Some thoughts on living and dying.

Month: April, 2013

I’m alive.

I’m doing things I thought I’d never do again.  Important things, in the scheme of things.  I’ve seen and spent the night in Ginny’s new part-time home in Beacon, New York.  The property itself—Jason and Carley’s property—is a huge undertaking.  The two-acre compound includes a huge warehouse and a 10-room schoolhouse that’s bigger than I’d imagined.  The major house includes four two-bedroom living units.  That means four kitchens, four good-sized living and dining rooms, etc.  Taking care of all this is a job that’ll never be finished.  Like his father, Jason’s disorderly.  There are always piles of things that haven’t been put away. In some ways he’s worse than me, in some ways better: he’s much better at finding something in the chaos he creates.  I have no idea how he does it, but in the middle of massive disorganization he can sometimes be somehow organized.  Now he’s got plenty of room to spread stuff out.  We’ll see what happens. 

            Ginny’s big, third-story loft space, on the other hand, is cool and well-lit and manageable.    She’ll have fun fixing that up.

            Carley’s bakery is, as promised, charming and delicious.  It was good to see the steady Saturday morning traffic at the shop.  Lots of happy customers.  Carley let me steal a whole pile of New Yorkers I’d missed while I’ve been confined.  I’m a happy man.

            I’m also feeling like a surprisingly healthy man.  The stairs knocked it out of me, but I made it up to the third floor and down to the basement.  Ginny’s pointing out to people that most weeks now are better than the weeks a month ago.  They’re practically…heaven-sent.  (Don’t get me started.)

            When we were leaving, Ella gave me three goodbye hugs; usually she teases that she doesn’t want to give me any. She bosses Patti and Ginny around a lot.  Let’s dance! Let’s put on a show! Let’s make Rice Krispy Treats!   Thankfully, she expects less of me.  She knows I take a lot of naps and she’s used to me having the damn O2 setup, so she’ll usually gives me a pass on the more lively activities. But sometimes a girl’s gotta talk, you know?  And it’s not really talking if the people across the street can’t hear you.  So I’ve got to listen and respond (even when she doesn’t wait for the response) and I’ve got to at least watch the dance and yoga shows.  I think I’m getting off easy, but just listening to that girl is exhausting.

            Everyone should have a family like mine.



Amazing day in NYC.

Yesterday was the best day I’ve had in a long, long time.

I woke early, walked to the market around the corner, stopped at Starbucks and brought breakfast back for Ginny, Patti and me.  A short rest–and then I was up until 2 a.m. We went up to Lincoln Square for two movies, had a quick lunch between films, came back, watched tv, Patti got us dinner, we played board games, I read and I worked on my obituary.  (More about that coming.)

Very few breathing problems.  No need for cough or nausea medicine.  Just one or two hits of morphine.  It was invigorating.  And it all came after three active days. 

Today is starting off a little slower, but it’s not bad.  I feel alive.

We talk about cancer as if we’re in a war.  We salute those who are “bravely battling the disease.”  Maybe that’s true for some people, but I’m nowhere near as macho as that.  I’m not even sure how I would fight back.  When the symptoms get bad, I retreat.  I lie on my side on my bed or couch.  If I seem brave, it’s only because I have no choice. I do try to push myself to do things sometimes when I’m  not feeling great.  The results are inconsistent, but good enough that I’ll keep doing it.

I don’t usually feel sorry for myself.  I think that’s because I have an active imagination that doesn’t often focus on the cancer.  To me the cancer is boring.  The pills, the treatments, the routines, the scans, the numbers–I can’t concentrate on them any more than I can concentrate on the details of a legal contract or an insurance form.  To me this is uninteresting stuff that’s best left to the technicians.  (Thank God for Ginny: on my own I’d screw up the regimen at every juncture. )

Dying, on the other hand, is endlessly interesting.  Partly because it’s scary and mysterious, of course, but it’s more than that.  if nothing else, we are the heroes of our own lives, and we want our lives to have meaning.  We want to know how the story turns out.  De Gaulle is credited with saying that the cemeteries are full of irreplaceable men.  There’s supposed to be irony in that thought, but I don’t think there should be.  Men and women–you and i–are literally irreplaceable.   Future generations may succeed us, but  they won’t leave the same footprints.  If Shakespeare had died young, would someone else have written Hamlet or Lear?  Would the world be different today if there had been no Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin?  Would advertising have been revolutionized without a handful of Doyle Dane Bernbach leaders in the ’60s?  Would technology be different today without the singular contributions of Gates, Jobs, Paige and Zuckerberg?  Most of our personal contributions to the world are played out on much smaller stages, but if we can imagine that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil can give birth to a tornado in Texas, who knows what differences we make when we raise our voices, wave our arms and make our impact.  For most of us, a tally of our arm-waving will be taken at our death.  What will be said?  What boxes will be checked? Was I a good father?  A hard worker?  A trustworthy friend? A joyful comic?  A selfless caregiver?  An encouraging mentor?  A smart student?  An inspiring teacher? A contributing citizen.

