Matters of Gravity

This is Part 42 of my ‘Asshole’ memoir.

You’re never too old to be an orphan.

I lost my father when I was 20 and had just turned the corner to 60 when my mother died.

One would think, at such an advanced age, I’d no longer think of myself as a motherless child. Yet most mornings I woke, and would lie there a moment and reconnoiter with the world, remembering that I was alone.

And I was. My parents were gone and I was, as I say, untethered.

Travis on the mound. My weekends were happily filled with ballgames, movie dates and sleepovers with my three youngest sons.

I had finished cancer treatment and found myself suddenly single. I was still defining myself as a solo act, concentrating on work during the week and managing the blossoming social schedules of three young teenage boys every weekend.

Life unfurls in unexpected ways. If ever there was a time to start over, this was it. God had given me another chance.

I’d had a lot of second chances.

Once, as a boy, I was playing at a construction site with some friends — it was a different time, kids — and I fell off a mound of moved earth and nearly down a bottomless (so it seemed to us) hole.

Another time, I fell backward off a swingset and banged my head on the concrete support that had uprooted from the ground. I was unconscious for nearly an hour before I woke up in the emergency room.

A man lunged in front of my car in a suicide attempt once on an Oklahoma Interstate, but I managed to disappoint him but nearly kill myself. Yet again I survived.

And how many times had I driven all night and fallen asleep, to be awakened by the road’s sudden change in texture and the sound of spitting gravel.

And now I’d had cancer. Note tense. To hear my surgeon and oncologist talk, I was cancer free. I always added “for now” in my head because I knew it was a long road. But if those guys were optimistic, that was a good sign.

Had they given me another chance, or had God? I wasn’t one of those people who’d gotten the diagnosis, then found God. I’d always believed in God — I’m from Indiana, where the license plate reads, “In God We Trust.” But I had not always practiced religion.

I’d had an ambivalent relationship with religion, which was a human construct. Though I grew up in a home with reverence, and been baptised a Methodist, we’d never gone to church and in adulthood I drifted toward Catholicism, mostly because I kept dating Catholic women. I converted at age 34, and for a period I was even a lector at our church back in Florida.

No matter my wavering attitude toward religion — and I often found myself on the apathetic end of the continuum — my belief in God did not flag nor fail, and I felt in debt.

What would I do with this second chance? I’d take better care of this thing, my body.

Neil Ghushe, MD

I met with Neil Ghushe and we contemplated another hernia surgery. He had just repaired a hernia not even a year before, using laprascopic technology to insert a screen in my belly on my left side. Now I had a hernia on my right.

That’s when I decided to call attention to the elephant hunched in the corner of his examination room.

“It’s because of my weight, isn’t it?” I asked.

He nodded, smiling. The guy had luminous eyes and a movie-star smile. If I’m ever due for some really bad news, I want him to deliver it.

“Could be,” he said, nodding. “Being overweight doesn’t help.”

“And walking hurts like hell,” I told him. “It’s like someone’s been hammering roofing nails into my knees.”

“It’s hard on your joints when you carry some extra weight,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

When you have sleep apnea, you’re supposed to sleep with this contraption, which also serves as the anti-aphrodisiac. I could stand to wear mine maybe once a week or so.

“And my sleep apnea. My wife used to say that if I’d lose 20 pounds — and I was always up and down on diets — but if I’d lose 20 pounds, my buzzsaw snoring would stop.”

“No doubt about it,” he nodded again. “Extra pounds exacerbate apnea.” He smiled and I felt the sudden urge to put on my shades; the glare, you know.

And that’s when the creature in the corner unrolled his massive trunk and began to bleat with the thunder of a thousand butterfly sneezes.

“What about that other surgery you do?” I asked. “Would I be eligible for that?”

Blinding smile. It’s like he was a surgical vampire — he needed an invitation. This isn’t something he’d bring up; he could only respond to my questions.

The “other surgery,” of course, was weight-reduction surgery.

I knew I fell into the “morbidly obsese” category because I weighed 20 pounds more than I should for my height. Hell, I was  60 or 80 pounds more than I should be.

