What has become clear to me is that when it comes to our end times, everything becomes dear.
It’s hard not to think about the things I’ll miss. I don’t imagine myself sitting on a cloud with my angel wings on and feet dangling, moping about everything I’m missing. No, it’s more of a series of sharply observed moments, bittersweet, but mostly sweet. Things I might not have noticed before the diagnosis. Together, they represent the small gifts that make up a lifetime. My lifetime.
Like gathering wild fruit—foraging. Driving around the Palouse Prairie, watching for overgrown homesteads and abandoned orchards, grapes unpicked along fence lines, hardscrabble raspberries climbing the rock piles back home in Harvey Metztger’s field: all of it free! Huckleberries on Mt. Spokane; morel mushrooms along the river; tiny yellow plums, no bigger than my thumb; and the best pear ever, outside of Asotin, Washington, looking for an apple tree I thought I had seen. The best finds can come aslant: arrowheads reveal themselves in the flat glint of flint faces, struck 4,000 years before by human hands. In the night, pennies will reveal themselves as they will not during the day, reflecting the streetlight glare from the parking lot.
Maybe I should have eaten more Chicken in a Biskit; should have used the air conditioner in the car more often; should have had more shrimp, and more bacon; gone back once more to the ocean; kept and loved one more dog.
The languid, heady, Southern smell of honey locust blossoms in the spring: I’ll miss that. Gardening, turning the soil. Tomatoes and peas, sunflowers. And beets: who knew I’d learn to love beets late in my life?
Until recently, I did not know that they make chocolate pound cake—now I’m going to miss that; that it’s really simple to spray WD-40 into a car lock, and it will work better; that there are two different spellings of “discreet” and “discrete.” I did not know what it would feel like to have a definite end.
Sometimes, especially when I’m on the phone, the elephant re-enters the room. The other person says, man, I’m having a hell of a time with my hip lately, and—oh jeez, yeah, that’s right. Umm. I mean, you’re like going to, well, you know, and here I am bitching about a sore hip. I’m sorry man, I just wasn’t thinking and…. No. Stop. Thanks, but it’s okay.
How to be graceful, in times like these, might be worth some attention, on my end. What has become clear to me is that when it comes to our end times, everything becomes dear. Becomes worthy of note. And what we encounter as individuals turns out to be contained within something that is much larger, much more like a plasma, or a gel, that simply encompasses and encapsulates it all. All the hard parts, the pointy bits, the tragedy and the melancholy, sit comfortably alongside the ecstasy and the joy at the miracle of simple human existence. Everything gets absorbed. That’s it: in the end, it’s all the same material. Fluid. Welcoming, even. I don’t know if that’s idiotic or profound. For now, it’s enough.
I’ll miss all water, really, every creek and rill: the Spokane River, Devil’s Lake in central Wisconsin, Lake Michigan east of my home, the channel called Porte de Morte: Door of the Dead. Freshwater lakes that never warm up. Lightning bugs. Camping at Terry Andre State Park. Those dunes.
Along the Snake River, Buffalo Eddy petroglyphs, 8,000 years old and counting. Pecked deep into the burnished rock, other-worldly visions.
Cooking for others. And how I’m going to miss basketball: sneaky step-backs, up-and-under layups, left-handed hook shots. I’m 61, and until recently, when I make a shot, my friend Andy says, “There’s the Old Coyote!” But since my surgery, no more.
I get to wear my slippers any time I want now—even to the grocery store. I can eat chocolate ice cream with impunity, and a bigger spoon. Less oatmeal. More Fudgesicles.
Small tricks I can do with my hands: skipping stones a dozen times, twirling a baton. Learned that in third grade, on the playground practicing those over-and-under-the-finger rolls. Catching a Frisbee behind my back, between my legs, on top of my head. Card-into-hat flipping and Toss the Pen in the Tall Cup.
Music? Hard to get started. Doc Watson, Merle Watson, and the Frosty Morn Band. “Alberta, let your hair hang low. I’ll give you more gold than your apron can hold, if you’ll only let your hair hang low.” Ooof. Guy Clark and his dad’s Randall knife. Emmy Lou Harris, Graham Parsons. Annie Lennox. John Hiatt. Any list I make excludes too much.
Knowledge. Just finding things out, going deep, pushing off with both feet: local history, who lived where, and geology—every lump of pegmatite, each batholith. Fossils slay me. Colossal geological floods. The Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington! Digging up old bottles from farm dumps.