What will I leave behind?  A happy family?  A prosperous business? A work of art?  An idea?  A plan?  Laughter?  Tears? 

I’ve often quoted a sentimental old Anthony Newley song: 

... I long to live in someone’s memory…
    And I long to live upon a hill…
     And it doesn’t matter that I know I never will.
     But I raise my glass to the good things in life.
     We are not here for long but there’s time for a song and some wine.
     And as time runs away…I will look back and say
     That the good things in life were all mine.”

Back in ’98 when I first drove back from Johns Hopkins with my diagnosis, this was the song I thought of as I approached our driveway on the top of Hill Drive.  I dreaded telling Ginny, whose mother was dying, whose son had AIDS, that her husband had an 86% chance of dying of lung cancer within five years.  I reminded myself then how lucky I was that I lived on a hill–and that I’d had an abundance of the good things in life.

The big gift I’ve been given the past 15 years is the confirmation that I will definitely live in the memory of some wonderful people.  (I’ve been tempted to compare the world after I die to the world before I was born:  I’m clearly not needed either time.  The world spins fine with or without me.  But death isn’t the end of me. I’ll live in people’s hearts the very same way Preston and my dad live in my heart.  It’s not all that different from living on the hill.

Maybe that’s why I’m actually enjoying writing my obituary.  It’s the obituary Susan Lueke will post on this blog when I’ve died.  Since the readers will have a little familiarity with me, I don’t feel a need to create a timeline or resume.  I’ll just use the occasion of “the final posting” to clear up a few little things and to let you all know you won’t need to be checking back in here.

I’m hoping you won’t see that obituary for a long, long time. 


You can’t go home again?

Back in January, when I left New York for Richmond for my “final two weeks,” the ambulance took me to the airport straight from Sloan Kettering.  So there was no quick stop at our Chelsea apartment.  I assumed I’d never see it again.

Yesterday’s train trip to NYC was fine, and so I’m writing this from the apartment.  I’ve never been sentimental about places.  I never go see what the new people are doing at our old homes, I never have trouble changing offices at work.   It’s just not that important to me.

But I got a little choked up walking back into  this place yesterday–and I’ve felt a little nostalgic (a new feeling for me) about the beach house we’re selling.  (Yes, you’re right:  it’s an embarrassing number of homes.)

I think I got choked up walking into our little Manhattan apartment because…well, I’m not sure.  Probably a sense of relief.  Probably because I didn’t expect to feel as good as I felt after the trip.  Maybe because it makes me think that there are things I can still do.  Things I can still get done.  Have I been too cautious?  How much can I push myself?

The beach house is different.  It was always a crazy extravagance; we rarely got there.  But when we did get there, it was family and friends and wonderful hours sitting on the porch feeling the breeze.  We’d talk and laugh and eat glorious foods prepared by master chefs who happened to be family members.  Heather and Andy got engaged on the roof deck.  Later, so did Jason and Carley.  Ginny had a ridiculously large deck added to the roof so Jason and Carley could get married there.  Preston brought his friends there. My mom, my sister, my brothers-in-law all came.  One night, Ginny and I sat in our third-story bedroom with its wonderful ocean view and watched the most beautiful lightning storm I’d ever seen–we called down the hall to get George and Megan to join us.  Is it corny to say it was electrifying?

Ginny had women’s weekends at the beach occasionally, and it’s where Larry, Trevor, Jason and I had our first guys’ weekend.  For a few years we had sea-doos, which were outrageously fun.

I’ve never been much of a beach guy.  Sand is irritating, the sun burns me till I’m sick, the water’s often too cold.  (I want linoleum down to the water, the water nice and warm and the sun behind clouds.  Too much to ask?)  Sitting on the beach reading is OK, but there are better places to read.  Most any porch, for example.  But I did love some of the rituals.  If the traffic at Williamsburg or at the tunnel wasn’t too bad, I loved the nighttime drive to the beach with the top down on my car.

A note from Heather.

