Modern gift of terminal illness offers new perspective.
My next door neighbor, John Spragens Jr., was a gentle soul. He was content in his garden or his digital darkroom, always amazed that what emerged defied his expectations, for better or for worse. You could learn all you wanted to know about John - but only if you asked, and then only if you paid attention to his answers, especially the dependent clauses.
He didn't make a fuss over things, least of all himself. He drove up from Silicon Valley in 2006, moved into the house he had bought sight unseen, parked his 1989 Tracer wagon, and prepared for what he called the "post-petroleum economy."
I saw his e-mail the day after Thanksgiving. Subject line: "Changes in traffic patterns." We don't have enough traffic on our street to make a pattern, much less a change in one, so I wondered. You can read exactly what I read. "This week, I've learned that what I'd taken to be a mystery intestinal disturbance is, instead, pancreatic cancer. There's no cure for what's eating me." Three paragraphs followed, detailing his plans for hospice care, and the oncologist's prognosis that he had "days to weeks of life left."
I did what I hope you would do. I shut down my computer, walked next door, rang the doorbell. There's a privilege of proximity, but we must claim it.
John was cheerful as he swung the door open wide. "Now I don't have to worry whether my car will make it through another winter, or whether our government is shredding our civil liberties. Those are no longer my issues." His letting go of the big and the small was palpable.
Terminal illness is a very modern gift, one that we've only begun to unwrap. No generation of any species before our own has been able to predict with any accuracy the imminent end of a life. As leaps of consciousness go, this is more like scaling a wall than taking a step.
Imagine a carton of milk learning to read its own expiration date. How could every other carton not be transfixed?
John had given himself two days to absorb the awful news, so he was ready to talk. "A couple of months ago, I watched two birds jousting midair over my garden. I felt a breeze on my cheek, and something said I should take this in and hold it, so I did. I still have that moment. I'm glad I held it."
Over the next 11 weeks, he continued to hold it, trekking three blocks to his post office box every day to feel the breeze. He enjoyed expectations defied - his doctors' and his own. Bedridden for only a handful of his last days, he died at home with his family nearby. He's planted now in a pine box, the location to be marked with a new apple tree, as he wished. At his burial, I remembered late November. He and I gathered our families for a belated Thanksgiving feast. John's appetite was modest, but he savored the conversation. He told stories, notably one from folksinger Utah Phillips.
Phillips described his worst job ever, working on a railroad crew. He had to cook dinner every night until someone on the crew complained. Then it was their turn to cook. Phillips trudged the prairie near the work site, wondering how he might hasten this transition, when he came upon a steaming pile of moose excrement.
He determined that a "moose turd pie" would be his ticket out of the cookhouse. He made the pie and served it to the crew. One of the workers was large and loud; he took a generous slice. After one bite, he bellowed, "Why, this is moose turd pie! It's good, though."
John laughed as he told this story. Only last week did I recognize John was that railroad worker. He knew the rules on this railroad crew of life. None of us have been guaranteed any good thing. Everything we enjoy is a gift. Complaints add to our burdens, relieving nothing.
And so, given a steaming pile of unjust desserts, John uttered truth about life, about his shortened life - "It's good, though."
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard.