A sequoia can live two thousand years. A squid has a four-year life span. A mayfly—born with the dawn and gone by dusk. Each life is a whole life, complete in itself. The quality of that life has nothing to do with its longevity, but everything to do with how it is lived.
For me, the greatest tragedy in dying would be to have been known and loved for who I am not, rather than to be assessed, judged, embraced or even discarded for who I am. Saying what’s on our minds and in our hearts—being authentic—is ultimately easier than dying with our omissions and lies.
Excerpted from Chapter Two – Theme: Persistence
The mammoth, white ship glided across the water easily, negotiating its way through floating icebergs as it neared the great walls of ice which thundered into Glacier Bay, Alaska, at irregular intervals. The ship, which had left Juneau the night before, would be cruising at sea for three days, and I welcomed the respite from my eager exploration of each Alaskan port we had visited.
As the cloud cover thickened, the temperature dropped precipitously. Samahria and I went back to our cabin to find an envelope marked “urgent,” taped to our door. I held my breath, instinctively trying to hold back time, to hold back the walls of ice, to hold onto you, Pop, as you had become so precious to me. I opened the envelope immediately; it contained a telex from my daughter Bryn.
“I’m sorry to intrude on your vacation but I know you would want me
to contact you if anything happened to Grandpa. He’s much, much sicker than
when you left. I think you should come home right away. I think he’s dying.”
As recently as four months ago, you were still exercising vigorously despite the progressive and virulent growth of the cancerous lymphatic tumors that had been nesting in your body since the initial diagnosis almost two years ago. I knew that your time with me, with all of us, was drawing ever more rapidly to a close. But, Pop, I have come to know that if I cling to you fearing some future loss, I will be distracted by my distress and miss the enjoyment of loving him today.
I couldn’t believe that after being totally available to you for the past two years, now that the situation had become critical, I was stuck on a ship in the Pacific Ocean that would not touch port again for three days. I consulted the people at the front desk and explained my dilemma. Although they appeared sympathetic, they informed me that there would not be an opportunity for us to leave the ship for days.
“What about a helicopter?”I asked.
“We don’t have a helipad. And this part of Alaska is desolate, so there’s no place to let you and your wife off. It’s impossible; I’m sorry.”
“Listen, we have to find a way to reframe this situation. Nothing’s impossible. Can I talk to your supervisor?”
He returned with another gentleman wearing a naval uniform. Though sympathetic to our plight, he gave a similar answer. I would have to wait until we arrived in Valdez, three days later.
All I could think about was getting to my father. I returned to the front desk and asked to see the same manager again.
“I know this might seem unreasonable, but I really want your help in finding a way to get me off this ship. My father is dying and I really have to be there with him. Do you understand?”
“I appreciate your kindness, really I do. But if you can’t help me find a way off, maybe I’ll just have to swim.”
“No, no, no,” he countered, half-smiling and yet cautious as he continued to address me. “This is Alaska. The water is freezing.”
“Then help me. Let’s be creative! Please.” We looked at each other without speaking for several seconds; then I continued. “What about getting a boat from shore to meet the ship? If we can get on land, I know we can find our way back to the East Coast.”
“But that’s not possible right now. I’m very sorry.”
“I want to speak to the captain,”I said.
“There’s nothing more we can do,” another clerk informed me.
“I understand, but I want to see the captain anyway.”
“Wait here, please.” Minutes later another officer appeared.
“Hello, I am the vice captain. We have discussed your situation with the captain and your insistence about leaving the ship. Tomorrow we will be cruising within a few miles of a place on the coastline where there is a small village. We exchange pilots at that point. We can radio for a fishing boat to take you and your wife to shore, and then you will have to make your way from there.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much.” I leaned over the counter and hugged the man.
“How do we get from this boat to the other? My wife’s a bit squeamish about these particular types of adventures – standing at the edge of cliffs or tall buildings. We’re going, no matter what, but how will we get into that little fishing boat?”