Driving along a Wyoming dirt road and finding a slab of mother-of -pearl fossilized clam shells in perfect replication, upside-down, from the ocean floor and heaved up to the roadside. Actual dinosaur bones pulled from an eroding hillside south of the Badlands near Scenic, South Dakota.
Having to juggle together the recognition of one’s imminent mortality with thoughts of doing the laundry and shopping for bananas can get things a little mixed up, in your head and in your heart. Can complicate things. One has to set certain thoughts, certain truths, even, aside, to get on with the business of everyday life. And that, in itself, can be a kind of a blessing, too. A balm. To enter back into the dailiness of life, out of the rounds of grim waiting rooms and stark facts and cold comforts. Of six different doctors’ appointments in four days. Of walnut-sized “ports” surgically implanted under the skin and two-drug cocktails and a gamma “knife” we all know is not really a knife. Out of the medical world. Back into the world.
I’ll miss being useful. Not feeling useful, but being useful. Set the table, fold the metal chairs at the end of a meeting, do the dishes, the laundry, the floors, on hands and knees. Doing a good job of it.
Ponds, for sure, with turtles. Mucky ponds too, the whole rank and file—mostly rank—with liberty and cattails for all. Half my childhood was spent in the company of crayfish, caught in streambeds and quarries and ponds. Knowing how to get them to scoot backwards into your hat, your net, how to grab them right behind the pincers and render them helpless, how to wave them at girls walking by on the beach while making fake dinosaur roaring sounds.
Huge, rolling Midwestern thunderstorms that blast stick lightning to the ground and pour down rain: gully-washers, branch-breakers, flooders of fields. Ice storms that form on tree branches and bring everything down. Big hail. Gale-force winds. Stories told across the table while the latest storm is still flashing all around, of the time lightning came through the kitchen window, busting it out, and traveled around the room in the wires inside the walls, popping off the wall plates on the way by, and running out onto the porch where it blew the gutters off. Nobody hurt, though. Sheesh.
I love oiling a pair of good leather boots. Where you get the neatsfoot oil down into all the little cracks and creases, and it cleans everything up, and makes it all supple again.
What do I have? I have Stage 4 cancer, the worst kind. As a friend reminded me, there is no Stage 5. I have malignant melanoma, a kind of cancer almost always associated with the skin, although it can enter the body through the skin and settle in anywhere. In my case, that was the gall bladder. It took my doctors a long time to track the whole thing down, because the tests came back negative for gall bladder cancer, but positive for melanoma. How rare is that? My surgeon says that he’s found 12 other cases in the entire medical literature. I have asked every medical professional I’ve met to give me as much information as possible, as soon as possible, so I can make the best decisions. So far, I have been afforded that courtesy, every time.
I believe in the power of warm bubble baths, especially for men: lavendar-scented, epsom-salted, candles flickering in the dark, soft music in the background…. No general ever stepped out of a bubble bath and declared war.
I won’t have to buy Christmas stamps. It’s okay if I’m starting to go deaf. And I won’t have to get a colonoscopy.
Yes to sandbars, to caramel sauce, and ice-cream sandwiches. Yes to tadpoles in classrooms, tadpoles with legs and a tail, tadpoles all the way to frogs. And then, let go, into the swamp.
Vellum-covered books, a warm stocking cap, heavy-duty long johns.
The Pacific Ocean and everything in it. Kelp bulbs and fronds that look like cheerful waving aliens. Sea urchins. Tidal pools. Haystack Rocks. The Aquarium at Monterey Bay, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Newport Aquarium on the Oregon Coast, any damned aquarium anywhere. The first time I saw a starfish at 25 years old: fiery orange as a kid’s drawing of the sun. Curious seals bobbing toward me in the Pacific surf, sea lions illustrating the word “bask” at Florence, Oregon. Whales off Yaquina Head. Even the slow-going freighters that crawl the horizon are parcel and part, are connected to the Kon-Tiki and the Makah tribal whalers and every human outward seagoing endeavor: Go! Go find out!
Rattlesnakes? The first was in the Klickitat Canyon in southcentral Washington, a timber rattler, curled up against the trunk of a big blue sagebrush off to the side of the trail. The first clacking, clattering sound, the first dry, hollow shatter of it got into my body and I was reduced to the truth. You could die.