I rarely used that other F-word, the one about weight. I felt that I was self-aware of my body and its myriad faults.

But I also knew I was not grossly overweight. The kind of surgery Ghushe (it’s said goo-shay, by the way) did was for those extremely large people who couldn’t get out of bed or leave their houses.

But it was also for the rest of us who’d not taken care of ourselves and gotten into situations where the simplest walk was painful, whose guts could no longer be held in and who snored like a motherfucker.

Ghushe agreed to do the surgery and set in motion the approval process from my health insurance provider. Since it was likely that this surgery would solve those three chronic health problems and other yet-to-be-experienced maladies, it appeared to be a good investment.

Diagram of a gastric sleeve

There were a lot of varieties of gastric surgery but Ghushe thought a sleeve gastroectomy was best for me. It would require removing 85 percent of my stomach so that I simply could not eat much at all. I grew up in that prosperous post-war clean-your-plate generation and I always did what I was told.

I liked sweets, but that wasn’t what made me gain weight. I had issues with portion control and sloth.

As I said, I was able to carry the weight well. I was overweight, but never looked can’t-leave-the-house overweight. If I’d told people my weight, they wouldn’t have believed it. I looked big, but not as big as I really was. I took only minuscule comfort in this.

Because I was overweight, I’d made myself into a wallflower — from junior high school on. I just avoided life because I worried about how I’d look doing what the other “normal” people did.

I thought I’d once been a normal kid. I played baseball pretty well and had a healthy bike-riding childhood.

One day my mother had company when I came in from an afternoon playing around the canals that ran though our South Florida air force base. When I came in for a glass of water, my mother introduced me to her friend. “My, what a husky young man,” the woman said.

I handled the minimum of courtesies then went outside and told my pal Paul Franks what the visitor had said. I wasn’t sure what it meant but it sounded grown up. And when you’re nine years old, you desperately want to be grown up.

“That’s not a good thing,” Paul said. “That’s not nice thing to say at all. It’s like she’s saying you’re fat.”

From that day forward, I began to think that’s how others saw me. My mother never talked about it.

Looking back on my school pictures, even up through high school, I see a kid that falls this side of overweight. With my aged eye, I see a kid who’d isolated himself because of a warped sense of self. I was not overweight, not really.

I used to drink this stuff.

The weight came later.

Being a newspaper reporter was a mixture of a generally active life with long periods of sedentary work, because I doubled as a copy editor.

But I also began drinking in college — some  nasty swill, like Strawberry Hill wine — and I began gaining weight.

And that’s when I started my up-and-down career as a dieter.

My first diet was a popular 1970s plan called the Stillman Diet. I drank 64 ounces of water a day and ate one meal – a geometic piece of ‘fish’ every day at 4 pm. Sundays, I’d go home to my parents’ house, do laundry and eat whatever I wanted.

I lost 60 pounds in six months. Once, years later, my brother was showing slides — we used those things then — of some family pictures. I saw a figure on the screen wearing a familiar T-shirt.

“Who’s that?” I asked innocently.

A beat. “That’s you.”

I could not reconcile that emaciated young man with the thick-middled man I had become.

For the next 40 years, there was a frequent weight fluctuation, driven by stress, goofy diets, and random spurts of exercise. Once a decade, it seemed, I’d get in reasonable shape — though I still saw myself as fat, no matter how much weight I’d lost.

The women in my life seemed to accept me as I was and if the issue of weight was raised, it was usually in relation to health.

One girlfriend urged me to try the grapefruit / high-protein diet, which I really liked. She also took walks with me four or five times a week, I was in great shape and she seemed to like my body. I dropped 60 pounds, again, But after five years, we broke up and I again fell into bad habits.

So here I was, post-cancer, grateful for another chance. I was in the downhill run and it was up to me to choose how I wanted to close out my life.

Did I want to be that man who groans walking upstairs, snores on the commuter rail, unable to keep up with the daily demands of life.

Fuck no, I didn’t.

I decided I would enjoy what life I had left, and to do that required something drastic.

I beheld the elephant on the other side of the examination room, and I felt kinship with the beast.

Can You Take Me Back?

John, Ringo, George and Paul on their ‘Mad Day Out’ in July 1968.

For a week now, I’ve been immersed in the 50th anniversary edition of the White Album, the record officially known as The Beatles, released November  22, 1968.

It was the first Beatle album that I bought new. My sister was at the right age when the Beatles hit in 1964. I watched them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ that February and sat front and center for A Hard Day’s Night at the theater that summer.

I liked the music, but music itself hadn’t really hit me. Not rock’n’roll at least. I was still into Henry Mancini and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — but that’s another story.

Things had changed by 1968 and I was ready when the White Album hit. Back then, young sprogs, our parents didn’t just buy us stuff and we didn’t get handed an allowance. The folks expected us to work for money. And since the White Album was a double-album, I’d need to work extra hard.

That fall, my parents had moved to a new house on a heavily wooded lot outside Bloomington, Indiana. They’d paid to have a few trees removed around the back deck, but the massive stumps were left behind. Stump removal was my job. My father’s going rate was five dollars per.

Owing to blisters and exhaustion, I couldn’t do too many stumps at a time. Gradually, using axes and shovels, I cleared all but a few. In order to buy the White Album, I needed to find a big bastard out in the yard.

I found something suitable and asked my father if I could have $10 for it, since it was such a large and sprawling fucker. The old man agreed. I think he knew I had the hunger to buy something that was otherwise out of reach.

I attacked that thing with the ferocity of Alan Ladd in Shane. He and Van Heflin took on a monster stump and together pulled its stubborn carcass from the ground.

Without help, I spent a day working in the back yard. When I called my father outside at dusk, he marveled at my work, then handed me a $10 bill. I rode my bike to the Woolworth’s — luckily, owing to the early sunset of November — only a half mile away. The album was mine.

I’m not sure I can make a Sophie’s Choice with Beatle albums. I’ve always been partial to Rubber Soul. Revolver still sounds great all these years later. Then there’s Abbey Road. On the day it was released — a year after the White Album — I remember tear-assing down to Discount Records on lunch break to pick it up. I held it , still sealed, in my fingers on my desktop, the envy of my social set, since I had it first.

But the White Album was something unique. It both pleased and mystified me. Every note and every sound became part of my sinews. Over the years I haven’t needed a device to play the record. It’s always there, ready to unspool in my skull.

The 50th anniversary edition — six CDs, one BluRay — is a worthy presentation for such a vital album. The Beatles always so well captured the essence of their times, and they matched the brutality and change of 1968 with an album that was chaotic and magnificent.

I not only rediscovered this great old album. I found things I didn’t know I was looking for.

The box arrived in the mail and almost immediately I hit the road for a drive to New York for the weekend. For my road music, I grabbed only the last four discs — the demos cut in the spring at George Harrison’s house, and three discs of studio outtakes, including songs that never made it on to the album, including ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Sour Milk Sea,’ ‘Child of Nature,’ ‘Across the Universe’ and others.

The four portraits included with the White Album.

I was alone, so I played the discs one after another at thundering volume. I’d had most of the stuff on bootlegs, but the quality of this set is superior. I’ve always enjoyed these archival sets. Bob Dylan has 14 volumes in his Bootleg Series, and it’s great to hear his early takes — to hear, say, what ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ sounded like about six minutes before genius showed up. There’s a Jimi Hendrix archival set that makes his music sound ordinary, right before his brilliance caught fire.

The Beatles have not done the ‘official bootleg’ thing quite as much, but the White Album is a great place to show the anatomy of the creative process.

