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Gone

Paul in New York City, Memorial Day weekend 1997

In 1983, when I was 19 years old, I visited a doctor for some long-forgotten reason.  Before then I had noticed a slight leftward tilt in my torso, even when I stood perfectly straight.  As a gymnast, perfect form was essential.  It still is for that matter.  When I mentioned it to the doctor, he said, “Oh, that’s scoliosis.”  In my naiveté, he might as well have said, ‘You have terminal cancer and have about six months to live.’  I honestly knew nothing about scoliosis, so after he left the room, I began contemplating my 19 years on Earth and what kind of mark I’d made on my loved ones.  I took it that seriously.

When the doctor returned after a few moments, I inquired further, and he explained in greater detail what scoliosis is and what causes it.  My anxiety came across as mere curiosity.  I had learned to act and – as a typical male – hide my emotions.  If the bastard only knew how terrified I was…

One of my long-time friends, Paul, died on April 9 after a year-long battle with liver cancer.  He was 55.  I’d written about him previously.  Paul and I had known each other for some 35 years.  We actually attended the same parochial grade school in Dallas and were altar boys at the same Catholic Church.  Our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas in the 1930s and 40s.  Like me, Paul had a strong dedication to family.  We had so much in common, yet differed on many levels.  We often dined together, and during one meal a few years ago, he asked why I still hung around him.  I couldn’t really answer him.  In some respects, he had an elitist mentality; in part, I think, because of his years living in New York and his trips to Europe.  We had something of a love/hate relationship.  We’d have a dispute over some issue and would be estranged from each other for weeks and sometimes months.

Aside from good food, one love we shared was cinema.  Among our favorite films was the campy 1962 classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”.  The movie is like a steak cooked rare – an acquired taste.  We often jokingly referred to ourselves as ‘Blanche’ and ‘Baby Jane’, the dueling sisters of the story enmeshed in an unbreakable union of alcohol, bitter memories and dated outfits.  Yes, I know that sounds gay, but bear with me.  We watched a slew of films over the years and afterwards, critiqued them like an amateur Siskel and Ebert duo over cocktails.

Like me, Paul desired a career in the motion picture field.  In the mid-1980s, I studied filmmaking at the University of North Texas.  In 1991, Paul moved to New York to study the same at New York University.  He earned his degree three years later and remained in New York; trying to secure his place in one of the most fickle industries in one of the toughest cities in the world.  He finally decided to move back to Dallas in 1996 whereupon we began hanging out together again.

The friendship connection extended to our respective families.  I’d come to know his parents, and he had come to know mine.  We experienced each other’s struggles with family, friends, romance and work – you know, the usual stuff of life.  When he lived in a tiny apartment, he had Christmas parties every year, with plenty of food and beverages.  As much as it cost him, he told me, the gatherings made him happy.  And it made others happy.  They were simple times, but they were good.

I’ve written before about losing a close friend to AIDS in 1993 and how I got sick with hepatitis at the same time; how that prevented me from attending his funeral; how that made me feel I had betrayed his mother at the last moment by abandoning them – like so many of her son’s so-called friends had done.  I noted how the bonds of friendship are tested during the worst times of our lives.  I’m proud to say I’ve often been that ‘True’ friend and equally happy to say I have ‘True’ friends among my inner circle.

Paul and I had a dispute at the end of 2020.  The source?  A “New York Times” editorial about the unexpected support Donald Trump received from Hispanics in Texas.  I expressed surprise, but Paul (who had grown increasingly conservative) said it made perfect sense to him.  A short time later he learned he had liver cancer.  As 2021 progressed, his health worsened, and our mutual desire to reconnect increased.  We were old friends, after all, getting to be old men.  Or as I like to call it – the tail end of middle age.  A news editorial shouldn’t be a permanent barrier to good memories.

When Paul’s sister called me that Saturday night to inform me of his death, she asked, “Are you sitting down?”

“Is he gone?” I replied.

I already knew the answer.

One of my last text messages with Paul

I’ve been going through a lot personally in recent months.  Paul’s demise only adds to it.  There’s nothing like the death of a relative or close friend to put our lives into perspective; to understand what is truly important and valuable.

The funeral was this past Wednesday, the 20th.  Beneath a cloudy sky, I stood beside a mutual and much younger friend who was doing everything not to burst out crying.  I wrapped an arm around him and told him these moments are what make life so hard.  We have to deal with the deaths of people we know and love – family, friends, coworkers.  It’s what allows people to survive and reach a certain age.  Paul buried both his parents, a beloved aunt, his older brother and two nephews.  For whatever reason, his time here had ended.

Another mutual friend told me shortly after he’d learned of Paul’s death that he had dreamed of him.  “I didn’t know if it was the edible I’d eaten earlier,” he added.  But he said Paul told him he was happy now; he felt good and was safe.

I have to admit that – as bad as I’ve been feeling lately – I bore some envy of Paul.  He was no longer suffering.  All his pain had gone.  He didn’t have to worry about credit card bills, taking out the trash – or wondering if he was going to wake up the next day.  He also won’t get to live out his dreams of being a screenwriter.