I’ve received hundreds of wonderful emails lately, but few have been as thoughtful, meaningful and creative as this one from a very young, very old friend.  Heather’s dad has been one of my closest friends since high school.  I’ve known Heather and her brother Matt since the days they were born, just a few years behind Jason.   Heather and Andrew got engaged on the roof of our beach house.  Their son George (named for his grandfather) is roughly the same age as my granddaughter Ella.  It’s nice that some of my closest friends today are the sons and daughters of parents who have been my closest friends forever.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about people asking “what can I do for you?”  Heather makes me two promises here that serve as perfect answers to that question.

Heather gave me permission to share her note. It means the world to me.

On 4/23/13 1:03 AM, “Heather Rook” wrote:
It’s 1:00. You may be asleep. I’m not. Earlier tonight I scrolled through
Facebook expecting the usual – pics of kids, Boston coverage, the stupid
“I went to the gym” posts, etc… Rather a friend had posted the article
about you in Boomer Mag. The top picture of you was right there in my
newsfeed. I’ll be honest, it took my breath away. Anyways, I’ve been
thinking of you and have been meaning to email you.
I am hoping to come back up in the next week or two – when you guys are
back from NY. Can’t wait to hear about the new place.
Not to be morbid, but in case I don’t see you – I want to promise you a
few things…
I will continue to stay close with Jason, Ginny, Carley, and Ella. I
love them like family (well, probably more than that depending…) and I
will do anything for them.
I will also make sure Ella and George grow-up being friends just like
Jase and me.
I have learned so much from you. I’m still without a job and not sure
where life will take me. But I know whatever it may be – I will strive to
be as positive, well-respected, genuine, and hard-working as you. I’ll
never be as creative or well-read – that’s just wishful thinking.
I love you with all my heart. xo

Even better news.

Ginny’s now had three chemo treatments.

Scans were done after she’d had only two.  Her tumors had shrunk by more than 50%!  Nothing makes me happier than that.  (I’m tired of having to share the cancer spotlight.)

Good news. (Mostly)

Let’s get the bad news out of the way quickly:  I’m having trouble with my hands shaking.  Doctor suspects the tumors in my brain are pressing on some nerves (or something like that.) It makes typing hard, so I may not be posting as much going forward.  But for those of you who worry when you don’t see something for a while (I’m looking at you, Luke–and thanks.), I’ll give Susan a brief self-written obit to post when I am no more.

The good news is, I’ve been having more good days than bad lately, so Ginny and I are planning a trip to New York.  We’ll take the train to the city on Wednesday, then plan on visiting Jason’s family in Beacon from there.  We’ll return the middle of next week.  Hospice people visited us today to help us line things up.  (In addition to all my meds, I need oxygen 24 hrs. a day everywhere I go, so it’s a bit of a production.)

A special thank you to Chris Jacobs for a wonderful, very flattering article in the new Communication Arts magazine.  A complete surprise.  And thanks to all the people who contributed.  I guarantee that I learned more from all of you than you could possibly have learned from me.

And thanks again to Barb Fitzgerald for the Boomer article.  (http://www.theboomermagazine.com/dying-words/)  I can’t die now:  people are saying such incredible things about me, I don’t want to miss a word.

I don’t deserve all this, but I deeply appreciate it.



As you approach your final days,  it’s incumbent on you to review your regrets.  I’m pretty sure that’s one of the rules.  And I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to have at least a few regrets.

For example, I think I’m supposed to regret the many nights I missed family dinners or family weekends because I was working.  I do have those regrets—kind of–especially since the last couple of months with Ginny, Jason’s family and Patti have been such potent reminders of how meaningful those times can be. 

I certainly hate remembering the times my long hours hovered menacingly over my marriage.  For whatever reason, I could never figure out how to do my job in less than 55 to 65 hours a week, sometimes more.  Often more.  Of course, that claim was always suspect because everyone knew how much I loved my work.  He’s not there because he has to be.  He’s there because he wants to be.  (Can’t they both be true?)

In my days as a headline writer, I really did enjoy playing on the typewriter/computer when no one else was around.  I loved seeing how the words looked on the page or screen.  I loved figuring out how to reorder them to make them stronger, funnier, more dramatic, more compelling. When I was writing headlines, I’d write them over and over.  Splitting them into two rows.  Then three rows.  Then four.  Seeing how they balanced. 

I have never been efficient in anything.  I waste time.  I read sluggardly, no matter how hard I try.  I procrastinate.  I do the easy, mindless things instead of the important things. 