Here are some highlights (for me):

  • Hearing John work through ‘Julia,’ the song about his mother. To hear him on the talkback with engineer Chris Thomas … to hear his voice again … chokes me up. The same happens when you hear George order a sandwich before recording ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ It’s sad those voices are no longer in the world.
  • I never much liked ‘Helter Skelter’ because of its lumbering sound, and began to actively hate it after Charles Manson co-opted it. Oddly, on this set it’s one of my highlights. After blasting through it, Paul says, “Mark it ‘Fab,’” and it is.
  • I always wondered about that ditty (‘Can you take me back where I came from’)  that Paul sings as the sound montage of ‘Revolution 9’ begins. Here you hear him work through it, trying to develop it into a full song. Turns out it was perfect as a fragment.
  • Hearing all four Beatles sing ‘Good Night.’ On the original release, Ringo sings it with an orchestra. I could never decide if — since it followed the madness of ‘Revolution 9’ — the song was intended to end the album on a reassuring or ironic note. On one of the takes, Ringo sings and the other three lean into a microphone to harmonize. It’s not the greatest performance, but to hear those four voices together again is deeply moving.
  • Hearing three Beatles (Ringo, depressed, took a break during the sessions) playing ‘Back in the USSR’ in a lower key. They sped up the tape to give the song its sonic magic.
  • Hearing John finger-pick his way through ‘Dear Prudence’ and Paul do solo run-throughs of ‘I Will’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son.’

All the way down to the city and all the way back, I blasted those four discs.

Listening to the White Album itself was sort of an afterthought for me. My ears are not sophisticated and when people talk about new remixes, I sort of glaze over.

So it was more out of a sense of duty that late the night of my return, I went downstairs to my basement office and music room to put on the remixed White Album, just so I can say I listened to it.

Wow.

Do you remember the old Maxell tape advertisement, from back in the Seventies — the windblown and mindblown guy in the easy chair? That was me as ‘Back in the USSR’ boomed from my speakers. I listened to the whole thing straight through. It was brilliant.

‘Tis the season, apparently, for expensive box sets.

Bob on the tracks

Just the week before, I’d been spelunking through Bob Dylan’s back pages. As the first victim of bootleggers, he began bootlegging himself back in 1991 when he launched his Bootleg Series. He’s up to Volume 14, More Blood, More Tracks, six discs collecting the 1974 recordings leading to his classic Blood on the Tracks.

As with the White Album outtakes, I’d had bootlegs devoted to the Blood on the Tracks sessions. He recorded much of the album on the day I turned 20 — September 16, 1974 — and ran through monstrous numbers of takes.

After a few furious days of recording in New York, an album was assembled. Columbia Records designed a cover, commissioned liner notes from Pete Hamill, and readied the album for release.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the hit parade.

Dylan had second thoughts. He played the acetate of the album for his brother while visiting Minnesota in December. David Zimmerman told big brother he could do better. Or something. But he hired a studio, found some local musicians, and got Big Brother Bob to re-record half of the album.

Columbia Records had a collective coronary and the album was delayed a month. To save time and money, the record company went with the original album cover, meaning the Minneapolis musicians did not get credited, though they had recorded half the album.

Eventually, the original recordings — some of them, at least — leaked out.

Conventional wisdom — meaning bullshit spewed by clueless fans such as myself — held that Dylan withdrew the original recordings because they so well chronicled the pain and suffering of a man mired in heartbreak and despair.  The album supposedly told the story of his abandoned love as his marriage crumbled. Dylan, his voice strained, was a testament to vulnerability. (Dylan denied this, of course, saying the album was inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov.)

Now, however, Dylan has shared all of the takes — they are legion; six discs worth — from the New York sessions. Alas, no outtakes from the Minneapolis sessions exist, but we do get all of the master takes, minus the echo added in post production.

Both the White Album and More Blood, More Tracks show deep-dive insight to the creative process. Both the Fabs and Dylan show us how songs grow and evolve. But these huge collections are more than mere curiosities for music geeks. These are further explorations and discoveries of this music we’ve carried within us for a half century.

Listen again to the acts we’ve known for all these years. You’ll be surprised by all of the things you haven’t heard.

Death in the Family

Rob Hiaasen’s cover photo on his Facebook page, which soon after his death was given over to tributes from colleagues, friends and strangers.

When I heard about the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, I had the feeling that I might find connection to a victim.