When each of my parents died, I told people my only consolation was that they were no longer suffering from physical agonies.  But they had lived long lives and they’d achieved the best they could, given their circumstances.

I suppose Paul had done the same in his 55 years.

Living our best lives is all we should do with whatever time we have.

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Death and Time

The death of actress and national icon Betty White on New Year’s Eve 2021 has left many of us here in the United States shocked and despondent.  White was just 17 days shy of her 100th birthday; an event which she and the rest of us looked forward to celebrating.  Now she’s gone.  Suddenly.  None of us really saw this coming.  How could this happen?  Why?  But none of us should be shocked.

Death doesn’t honor our designated times of order.  My paternal grandfather once said that he respected death because it bears no prejudice.  It takes who it wants when it wants.  According to my father it was painful for him to admit even that much; as he had seen so many very young people and/or very good people suffer an untimely demise throughout his time on Earth.  My grandfather died in 1969, and my father didn’t fully comprehend the meaning of what the old man had said until some years later.

Perhaps it’s easy for we older folks to have a more cynical if not sedate view of death.  I’m at the point where I know I have more years behind than ahead of me.  But currently I feel I’m surrounded by people enduring serious health struggles.  A close friend is showing signs of Parkinson’s.  Another friend is dealing with liver cancer.  His doctors gave him less than a decade, unless he has a liver transplant.  But his liver seems too badly damaged to qualify for a transplant.  So he’s resigned himself to decluttering his life and reconnecting with people.  One of my cousins who’s 10 years older suffered a heart attack in 2020 and is now battling kidney failure.  The 40-something son of another long-time friend is still recovering from a catastrophic stroke he experienced about 2 years ago.  He’s ensconced in a rehabilitation facility, but doesn’t appear to be making much progress – not according to his father.  The latter says it seems his son doesn’t really want to cooperate with the therapists; as if – just a few years from age 50 – he’s decided he’s lived life to the fullest.

As a manic depressive in my past life, death often occupied more space in my mind than thoughts of the future.  A typical artistic type, I experience the full range of emotions humanity possesses.  But death haunts all of us throughout our lives.  When I was in high school, a girl was killed when a train struck the car in which she was riding.  Around that same time, lightning killed a boy walking home from school.  Some years later, while working at a retail store, a teenage constituent was killed by a drunk driver, and another died in a car wreck.  In the fall of 1992, I happened upon the obituary of a young man I’d known in grade school; he was 29.  The following year a friend died of AIDS at the age of 31.

Looking at the myriad news events surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m always heartbroken at the sight of very young people returning home with damaged bodies and minds or in coffins.  The epidemic of school shootings and deaths of those caught up in civil unrest is truly upsetting.

How is it these things are allowed to happen?  Isn’t there supposed to be an all-loving, omnipotent deity who could prevent such horrors?

I’ve always wondered what life is like on “The Other Side”; whatever it’s supposed to be and wherever that is.  I like to think all those I’ve known in decades past, including my parents and even my dogs, are safely enveloped in such realms; where (hopefully) they are happy and loved.

Back in 2012, I had a brief dream of an English and German instructor I had at a community college in suburban Dallas in the 1980s.  She was a quirky, yet truly inspirational character.  I hadn’t thought of her in years when I had that dream.  I think it was a day or two later when I found her obituary in the newspaper.  And I thought later that, perhaps, she flitted through my sleeping subconscious to say goodbye – for now.

Betty White’s “sudden” death saddened so many people.  But she was 99!  So she didn’t quite make it to her centennial birthday!  She always vocalized how fortunate she was to have lived so long and to have so many people admire and love her.  She had reached the end of her time in this world.

We all will at some point.  As sad as it may be sometimes, it doesn’t really matter one’s age or condition at the moment of death.  It just happens.  We have to make our time as valuable and fulfilling as we can.

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Ah, 2020…What Could Have Been

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Malcolm X

As we continue moving forward into this third decade of the 21st century, I can’t help but ponder the many things both we and our forebears thought society would have realized by now.  I’m considering all of this in the midst of the growing COVID-19 scourge; which now has been officially declared a pandemic.  Just imagine…by the year 2020, we thought we’d have:

Flying cars

A cure for cancer

A colony on Mars

Contact with extraterrestrials

Found Bigfoot

Achieved teleportation

Bullet trains in every major city

Life expectancy exceeding 90

Instead, what are we doing? Teaching people how to sneeze into their sleeves and wash their hands.  What the fuck happened?!

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National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”  Like many people, I knew someone who suffered from breast cancer.  She was my Aunt Margo who died in 1989 at the age of 59.  She was my mother’s older sister, and Margo’s death still impacts us today.  Cancer of any kind doesn’t just affect the individual who develops it – it affects everyone who loves that person.  Fortunately, our society has made great strides in the decades since this issue first came to prominence.  It’s no longer a taboo subject, and its victims no longer have to live and suffer in the shadows.

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