal of some lymph nodes, Hope watered the plants in his condo and fed his fish. When he was convalescing, Hope popped in to cheer him up with a copy of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
When he was undergoing chemotherapy, she’d stop by the hospital to keep him company. Afterward, if he was feeling up to it, they would take in a movie or have a light lunch.
Sometimes, Randy would scarcely make it home before collapsing–only to force himself to go to work the next day to prove the cancer hadn’t won. Hope found herself thinking how rare it was for a person to “see the dark side of life, and choose the other side.”
To Randy, Hope was a link to normal life, and he never failed to tell her how glad he was to have her around. But he knew he had to focus every iota of his energy on getting well. Besides, he was in no condition for romance.
The chemotherapy had made every hair on his body fall out, including his eyebrows and eyelashes. He was nauseated and puffy, and his ears rang incessantly. He thought to himself, You’re bald. You’re skinny. You’re as unattractive as a human can he. And yet, “I had the sense we were getting attached.”
“I just loved being with him,” Hope confirms. According to their friends, it showed.
“Hope became more confident,” Leib says. “Before Randy, there had been a cloud following her. Then she met him, and the cloud lifted.”
Not everyone was encouraging. When Hope’s mother heard about Randy, she worriedly asked her, “Are you sure you want to do this?” In other words: Are you sure you want a relationship with a man who is seriously ill?
But Hope brushed off the question. “All I knew was that I had found a peace in a relationship that I had never known before.”
On July 4, 1992, Randy’s chemotherapy had finally ended. Elated, he drove up the coast to celebrate with some friends. Left behind, Hope felt so abandoned that when Randy finally called her to check in, she let him have it.
He rushed back and met her at an ice-cream parlor. They talked for hours. At conversation’s end, Randy kissed Hope good night. And this time, it wasn’t on the cheek.
Seven months later, on Valentine’s Day, Randy proposed. He remembers Hope’s response exactly: “I’d be honored,” she said. It would be another four years before his oncologist could officially proclaim him to be in remission, but that didn’t matter to her.
Yes, she acknowledges, there were moments when she thought, But what if he dies? “It’s not a great feeling, but it passes. I’d think, Well, yes. And what if he doesn’t?… I knew if he was going to die, it was worth it to have known him and to have been involved with him, even if it was for just a few years.”
Two years ago, thanks to in vitro fertilization, Hope gave birth to the twins. Erin’s hair is fine and blond, and her eyes are blue; her brother Kyle has a head full of dark curls. The Sugarmans don’t expect to have more children, but they are storing some of their fertilized eggs in case they change their minds.
As Randy strokes his daughter’s head, his son scrambles, full tilt, through the dining room, ricochets off a three-foot-tall stuffed Barney, and skids joyously into a pile of toy trucks. “I look at these kids,” says Randy, “and I see the whole thing.”
The life, that is, he once feared he would never know. Hope heading to their bedroom to dress for dinner. Randy rounding up the children for their bath. Last year, he says, was the most successful yet for his business. And this year marks his fifth year without a recurrence of the cancer, an important milestone.
Now his doctor puts him in touch with new cancer patients who are afraid of what may lie ahead. What Randy tells them is that even in the lowest of moments, life will surprise you. And that love can bloom in the unlikeliest of times.