Marty was 73 years old. He liked country music, but thought every song written after 1970 was crap. He worked with his hands, but I don’t know what he did. He had working man’s hands. They hurt for a long time I suspect before he got sick. He liked baseball, and books about the old west. He wasn’t romantic about either, but he appreciated both. He was a good card player and he hated politicians. He fought liver cancer for just under a year, and he lost today. That’s what I learned about him, in the two and a half hours total I spent with him over two visits.
I’ve been doing this a while. Reading to strangers who are sick, and often dying. Visiting people who don’t get many visitors. Sometimes they survive, sometimes they don’t. I’ve written before about why I do it, and isn’t important here to rehash that. I knew he was going to die. He knew it. Not a fuckin thing to be done about that, as he said to me.
But he was wrong.
What’s to be done, at least for me, is to move forward. To be there for people as I can, to encourage others to do the same. dying is a lonely business for the least of us. I won’t aggrandize the way it is. I don’t know if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. or total consciousness, or even damnation. I don’t care. What I do is about the living. I’m not in the business of saving souls.
I can’t save anybody, and I’m not trying to. I’m simply trying to connect with people who sit in the same chairs I once sat in, who have the same poison running through their system. I don’t pretend to have any power as a survivor. But if they get something from it then at least I’m not a narcissist. I like to read out loud, and some people in hospitals and nursing homes and hospice like to be read to. It’s an insert pole A in slot B kind of assembly. If something more comes of it, well that’s gravy. I like to do it, and I hope they like it as well.
None of that is important beyond the fact that I’m still here. That’s what I’m taking from Marty dying. I have an opportunity, opportunities, plural – to watch my son grow up, to do my job and chase my passions, and drink a cold beer in the hot sun, to shovel snow and pay parking tickets, to try new foods and vote for some asshole politician who’s probably going to be a disappointment. I can get tattoos and meet new people, travel, catch a cold and get headaches and get stuck in traffic and go to the gym and eat right and try to be a better man. I can fail often, I can succeed too. I can read and write and play music and learn new things everyday. I can be bored off my ass. I can cheat on my taxes and visit the Makers Mark Distillery. I can fart a lot and take vitamins. I can write meandering blog posts in the middle of the night. I can keep reading to strangers and playing cards and have genuine conversations. I can learn things and teach things and say good luck. I can send good karma and hope it doesn’t get lost in the woods. I can do. I can just do. Whatever I choose. There are rewards and consequences, opportunities and roadblocks.
There is Timshel, at the end of the day, the Hebrew word meaning thou mayest. It’s tattooed on my wrist for a reason, that I see it everyday, that I remember. For a variety of reasons that pre and post date my cancer, I should not be here. But I am. And if I downshift out of optimism then I’m a waste of body, taking up good oxygen and floor space. If I fail to make use of my life I’m spitting in the face of the younger version of myself that went through the kind of pain people don’t talk about at parties. I’m pissing down my own leg. I fought and clawed and scratched and grit my teeth through the worst pain of my life to beat cancer, and there is no better way to give it the middle finger than to keep going. To keep doing. I don’t want kudos, or credit or a pat on the back. If you feel inclined to say or do something, say it or do it for someone who needs it. Perhaps someone that wants to have the newspaper read to them, or play cards, or have someone listen to their stories. There are a variety of organizations we all can work with to give back, however we choose.
We’re all survivors. We’re all here because people with our DNA survived before us. We owe it to them to make our existence mean something, whatever that is. To pay respect to the fact that only through a quagmire of events and a million circumstances each of us is still here. I think Robert Ardrey said it best….
“Man is neither unique nor central nor necessarily here to stay. But he is a product of circumstances special to the point of disbelief. And if man in his current predicament seeks a fair mystique to see him through, then I can only suggest that he consider his genes. For they are marked. They are graven by luck beyond explanation. They are stamped by forces that we shall never know. But even so, in the hieroglyph of the human experience certain symbols must stand for all to read: Change is the elixir of the human circumstance, and acceptance of challenge the way of our kind. We are bad-weather animals, disasters fairest children. For the soundest of evolutionary reasons man appear at his best when times are worst.”
That’s my speech.
I have things to do.