Today I can lose hours online accomplishing–what?  It feels sometimes that I need a week to get 30 minutes of productive work done.  Why? 

For the last decade, I’ve gone to lunch not with my work, but with my newspapers and magazines.  Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get too deep into the reading because the one thing I can do very quickly is eat.  I’d actually get angry with myself for finishing the sandwich before I finished the story.  Still, I treasure that time.  HV protected that time for me for years:  I just didn’t do business lunches.  (OK, I don’t regret that at all.)

We’re told nobody on a deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”  Maybe, but I confess that I wish I’d somehow magically had more time to spend at the office–time that wouldn’t subtract from my other times.  A 30-hour day would have been perfect.

I regret that I wasn’t able to accomplish more with the special projects I adopted over the past decade–the animated holiday movie, the new digital technology, the revamping of some important American Cancer Society programs, the selling-in of a few big ideas to Walmart, etc.  All of these projects involved working with passionate friends–and that was great.  I just wish I had more to show for it. 

I’m a gracious loser, but I’m not a good loser.  If the work wasn’t as good as I knew it should be (and it almost never was), I was convinced it was my fault. If the agency lost a new business competition, even if I wasn’t involved, that was on me too.  My dad was a seriously good tennis player.  When he lost, he loved it when the other guy threw his racquet into the net.  I may not have shown it, but inside me, I was throwing a lot of racquets.  I regret losing.

Last week John Adams, my partner for more than three decades, came by for a visit.  For two hours we talked about things we’d never made time to talk about before.  It was great.  We found out things about each other that we didn’t know, even after all these years.  I’ve spent my life surrounded by wonderful, interesting, smart people. I regret not making much more time to really talk to those people. 

I’m thankful that I’m outliving my prognosis for all kinds of obvious reasons.  One of those reasons is that I’m making up for lost time in getting to know a few of my friends.  This time, like so much of my life, is a gift.

Regrets?  Well, as the song says, “a few.  But then again, too few to mention.”


My other blog

See that little blue subhead that says To: My other blog?  It’s right over this post.  Click on it and you’ll go to…my other blog.  I started Unfinished Thinking II because some people were asking about things that didn’t have much to do with living and dying.  So I’m posting a variety of things there.  And then people started asking “What’s that ‘To:  My other blog’ mean?” 

Once more unto the breech.

Judging by the comments I’m receiving here and through email, I’ve left some people confused about a couple of things.

First, I’m speaking here entirely on my own.  The agency isn’t “encouraging” me to do this.  (In fact, I bet my dear partner John squirms a little bit at my candor here and there.)  I’m doing this for friends and family–people I love.  I know some other people are listening in. and that’s fine as long as they don’t hold my personal beliefs against anyone other than me.

I never meant to imply that my life before Prozac was gloomy or sad.  In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love life.  (And, no, I didn’t replace God with a pill.)

I started this blog to keep interested friends informed about my health.  Along the way, there was much encouragement to detail my thoughts as I face death.  It turns out, even a nonbeliever has trouble describing dying without getting around–sooner or later–to religion.

I do appreciate how much joy, strength and comfort many people get out of their religions.  Some of the finest people I know are committed to their faith.  A Catholic priest made a huge, positive difference in my life when I was in high school–a Catholic, military high school.  I share with many of those same people a sadness that religion is so often corrupted.  I think most people want to belong to a community of thoughtful, considerate  people who share joy, love, family and life.  I know how lucky I am to feel that I am part of a community like that–it’s just not a religion.  In fact, it’s not organized at all.   It’s populated by the hundreds of people who have been writing me and wishing me well.  They’ve made what should be one of life’s hardest ordeals something close to joyful.

And, by the way, many of them are very religious people.

Cluck, cluck, cluck

Jason thinks I’m still chickening out on the religion thing.  He thinks I’m much more radical than I let on.  I probably am.  But I’m less radical than he thinks I am.  He thinks my desire to not offend anyone is watering down my messages.  My friend Larry wants me to express my views as a more coherent whole.  As I “prepare to die” (his words), is my “spiritual framework” changing. 