“Oh!” I grinned thoughtfully. “I don’t mean to sound too naïve, but will the ladder be metal…or…or rope?”
“Metal, of course. It will not be difficult.”
I thanked him profusely, extending my gratitude to the captain and everyone else involved. He bowed graciously.
Stay alive, Pop, I kept telling you. I’m coming. I will help you. Stay alive. Wait for me if you can, I said to you, jogging down the corridor toward my room. Then I stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t want you to wait for me if it meant more pain. I didn’t want you to stay alive if you felt ready to let go. So, I changed my running commentary: It’s okay, Pop. I’m coming but you don’t have to wait for me. Do what’s best for you!
Samahria couldn’t believe that I’d managed to convince the crew to assist us after several refusals.
“Bears, you know how much I love your father. He’s like a father to me, too. I would do anything for him; you know that. But the weather is awful. One of the stewards said we’re entering a rainstorm that will last all day tomorrow. How exactly do we get from this monster ship into a small boat in choppy seas?” She caught my smile. “Don’t laugh. Answer me.”
“How about trusting that we’ll get off fine? These people know what they’re doing. Whatever we have to do tomorrow, we’ll do, okay?”
“I’ve got this weird feeling about getting off the boat.”
Samahria’s fear of heights concerned me. I was sure that if she knew about our method of disembarkation, she would not sleep that night at all. But to my surprise and delight, she did not pursue the issue further.
The next day, the crew took us and our luggage down to a cargo deck about two stories above the water. One of the deckhands slid a huge cargo door aside. The wind and the pouring rain filled the area where we waited. I searched in the mist for the fishing boat. Then, in the distance, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a toy boat by comparison with our huge ship. I could feel Samahria clutching my arm.
“Honey, it’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure her. “We’re going to be okay.”
The fishing craft, no more than eighteen feet long, circled around to the cargo opening and then its crew secured it with ropes and metal hooks to the side of our vessel. The ship’s crew burst into action, lowering our luggage with ropes. And then, to my surprise, they opened a hatch beneath the cargo door, revealing a flimsy rope ladder riveted at one end to the door’s metal casing. They tossed the other end over the side of the ship. This was no neat metal ladder with a reasonable railing to hold onto. No, as in a movie, it was a simple, unadorned rope ladder, now flapping in the wind.
“Oh, God!” Samahria exclaimed as she backed away from the cargo door. “No way. I am not going.”
“Honey, we can do this. You can do this. There’s no time to discuss it. We have to go, now.”
“Please hurry,” a crewmember urged us.
“In a minute,” I said to him. Pop, I turned my back to Samahria. I knew I had to invoke your name. I could feel her hands trembling. “It’s the only way to get to Pop before he dies. Honey, trust me. You can do this. I’ll go first and make sure you get down safely. Okay?” She pulled back from me. “C’mon, you can do this. I know you can. Maybe God is inviting you to be a daredevil today.”
Samahria took a single step toward me, then stopped to peer through the rainy mist down to the choppy waves below—far below. She took a deep breath, shook her head in resignation. For her, it was like jumping out of a skyscraper. My heart reached out to her, Pop, but my head stayed focused on helping her do what seemed unthinkable. I knew we had to move quickly. I barely remember grabbing the rope and backing quickly down the ladder, with Samahria saying, “Oh, my God! Oh! God!” as she watched me descend. Truly I felt like Spiderman climbing down the side of a high-rise apartment only my target wasn’t a sturdy sidewalk but a little platform, bobbing in the water. Seconds later, I jumped into the boat, which rocked unevenly in the ocean waves.
When I looked up, I saw the crew showing Samahria how to turn around and grab the ladder.
“Don’t look down,” they called out. “Just follow our directions.”
