Doug types too much...
December 27, 2021
I had a friend named Gary who died from pancreatic cancer. As cancers go, it’s not a good one to get. A typical experience is often 6 months life expectancy after diagnosis. Part of that rapid descent is due to how the cancer manifests itself. By the time you’re feeling something amiss, you’re well along the way with little to no hope of recovery.
Gary told me he was out at dinner one weekend with his wife and one of his sons and their family. Toward the end of the meal, he felt what he thought was indigestion. He blew it off. But when he woke up the next morning, he still had it and it continued throughout the day. So he called his primary physician and made an appointment.
It was a couple of days later when Gary got the call at home from his doctor who asked, “Are you alone?”
“No, my wife is home.”
The fact that Gary was not alone was good, but the news he was about to receive was not.
I met Gary in a work environment. My very first conversation with him went technical immediately and he started drawing out algorithms on a sheet of paper. I glazed over in seconds and he stopped when he saw my dazed look. Without malice, he surmised, “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
I laughed. “No, man, I’m a bricklayer and you seem to be some sort of rocket scientist.”
Then he laughed back. “Actually, I am.”
Clearly we were badly mismatched when it came to rocket science. With great kindness, he started over with me and explained things in bricklayer terms. And we were friends from then on.
Every year around Christmas when most people were on vacation, I’d sit by myself eating lunch in an emptied-out cafeteria. For many years, it was an informal tradition for Gary to appear and sit with me. Every December, he encouraged me to follow my dreams of being a writer, filmmaker, whatever. Every year, we’d end our little pep rally with him saying, “I don’t expect to see you here next Christmas because you’re going to be successful at doing what you really want to do.”
Gary encouraged me every year. And then he got that indigestion thing at dinner with his family.
Gary was retired medically within several months. At the time he was going through treatments, 2 of the 5 best pancreatic specialists in the United States were in residence right here in Charlottesville. Gary was only supposed to live for 6 months. He lasted 4 years.
I went to see Gary a few times during the duration of his illness. We’d sit in his living room or hang out on his back porch. We talked about a lot of things, both big and small. There was one conversation that stopped me in my tracks. That was the day he told me what it was like to get a diagnosis like his.
“Doug, I couldn’t sleep for the first 2 nights. The first night I was angry. Mad. Mad at God. Mad at the world. I was lying there staring at the ceiling all night asking, ‘What did I do to deserve this? This isn’t fair! Why me?’”
But it was the second night where he squared things with himself. “Why not me?” he asked God.
Gary had been given the gift of clarity. He ran down what was important in his life. He’d been married to his high school sweetheart for decades. They had beautiful children who went on to marry and create beautiful grandchildren. He had a good job, a house, all the creature comforts. “I’ve had it really good,” he said as he looked in my eyes. “So, yeah, why shouldn’t it be me?”
I hope I have that much wisdom and class when it’s time for me to go. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t ponder the lives of those who went before me. To me, there was no rhyme or reason. And hey, I’m in a good place just like Gary was before he got that indigestion. I have a wife who’s been my best friend for over 40 years. I have kids and I have grandkids. I have a home with HVAC and full cupboards. Our dog is old, but still hanging in there. As my old friend Joe Parry likes to say, “Who’s got it better than me?”
So when I get into that pondering mode, I think about people I knew that went too soon. Cancer, MS, heart attack, car wreck, plane crash, suicide, stroke, dementia – pick one from the spinning wheel. As Ted Mack used to say on his golden age of TV variety show, “Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows.”
I miss my younger physical self. The trade-off with aging is the wisdom that comes. For me, wisdom boils down to that old chestnut rule from AA: One day at a time. For me, that translates to staying in the moment as much as possible. Judy got wisdom before me. Years ago, she was practicing living in the present tense. A good example might be her clicking through channels and happening on a James Bond movie mid-way through. I would offer to get the DVD off our library shelf or stream it off a premium channel we subscribe to so she could watch it from the beginning and enjoy the full experience. No, she didn’t want that. She was fine catching the movie right where she came in and just going with it. For her, it was about not having to make a production number out of things. She was happy with what she had.
It took me a while to catch on, but I have. Wisdom has caused all my paradigms to shift. I had to realize that no matter how long I live, I will never be able to do it all. There are too many places to visit. Too many people to meet. Too many experiences to have. The compromise I made mentally was taking into account how much I have done. I’ve traveled over, and stood on, a lot of geography. I’ve shaken thousands of hands. I have had experiences both great and small that formed how I think about the big scheme of things. And laugh? Yeah, man. I’ve had more than my share of laughs. That was probably most important of all.