I’m undergoing Gamma Knife radiation treatment, and then immunotherapy. The Gamma thing is not a blade, but a highly focused radiation tool that sits in a room by itself and weighs 64 tons and shoots gamma rays from 200 different points to focus a super-fine beam on a tumor, to shrink it. These tumors are in my brain, a total of seven of them, mostly small, except for one larger mass. This is the most advanced therapy of its kind, and it has a low rate of side effects. The doctors are confident of good results, and everything looks positive in that department.
Immunotherapy consists of a regimen of two different drugs, three weeks apart. The intent is to boost the immune system enough to fight the cancer. The infusion is a three-hour process where I bring a book along with me and they have me sit in a recliner. Sometimes, it’s the best part of my week. Almost. The resulting side effects are much reduced from those experienced during chemo or general radiation. I am receiving two new drugs, one just released by the FDA, specifically meant to treat melanoma.
But there is no cure for Stage 4 cancer. It will kill me. None of my doctors has been able to offer me an “end date,” even though I sometimes ask, “Can you give me a ballpark figure here? Weeks, months, a year?” It all depends on a matrix that has too many variables: I’m in good health, I’m relatively young, I have no other heart or lung conditions to complicate matters. The PET scan showed that I don’t have cancer in my bones, where melanoma often runs to—that’s a particularly good bit of news.
Just six months ago, back in May, I had no idea there was anything wrong. I was playing basketball once a week with some of the other old guys and getting up tricky shots with my left hand. But in June, while I was driving, I had a sudden feeling of pressure inside my chest, on the right side–not a heart thing, but something I’d never felt before. I drove to the ER, where they diagnosed a blocked bile duct (goes from the liver to the small intestine) and they put a stent in the duct, and removed some suspicious material. Thus began the first mystery: What was the “sludge” (their term) they found in the blocked duct? A biopsy took ten days to come back with a definite conclusion. The gall bladder material tested negative for most cancers, including gall bladder cancer, but positive for melanoma. Can’t be. They had to rerun the tests, twice. Turns out, that’s what it is.
So the oncologist hands me the keys to the hearse and says, “Drive slow.”
I’ll miss the loopy, heady feeling I get when I smoke pot. I like the fine disordering of the senses, the associative surprises that can arise when I’m high. I don’t take edibles; they put me to sleep. And I don’t vape that 90 percent concentrated stuff. Too high by half. Every once in a while, just put a little puff in a pipe. I have for 40 years.
My odd case got kicked upstairs from Dr. Puri to Dr. Mejia, who explained that my gall bladder, which was left in after the first surgery, would now have to come out. Also, there was a chance he’d have to resect, or remove, a piece of my liver where it was in contact with the gall bladder. That surgery, in mid-July, revealed that the cancer had been spread through the lymph nodes that were near my gall bladder to other parts of my body. Dr. Mejia removed the gall bladder and the lymph nodes, and recessed the liver, which tested negative for cancer. Once again, it took a long time—ten days—for the report to come in, confirming the diagnosis: melanoma of the gall bladder.
At the bank, there’s an overeager teller—Ben—with a seven-dollar haircut, a tip-hustling voice and a steel-trap mind who always asks, “So Dennis, what ya got goin’ on tonight? You going out?” He nods at my empty ring finger. So tonight I say, in the flat voice of a serial killer, “No, Ben, tonight I’m going to sit in my basement in a cocoon of self-loathing and despair and shake my fist at the sky while burning with contempt for humanity.” He blinks twice, and says only, “Okay, here’s your cash.”
Late-night walks, end of August, the air buoyant, uplifting, the cool starting to slide in under the day’s heat. And conversation. As much as anything, conversation. Simple back-and-forth. A laugh, now and again, at an unexpected turn of phrase. Easy repartee. Wit.
Junk shops, second-hand stores, thrift stores, The Thrifty Grandmothers store in Colfax, estate sales, farm auctions, all of it. Every last chipped glass and plate of it. When I was 12 years old, I went to a yard sale across the street and bought six pink Depression-era wine glasses for two dollars. I still have five. Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean I have to quit shopping.
Found notes. I’ve kept these for 40 tears: Yvonne, Call your mother before your visit to the psychic. Ragtag snips of sentences, inmate mail, more than 200 letters. Also, I have a wooden box full of found pennies; the ones that are the worse for the wear are the best. The run-over, the beat up and bent. The farther away from money they come—the closer back to copper they go—the better.