Pop, she looked so frightened, but what a trooper! You would have been so proud of her. She took the first step down. “You’re doing great!” I yelled. “Your foot’s secure. Yes, that’s it; step down.” The rungs of the rope ladder were so thin that only the toes of her tiny feet could secure her. The rain drenched us both, splashing into my eyes as I kept talking to her. The crew added their comments, encouraging her to take the next step and then the next. “Not too much more to go and you’re here,” I shouted.
Suddenly, Samahria stopped climbing and looked down. Her legs trembled.
“No!” another crewmember shouted.”Don’t look down! Look up and we’ll guide you.”
Samahria acknowledged their directive immediately, regained her balance on the rope and continued her descent. As she came within reach, I touched her leg so she could feel my support. “Only a few more steps to go,” I reassured her. Just as she was about to put her foot on the outside ridge of the boat, a wave crested, sending the boat into a dip between swells. It dropped down at least six feet, leaving Samahria’s foot dangling precariously in midair.
“Hang on! Don’t let go!” I screamed, as did some of the crew members. When the boat popped back up toward her, I shouted for her to let go and grabbed her as she dropped into the boat.”
Less than an hour later, we landed on shore in a village with a population of less than three hundred people, located a plane to fly us to Juneau, and spent the next thirty hours finding our way back to you, Pop.
Excerpted from Chapter Four – Theme: Authenticity
Thirty years ago, I remember leaving Mom’s bedside in the hospital after her mastectomy in order to go to the bathroom. As I stood in front of the mirror washing my hands, I heard a man in one of the stalls sobbing intensely; in fact, he seemed to choke on his own emotions.
As I turned to exit the restroom, I lingered uncomfortably, listening to the gut-wrenching sounds that continued unabated. I could see the top of the man’s head visible above the gray partition. Obviously, he stood alone, leaning against the metal cubicle that had become both his refuge and his prison. Finally, I decided to leave him, to avoid intruding on his privacy and his grief. But as I walked to the door, I stopped yet again. I looked back toward the toilet stalls. Something about the top of the man’s head seemed suddenly and oddly familiar. I tiptoed toward the cubicles to get a closer look. Pop, you were the man sobbing in the stall.
I backed away, stunned, experiencing my own emotional meltdown. I had never seen you cry or display any pain whatsoever. I wanted to reach out to you—to help you, to hold you, but I couldn’t. You had taught me to stand alone, as you stood alone in the bathroom stall. Be strong. Be a man! I didn’t know how to make sense out of your emotions.
I felt physically sick and nauseated when I returned to Mom’s room. I smiled as if nothing had happened, but everything inside seemed poised to explode. Then, some time later, you returned to Mom’s bedroom, smiling at her, me, and others in the room. I smiled back at you, Pop, never betraying—no, not for an instant—that I knew where you had been and what you had been doing. When Mom asked you why you had been gone so long, you told her you had been down in the cafeteria.
Maybe it was in that moment, Pop, that I first began to hate the lies. They separated us from each other. They left you without any comfort or caring from others in the face of your grief. They left me confused and angry with myself and with you. They left Mom dangling in a sea of formula smiles.
Unfortunately, at that time, none of us had a forum for talking about death. We did “grin and bear it,” then lied to each other, to ourselves, and to Mom, telling her she looked healthier than ever when, in fact, her face had become distorted because of the radiation treatments and her abdomen had swelled because of the tumors growing in her liver.
I think, Pop, we left her isolated, dying alone while still physically alive in the midst of her family and amidst the surface chatter we had all used to mask our real thoughts and feelings. You and I have learned, grown, and changed so much since then.
Excerpted from Chapter Six – Theme: Acceptance
“We have to do something about the swollen nodes that the doctor talked about,” she asserted,”and about this illness.”
“And we have to do something about your pain, Dad,” Samahria added.
“I agree with everyone,” I said. “But why aren’t we calling the swollen nodes ‘tumors,’ which they are, and this illness ‘cancer,’ which it is? Even the doctors avoided those words.”