During the year of COVID lockdowns, I pondered more than usual. I missed seeing people we cared about. After staying fairly dormant this past summer, we finally broke out of COVID prison the first week of October to attend Judy’s 51st high school reunion, which would have been the 50th when it was planned during 2020, but it had been postponed. The reunion was held over several days in Myrtle Beach and we were invited to stay at a beach place owned by one of Judy’s childhood friends and her husband. Also in attendance was a class member who’d been a close friend of both the girls. Plus there were 2 dogs. A party, if you will. With the exception of the 2 dogs, we were all Baby Boomers.
The reunion was interesting enough in itself. I’ve been going to Judy’s reunions since the late 1980s so I’m actually starting to recognize some of her peeps. Well, the ones that are still alive anyway. Hey, the reunion was fine, but for me the highlight was sitting around the beach house living room every night. While it was not totally unexpected given the mix, it was a breath of fresh air to sit in a room represented by different (or no) religions and everyone got along. Dogs and cats living together. We talked about everything under the sun to include religion. And politics. Racism. All without shouting. All without pointed fingers. And all with alcohol involved. No fists were thrown. Nobody went to bed mad. No, it was more laughs than anything else. Everyone had an equal shot in the back and forth to throw in an unexpected one-liner and as it turned out, everyone was equal in that measure. What a wonderful release.
It is always a blessing to spend time with good friends.
The drive home didn’t seem as long as it normally does. 6 -7 hours. I worried about the dog. But I didn’t need to – the kids would’ve called if there was something amiss with our beloved creature. Once we made it to Charlottesville and had safely recovered our little animal, we drove the half hour to our house. The last 6 miles after turning onto 33-West takes about 10 minutes. Straight shot that seems to take forever even though the scenery’s nice. When we drive up to the house, we are always glad to see it hasn’t burned down. Once inside, glad to see heating and air is still functioning.
That vacation spurred other outings. We went to a couple of weddings where we spent weekends in gorgeous settings complemented by great folks and lively conversation. Plus we got to dress up. I even dipped my toe back into the Virginia Film Festival and went to the movies. Thanksgiving was quiet and delicious. Just a couple of nights ago, I got to go see The Mountain Goats again. Couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in the presence of a real live band.
For the last several years, I’ve taken the second half of December off to cocoon myself in our little hideaway. I was greatly looking forward to the break this year. Got writing to work on, but most important, it’s the time of year I get to disengage and hang with my best friend in relative peace and quiet.
It’s been almost a decade since Gary’s passing, so in honor of Gary this year, I went up a couple of weeks ago and sat alone in an empty cafeteria. I told myself, “I don’t expect to see you here next Christmas because you’re going to be successful at doing what you really want to do.”
I’ve had the good fortune to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam twice now. I remember being able to get very close to paintings like Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh. Impressionist paintings are probably my favorites. Van Gogh’s works struck me the most because up close you can see how thick his paint was on the canvases. Up close, it almost doesn’t look like anything, like the paint brushings were crude in nature. But it was when you backed up from the work and allowed some distance that you saw the perfection. What looks like a dab of nothing up close becomes a face with an expression on it when you back up.
I compare my life and my memories to an impressionist painting. The older I get, and the more distance I get, the more my life looks like something beautiful. From afar, that is. If I try to examine things too closely, the memory is fuzzy. But that’s okay. I am fine with everything becoming a big blur of a life filled with some pretty exciting, not to mention educational moments. I was a welfare kid that started out pretty shaky. As a nervous child, I would never have dreamed that I would experience being an artist who has eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants. I would never have conceived of being cocooned in a warm home with spirits that love and care and watch out for me. I thought I would never find peace in my soul. And all of those things have come to pass. The details sometimes escape me. I certainly haven’t written about everything that’s happened in my life, but when I did the scribe thing, often in the moment, recording my thoughts was useful for preserving details. Every once in a while, when I come across some historical piece I wrote, I am amazed at what details the mind cuts loose over time.
But the details aren’t so important anymore. What are the broad strokes?
My life is not perfect, but it comes close on certain days. Very close, sometimes even hitting the bullseye. That’s a lot to be thankful for.
All those people. All those places. All those laughs.
I once joked with Judy that I wanted my tombstone to say “I’m going to miss all this.”
Obviously, there will come a day when I finally join Gary in vacation land. I don’t know where I’ll be physically or emotionally when that time comes.
Like I said, hope I have just a modicum of Gary’s wisdom and class.
Because I really will miss all this.