The whole point was to keep my hand in the game so I could get back into it when it was time to rejoin the life of working folk. The great purpose of my life when I entered this year was my job. Then my job was eliminated, so I explored, trying different projects and contract work. But, I found that my next great purpose was to be with someone I loved, for many hours and days, as he journeyed to the end of his life. People almost universally expressed gratitude, admiration, respect, and seemed to believe it was some kind of sacrifice on my part. I will be honest and say it wasn't easy, and it was rarely fun, and there were days I didn't want to do it anymore. But, I don't know if you've ever had something so clearly great in front of you, a great thing to be able to do, and even when other paths are open and would be easy and fun, the great thing is still the thing you must do. I don't feel like I get a lot of opportunities to do something truly great.
There's a scene in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, where Luke Wilson's character says of his little sister, "Grace thinks I'm a failure." And, Owen Wilson's character asks, "What has she ever accomplished in her life that's so great?" It's funny because Grace is, like, nine. Anyway, it's one of those lines that is stuck in my head and echoes regularly.
For instance when I ask myself, "Should I drop everything and go to Iceland and London for a week?" I answer, "Sure, what else am I doing with my life that's so great?" I take liberties with the exact wording because, well, this is a conversation I'm having in my own mind. I can do what I want. It's very pliable, and I feel like it's a gateway to potential greatness for me. It lets me ponder, what if I do...!? Though, personally, I am a little afraid of greatness. The responsibility and the possibility of so many eyes on me if whatever I do does turn out to be great.
I adapted this quote by Marianne Williamson, mine being without religious reference:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of the universe. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are ALL meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of creation that is within us. It is not just within some of us, it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
I did not spend time with Dan in order to do something great in the eyes of others, but I knew it was the best thing that I could do with my time at that time. Dan had a brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme. It was discovered in October 2015, and he died the day before my birthday, in August 2016. He had surgery, and he had chemo, and radiation, and all kinds of nasty medicine that made him tired and puffy and endlessly hungry and agitated and depressed. Dan was, before he got sick, one of the most beautiful men I've ever known, all around beautiful. He was super smart and had fantastic taste in music. He carried a worldly sensibility, having come to the U.S. from the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in the 80s, when he was 12. He was also endowed with the sweetest of hearts. He had two daughters, Hazel and Oona, who he loved so much that it humbled me to witness it. I remember a conversation once, we were in Nevada City, at a cafe, just chatting about life. I mentioned his girls, and he started to reply, "Ahh, yeah, my girls..." but stopped and was overcome by the enormity of it. I could see his heart beaming as he blushed.
Throughout our years of friendship, my own emotional ups and downs, and grievances at him that he only deserved about half the time, he weathered them gracefully and always forgave and always looked toward compassion, for me, for himself. We were in an awkward place when he got sick. He had surgery right away, which seemed like it was going to be an amazing success. I was worried, then relieved, then consigned to my involvement as a distant yet supportive friend. After the surgery though, where they "got almost all of it", the biopsy results a week later revealed the type of cancer he had was the most aggressive and almost certainly fatal.
Even then, I did not rush to his side, knowing that what he wanted most of all was to be with his girls as much as he could and try to beat the disease. About five months later, it was clear that he was struggling more and more. He was unable to drive, unable to be responsible for things like cooking and cleaning and managing anything that required sharp mental focus, which, if you think about it, is most things. He struggled with words, the right words. He'd often only be able to say a similar word or an opposite word. Words matter, and saying yes when you mean no, and not being able to say what you mean, when you really want to, when you're trying repeatedly, it's crazy frustrating. He was very frustrated, a lot. He slept a lot. He didn't really want to do much of anything. We watched movies, listened to music, went for walks while he still could. Some nights I made dinner and we sat at the table with candles and the stereo on all ambient and nice. We sat and held hands a lot. I did most of the talking.
I was with him because he asked me and because he let me, because I loved him, because it felt good to be needed and make a positive difference in his life. It was difficult for reasons that had nothing to do with watching someone you love lose their mental capacity, lose control over their body, lose everything. It was hard coordinating with and working with the needs of his other caregivers—his devoted mother, his amazing sister, the in-home help that was eventually hired. It was hard to let go when others showed up and decided they were going to do things differently and that was going to fix everything. It was hard when I had to remember who I am and go live my own life. It was hard to tell friends that when they visited and brought grief and busy activity and cheerful dispositions, it wasn't actually helping. He didn't want to be cheered up, and he didn't want more grief. He wanted peace. He wanted to behold the beauty of nature and his daughters and eat yogurt and berries and listen to music. He really didn't want much more than that.
I did my best to make his life consist of what he wanted then, as much as possible, because he didn't have a lot of life time left to experience good things. I did a pretty good job, not a perfect job, but it was my focus and my creative project at the time, and I did the best I could. When we dated some years before, it was my creative project then too. He was unhappy, going through a separation from his wife, separated from his daughters, disruption in his home and uninspired by his work. He would spend a weeknight or two with me. I would plan all the details so that we would have a joyful time. Good food and drink, music shows, walks around the city, great movies and fancy chocolate, shopping (he could never find enough pants), photography, massage, occasional weekend road trips, hiking, picnics. The simple pleasures of life, so sweet when shared with someone in mutual adoration.
But then, it went the way it went. We could not fall in love and continue our romance. He needed time and space, so he took that. And I went my way.
When he got sick, I was surprised and cautious hearing that he wanted me to spend time with him. I was afraid he'd let me close but then send me away, and that I'd feel the pain of separation again. But it was different. I don't know. Maybe he let me be the one to take care of him because I was the one who showed up, and he needed someone. Maybe it was that simple. It's not like we fell in love, but I learned a new way of love. Dan was not my family or my boyfriend. He was just my dear, sweet-hearted, hurting friend who let me make it not so bad. What an immense gift and honor he gave, letting me be that person for him.
The rate of change in his illness quickened over our months together. We reassessed our strategy monthly, then weekly, then daily until it was clear that expectations were useless. Then, finally, he had to go on to the next realm. And I had to let him go.
I heard a story about a man in Japan who set up a phone booth in his yard for people to call their friends and relatives who had gone missing in the tsunami. The phone was not connected to anything, but if you can, imagine the mental shift of going into that enclosed space, shutting out others, setting aside your reason, picking up that tool for communication, and daring to say, "Hello? Are you there? If you are, I hope you're okay. I hope you're not suffering. I hope you are feeling good. I hope you're not worrying. You are missed. You are loved. You made a good difference in so many lives. You left a beautiful legacy in your daughters and a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of those who knew you. You are free. I hope you are at peace. I'm going to let you go now. Good bye friend."
I did that. I didn't go to Japan, but I have a vintage analog phone that I keep around just because I think it's beautiful. I took the receiver from the hook and said my peace. Silly as it sounds. And now I'm onto my next purpose. I have a job again. I really like the work I'm doing. I find it interesting in that Flow kind of way, where it's a challenge but one I think I can meet, so I'm trying and focused on it. It doesn't feel like greatness, but it's life, and I'm grateful for that.