“I don’t like those words,” Rosie said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of what, um, they mean,” she responded haltingly. “You know as well as I do that when people hear that word, it’s…it’s like hearing a death sentence.”
“Okay. I want to say this so it sounds sensible, not scary. Pop, you don’t have a cold or the flu; you have cancer, which means some cells are now growing at a rate different from that of normal cells and they have to be guided to return or change back to normal patterns. I have a suggestion that I hope doesn’t sound too flip or silly. What about beginning by making friends with these words? At the Institute, we do a little exercise with words that we’re afraid of or words that have become taboo. We sing them. I know it sounds silly, but let me try. I’ll start, then you can join in if you’d like. Okay?”
Using the tune of “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat,” I started singing, “Cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer, all the way down the stream. Cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer, life is but a dream.” Through the mirror, I could see you and Rosie looking at each other quite astonished. Then you began to smile. Rosie smiled back at you as she began to sing. Samahria joined us immediately. When you started singing, then our quartet became complete. We switched words, alternately using “tumor” and “malignant.” Within minutes, we had excised the terror from an entire group of words that you and Rosie, especially, had been avoiding.
That evening, when we traded information with each other from all the literature we continued to study, I could not help but notice you and Rosie now using words like “cancer” and “lymphoma” as easily and comfortably as you used expressions like, “pass the salt.”
Excerpted from Chapter Seven – Theme: Reconciliation
For me, meaningful love relationships began with and thrived on open, honest exchanges between those involved. I wanted to try yet again, Pop.
That afternoon seven years ago, when you still viewed straight talk as impolite and unnecessary, I was determined to push at the borders of our relationship, to find a way for us to know and love each other more. I wanted much more traffic (information, thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams) on the bridge between us.
I am sure you remember this exchange:
“Pop, if you entered a room filled with people you know, including me, and you were asked to pick one person to be your friend and live with you on a private island without any other human contact, would you pick me?”
You stopped in your tracks. “There you go again. How could you ask me such a question? I am your father. It’s ridiculous to pose such a question. You’re my son.”
“Yes,” I said. “But, even so, would you pick me to be a friend on that island with you, given what you know about me–how I think, what I value, the ridiculous questions I seem to ask? Maybe the answer could help us know more about how we feel about each other. If you were going to pick one person, would you pick me?”
“I just told you. I won’t answer that question. And that’s final.”
“Okay. Fair enough,” I said. “Pop, I’m going to reverse the question and ask it of myself. If I entered a room filled with people I know, including you, would I pick you as that sole companion on that island?” I walked along in silence for a few moments. Samahria glanced at me cautiously. Rose didn’t say anything. Then I stopped dead in my tracks and faced you. I took your hand, rubbed it gently and said, “No, Pop. Unfortunately, I don”t think I would pick you.”
You stared at me, amazed at my words. You took a step back away from me, disengaged from my hands, yet remained focused on my eyes. In that moment, I recalled an explosive interaction between us soon after my sixteenth birthday. You had refused to let me visit my friends in the city. I packed my bag anyway, and just as I was about to leave, you confronted me. You glared at me in the same way you’d just done, then punched me squarely in the chest. I asked you if hitting me made you feel like a man and suggested, sarcastically, that you try hitting me again. You raised your fist a second time. At that moment, Mom interceded, grabbing your arm. Your face reddened.
“Abe, you’re going to get yourself sick,” she cautioned you.
Her words scared me at the time. I thought you might have a heart attack and it would be my fault. Although I pushed hard against what I experienced as your tight-fisted rule, I never wanted to hurt you. I backed away and left the house without saying another word. Now, as I looked at you, your face did not redden. In fact, your expression softened suddenly and your shoulders relaxed.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” you said gently, “I wouldn’t pick you for a friend or an island companion either.”
We both started to laugh. I reached over to hug you, a hug you returned robustly. Then, we walked arm in arm, smiling and chuckling at each other. At one point, you leaned over and kissed my cheek, a rare occurrence at that point in our lives.