On the Palouse Prairie in harvest time: grain trucks lined up like circus elephants in a cut-over wheat field, each truck’s tail grabbed by the trailer behind it.
Colleen comes to get me from the waiting room, wearing blue scrubs. She’s handsy, patting my arm, my back, my knee once I’m seated on the examining table. She’s very interested in what I do for a living, how everything has been going since the diagnosis, if I have friends to help me through. She’s warm and genuine and takes more than a passing interest in me as a person and a patient. She is also not afraid to tear up. She introduces me to Jill, who will walk me all the way through the procedure and will, it turns out, be there for me when I begin to cry unexpectedly. Jill is a rock-solid nurse with 33 years on the job and 16 years doing this particular work. Yet she still lets her eyes fill up and has to take a tissue of her own after handing me one. Like Colleen, she has somehow found a way to stay compassionate, to keep her heart open to the truth of her patients’ lives, short though they may be, and still offer all the strength and support she can muster. It’s a rare combination—it’s so much easier to guard the heart.
Kicking a pine cone down a trail, and having it roll a long way.
Should I store my summer shorts over winter? Is Christmas likely? How about rubber bands? Should I even bother saving them?
Dumb jokes. Bad puns. Word squirts. Why can’t you run in a campground? Because you ran—past tents. I have 25 friends who are letters but I don’t know Y. My mom had a bunch of set-pieces she could trot out: “The drunker I sit here, the longer I get. I’ve only had tee martoonies.” I still love gags—especially sight gags. The Buster Keaton flying prat-fall. And Mad Magazine (RIP). Any kind of laughter. Carson. Keeton. Chaplin. Also Robert Benchley and Red Skelton and Gilbert and Sullivan. Danny Kaye, for sure. Definitely Danny Kaye. (Watch him dance with Liza Minelli on his 1960s TV show on YouTube. Smashing.) Smothers Brothers in red sweaters. George Carlin? A saint. Firesign Theatre? Geniuses.
In the neurosurgeon’s office, the first thing I notice is the dog bed. Then Fiona the dog trots in and plops down. Meanwhile, the neurosurgeon is pointing to the view from the top of my brain down, working his way through the layers and cross-sections, and describing the seven tumors. He shows me a small cloudy area where some blood has spread into the brain. The doctor’s affect is decidedly flat. It’s not that I want a flamboyant neurosurgeon or something, but I’m just hoping for a reaction. The dog stirs, sighs. My neurosurgeon has a loose shock of white hair and a dandy, flowing mustache, a bit like Mark Twain. I trust him immediately. He thinks we’ll have to do three treatments, just to be sure. Good idea, I say. Very good idea. Three treatments. Two weeks apart. Whatever it takes. The dog snuggles into its bed. The doc has me sign a consent form. He looks at my handwriting, and finally, he laughs: “You have a worse signature than I do.”
Some of the better wack-a-doodle books: Poor Richard’s Almanac. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Lin Yutang, With Love and Irony and the Analects of Confucius. Lafcadio Hearn, all the way. e e cummings near the top of the list for sass, and sincerely mocking the worst of capitalism. Whitman because, well, Whitman: perhaps the original American. Gary Snyder. Marilynn Robinson. Wendell Berry. Kurt Vonnegut. Saul Bellow: all the fiction, and especially the essays, It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future.
Unlimited bratwurst: no more cholesterol checks. Apple streusel goes on that list of what I’ll miss. It’s all about how you crumble the butter into the brown sugar-flour mixture. One pound butter, two cups flour, one cup brown sugar. Good fat. My friend Sean calls it “crack cake.” Goes well with the weed. And everything else.
Job 7:7-10: Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again. The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; you will look for me, but I will be no more. As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more.
So now it’s slow and steady and we’ll all try to get through this with some grace and decorum. One thing I know—wait, what was that thing? I’ll keep you posted.
Dennis Held lives in the Vinegar Flats neighborhood of Spokane, Washington, where he is a book editor and community organizer. His first book of poetry, Betting on the Night, was published by Lost Horse Press; his second, Ourself, by Gribble Press. His most recent collection, Not Me, Exactly, is forthcoming by Hand to Mouth Press. He lives along Hangman Creek and watches for kingfishers.