A little back-story.  Until I was in my early 40s, I suffered from clinical depression and didn’t even know it.  Being diagnosed as depressed was as shocking to me as being diagnosed with lung cancer a few years later.  One of the ways my disorder affected me was my deep-seated belief that I wasn’t “as good” as everybody else.  Every man was manlier, every woman was way too good for me.  (The fact that Ginny had married me—even sought me out—was somehow factored out in my thinking.  The fact that my career was going pretty well didn’t register either.)  When I went to college my goal wasn’t to learn anything in the classroom.  It was to learn how to make people like me, as unworthy as I was.  I found my role model in Johnny Carson.  On the Tonight Show, everyone liked him and he seemed to know and like all his guests.  He didn’t hesitate to tease them good-naturedly the way you would good friends.  It occurred to me that he couldn’t possibly be a close friend with all these people, yet he was teasing them as if he were their best friend, even though it was quite possible they’d never even met.  It was genius.  People like good-natured teasing.  It let them know they were liked—nobody teases somebody they hate that way.  The other thing he did was, he treated important people (big stars, politicians, etc.) as ordinary people—and he treated ordinary people like stars.  More genius.  The big stars were more relaxed coming off their pedestals, the ordinary people were honored to be publicly elevated. 

 I tried it—and it seemed to work.  (Elevating people comes naturally for a guy who thks he’s already lower than everyone else.) Still I hated meetings, parties, phone calls, public speaking.  But everyone says they hate those things, right? So again I thought I was just like everyone else.  Prozac changed all that overnight.  I still may not like the meetings, phone calls or public speaking, but now a whole level of the dread-verging-on-panic was gone.  And I felt like a big lump in my chest was dissolved.  (Is it a coincidence that that imaginary lump was located where my cancer would one day be discovered?)

 I’m still not big on phone calls or parties, but I can actually enjoy meetings and public speaking engagements.

All of this is my way of saying, I want to be liked.  I’m a regular Sally Fields.  I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to be well liked.  Radicals aren’t usually well liked.  And I really don’t think I’m a radical.  Here’s why Jason thinks I am.

I think along with corruption and ignorance, religion has long been–overall– a negative force in society.  I think that because of their own internal politics and corruption they have done little to stem the twin tides of corruption and ignorance. 

Religions are supposed to establish reasonable moral viewpoints—to define sin so we recognize it.   But when they tell us gay relations are wrong, contraception is wrong, birth control is wrong*–or when they cover up crime within their own parishes–or when they keep children from school or sell them into outrageous “marriages” that are little more than slavery—or when they protect their own fortunes instead of helping the poor and feeding the hungry—or when they provide support for the death penalty or money laundering for the mafia—or when they favor their richest members over the poorest—or when they hatch, encourage or applaud acts of terrorism—or when they sacrifice principles in support of criminal governments—they make a mockery of their very purpose. 

I am, I suppose, a John Lennon “imagine” utopian.  Imagine no heaven or hell, no countries or religions, no possessions, greed or hunger—it isn’t hard to do.  (Well, actually, giving up my possessions would be a little rough.  No more Apple products!?!)

We siphon off many of the most important things we do as a society —feeding people, getting them the medical care they need, scientific research, education, etc.– to tax-exempt nonprofits and churches.  That’s crazy.  Let’s raise tax levels to a point where all of us who able to contribute to those things contribute.  If we really believe all people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, our success as a society should be measured by how well we deliver those rights to all of our constituents.

I do realize that unlike corruption and ignorance, religions and religious people around the world often do worthwhile, helpful, noble, even saintly things.  But I believe the huge majority of people would still do good, saintly things without any nudging by the church. The more famous representatives of “the new atheism” are, of course, controversial because of their strongly held belief—but few would deny that they are morally responsible public servants.  Richard Dawkins is an educator, an antiwar activist, a gay rights activist.  Civil right leader Dan Dennett is also a teacher and a philosopher.  Like Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago, Sam Adams fights for “the wall of separation between Church and State.”  He’s a neuroscientist who studies our moral decisions are made.  He has much to teach us.

Like Harris—if I’m reading him correctly—I believe religious moderation is much better than religious extremism.  But to answer Jason’s challenge:  I do believe civilization would make progress faster if mankind moved away from religion altogether.  I believe the result would be fewer wars, less hunger, less poverty, more equality, more cooperation, more empathy. 

To answer Larry’s question about my spiritual framework in my end days, I confess that there are times I’d love to believe that heaven and a reunion with Preston and my father are just around the bend.  And no altar boy who went to Catholic schools for 12 years can completely escape the nagging fear that hell might just be waiting for an atheist like me.  But I do understand the difference in superstitions and beliefs.

I believe when the end comes, it’s over.  (I’ll know before you will if I’m wrong.) 

 *Abortion is the thorniest issue to deal with, so I leave it off this list deliberately.  The fact is, like most everyone I know, I don’t like the options.




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