Daily Archives: February 17, 2011

i have a neighbor who is dying of cancer


i have a neighbor who is going to die soon of cancer.

it doesn’t really matter which kind. sometimes we want to know which kind so we can check off our insecurity and compare out that we won’t get it. he’s a good man; been faithfully married to his first wife for more than 30 years. 

he’s in his late 60s. he has a strong sense of community and loves his family. he has a pilot’s license, has flown little planes for many years. he used to work for the US postal service. he likes to hunt with his buddies. every spring and fall they get their guns and their gun bags and their “ammo” and load up the cherokee with camouflage clothing, tan boots and gloves; and against all fashion codes, the mandated orange vest.

he wears the funny hats with the ear flaps. some are fuzzy, others plain wool. he’s tall, about 6’1″. he is a healthy weight and has a little pot belly and a ruddy complexion. he wears large squarish eye glasses like swifty lazar’s. ‘cept his have grimy lenses and tortoise shell frames. they often slip and rest on the bulb near the tip of his pink nose. he often adjusts his head instead of his frames to see something better. he’s an ambler. not a mosey-er for he ambles with purpose.  talks louder — in an urgent, almost like jimmy stewart sort of way, even if it’s to get the mail. doesn’t stay long wherever he is, but he makes sure you see him; especially if he departs – “well, i’ve got to run…”

i’ve always thought that with him, it’s more important that you see him. he was adopted as a young child so the being seen part is huge. being part of something is equally important for him too, but he’d rather be a part of the puzzle than the finished product. he doesn’t like to be center of attention. for me, i don’t crave the center, but i can handle it and i like to make a smooth exit.

the last time i saw him up and about was a few days before Christmas. i’d noticed a steady stream of water coming out from under his recently installed brick walk-up. upon closer inspection, i saw the water was springing beneath the middle of the walkway and flowing out to the street, creating a small ice rink. so i tapped on his door. this was before his cancer diagnosis. he came to the door in his typical urgent way, happy to see me, but not thrilled about the reason for the visit. he looked at the problem, and in his jimmy stewart way, said “oh, he-ll…. just what i need-ed…” and ran back in. i didn’t see him any more after that. there were mini bulldozers and one of those bobcats in his yard for days. they unearthed a quartz boulder the size of a crouching middle school student from atop the water main that burst and caused the leak. now straw lays over the red clay that was his front lawn. 

he would often walk his three dogs. sometimes after a walk or a trip in the car he’d just let them loose when i’d have my 85-pounder on his leash. that was always fun. my massive murphy rearing and heaving to romp and cut out with his pack; me, trying to not dislocate my shoulders while i’d shout to my neighbor, 70 feet away to recall his dogs. the thing is, his dogs are voice trained. the murph? not so much. so his dogs run around through my garden, smashing my plants, peeing on my bushes and pooping on my lawn. the little one, a cockapoo, would pee on my shoes when i was in them. sometimes in full view of her human. it wasn’t that he didn’t care, it’s that he … didn’t care. not indifference so much as aloofness; wasn’t paying attention. no malice — he’s just an eccentric. some people get to live like that. i know after he retired he didn’t do a day’s labor for anything but what lights a fire in his heart. 

ironically, with dogs who behave like that he also loves to be of service. he trained his dogs to become therapy dogs at the local hospitals. they would go to the cancer wards or children’s wards at hospitals. he would say often that his other dogs, 2 golden retrievers, are amazing to watch with the sick. he would often regale us with stories of his visits to the hospitals. so i get it, the dogs behave when he makes them.

he loves his british motor car called a “morgan” in his garage. my youngest refers to it as “the motorcycle car” because it roars like a harley. it reminds me of the “chitty-chitty bang-bang” car. he loves to work on it. it has been on lifts since the fall. i see it in the garage that is open daily (because the front door is unusable due to the walkway) to accommodate the procession of nurses, hospice workers, EMTs, physicians, floral delivery people and general ins and outs of neighbors, friends and well-wishers. he’s home in hospice care now.

he’s been sick on and off, hospitalized and semi-quarantined throughout the past couple years. what he was suffering from ultimately ended up being the initial site of his cancer.  i feel like getting the diagnosis was more than he can handle. when he found out, he was at stage 4, it had spread to the blood. before the diagnosis, he was running around, dealing with the water leak and the dogs and the holidays. then after the news, he heard enough. 

he’ll be survived by a go-getter of a wife and two sons. before the diagnosis i used to refer to him as ‘a piglet inside an eyeore,’ based on a.a. milne’s winnie-the-pooh characters. there’s nothing wrong with an eyeore at all. they are very grounded and realistic; but they can be down and distracted. i like him though because he is a little eccentric and down and distracted. he makes me laugh. especially when he puts one of his goldens in the passenger seat of the morgan and they thunder away for an ice cream cone somewhere, him laughing too. “my date’s a real dog…” he would say every time and off they’d go.

years ago and even last fall i’d ask him when i saw him, on myriad fabulous clear-blue days, “how ya doing today? hard to complain on a day like today…” and in his eyeore cum jimmy stewart way he’d say something like, “oh, i’m get-ting a-lonnng…” sometimes he’d grumble about what was on his mind, but he didn’t wait for my answer about how i was doing, if he’d remember to ask. he was in his head mostly. if he were done talking and if i were ever prompted, i’d start and he’d be gone. off with the dogs; in his backyard. me talking while looking at the ground, he doesn’t like steady eye contact, “i understand, it’s hard sometimes. well we’ve all got it pretty good from my cheap seats …”

my one goal for him (despite his non request for the work) in the 10 years i’ve known him has been for him to be more optimistic. “thoughts turn into things” i’d say to him. “make ’em good…” and he’d be gone.

they have had an unusual run of less-than-perfect luck. one time a drunk driver careened down our street and his was the only car that got hit; totaled it. another time some friend of his son’s stole their jeep for a few days. this boy knew where they kept their car keys. there was no damage. the car was returned much as it was taken: in the dead of night. when a storm came, they lost two trees. then the water main. i suppose over a lifetime, it’s not so much, but in three years’ time this all happened.

from the outside, i think he has a pretty good life. two grown sons living productive lives; one’s getting married soon; the other is wrapping up grad school. he enjoys a nice pension from the government. he has his little plane out in leesburg, his hunting buddies, his dogs, his shriner work and the tiny cars, his freemason society friends, his therapy dogs work, his wife who still loves her job outside the home and his motorcycle car. his retirement years have been busy! i can’t imagine what he would have been like when working.

the hospice people come and go daily. i have a friend who said when the ambulance comes with lights only, then i’ll know his time has come. i haven’t been to see him yet. we thought he died sunday. he didn’t. he’s back home now. i’m terribly afraid. in some completely unevolved and totally prejudicial way, i irrationally fear catching his cancer. i am not good with weakness or the sick. it has a physical effect on me. 

i hear jiminy cricket say, “you should go see him…”

and i think, “sure, i could.”

and jiminy says, “he could go at any time…”

and i think, “yes. he could. but i don’t know what it means to whom – going to see him is good for him? or is it for me? am i trying to check off some box? say i did it; say i went to him to say … good bye…. who will feel ‘better’ – as if it’s possible, facing a situation like that… seems awfully contrived to see someone if you don’t want to be there…”

jiminy is silent. 
i hear what jiminy would probably say, “you might regret it if you don’t.”

and i wince, even as i type right now, i wince. because i know it’s character building and brave and right and loving and Christian to do. it is. when i found out he was dying, i bravely thought, “i could go read him a book. i could sit with him and read to him.”

but he’s not so lucid anymore and he was so dreamy before that it’s not a quantum leap to say he’s not lucid now. i saw his wife yesterday and she said he comes and goes. despite his eyeoreness, when piglet comes out, he is a terrific communicator; tells jokes beautifully, and stories too. not many people can tell stories very well. he can. maybe instead of me telling him one, i could let him tell me one. that would be good for both of us. i wouldn’t feel like i was reading the wrong thing and he could tell me what he wants me to know.

so what kind of cancer? does it matter any more? really?

well this one is possible for us all to get; it doesn’t discriminate; it sometimes has no pathology. it’s lung cancer. and it was diagnosed around new years’ and he might not make it to spring.

i need to do the right thing. i will miss him. he’s one of those guys you can’t help but like.

thank you.