Journalism is a small family, after all. I’ve been teaching for more than 40 years, so I figured that one of my students was there, had been there, or had some connection there.

I awaited the names of the victims, fearing I’d find a name from a long-ago class roll on the list. When I saw the names, I was punched in the stomach, and all I could say was, My God.

Rob Hiaasen in his office. This photograph appears on the Capital Gazette’s Facebook page.

I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, but for years I’d heard from those former students lucky enough to work with him. He was their mentor, dean of their newsroom grad school, the man responsible for their continuing education.

I didn’t know him, but I knew what he did and that he was much beloved.

I’d also known his brother, Carl, and his nephew, Scott, for 30 years.

Carl was an esteemed graduate of the University of Florida program I served for 24 years, and he was always generous with his time — for students and for faculty members such as me.

Though a best-selling author and media celebrity, he gladly helped provide succinct and snappy quotes for the dust jackets of my books. Coming up with something good for someone else’s book jacket is an often-thankless job with no reward, but he kindly — and regularly — did so.

Scott is my argument for the hypothesis that writing talent is genetic. Even as one of my freshman students, Scott had a gift, which he has since shared with thousands of readers.

So though I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, I knew of his work — thanks to the legions of grateful young journalists who shared with me tales of his generosity and kindness.  I could only imagine the anguish of his family, people I cared about deeply.

Wendi Winters. This photograph appears on the Capital Gazette’s Facebook page.

And I hurt for the families of the other victims —  Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara.

The gunman had no argument with any of them, but they were caught in the brace of his rage.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a lot of newspaper journalists recalled dealing with the public — those members of the public who walked through the newsroom doors and presented themselves at our desks.

In one of my newsrooms, office geography dictated that I was usually the guy who dealt with the walk-ins. When the other reporters saw someone wandering into the newsroom, they’d bolt for the canteen or the head.

Lacking social skills, I never really knew how to negotiate myself out of such situations and often ended up listening to a reader endlessly rant. But once in a great while, I was able to find the seam of a great story in these diatribes.

Years passed. I was going to visit a student intern on the job, when I made my first newsroom visit that required a security checkpoint.  I had to empty my pockets and go through  a metal detector at the door of the newspaper building.

Has it come to this? I thought.

Yes. And now: this.

Stunned by this horrific news, we turned to social media for minute-by-minute updates.

I heard from a lot of students who’d been touched by Rob’s kindness. I read tributes from people with whom I had no connection but the common denominator was that the man freely shared his talent and gifts with others to better this profession.

The next day, still reeling from the news, I heard from my colleague Noelle Graves. She knew that her four years of former students were shaken by the on-the-job murders and asked if it was all right to send them a note from her university account. She’s cautious that way.

Of course, I said.

As usual, Professor Graves spoke with eloquence and grace, articulating what we felt about these deaths in our family.

With her permission I post her note below:

I’ve been thinking of you all since the news in Maryland broke yesterday.

Rob and Carl Hiaasen. This appears on Carl Hiaasen’s Facebook page. As Carl wrote, ‘We called him Big Rob because he was so tall, but it was his remarkable heart and humor that made him larger than all of us.’

Some of you were students of mine four years ago, some just this spring. All of you, though, are close to my heart.

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, you and I. Whether your path has taken you into news or another field, we shared a time of learning about this great tradition of providing the truth in context to the public.

On Thursday, five of our colleagues who shared that mission lost their lives to a gunman apparently bent on mass casualties and destruction.

We talked in class about the beauty and value of life, that each person is unique and irreplaceable. We stand in grief with the families and loved ones of the five – Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.

This unthinkable loss of life is difficult to fathom, impossible to comprehend. The loss, as with all the similarly horrific events our nation has seen, is truly senseless.

Overarching this event is the environment in which we find ourselves today. These are such perplexing times to be in journalism with headwinds from Washington and the amplifying effect of the Internet.

We’re not alone in these times though – history indeed repeats itself – and the framers of the Constitution enshrined a free press anticipating its vital role as a bulwark against tyranny.

The five who lost their lives in Maryland were part of that proud tradition of a free press.

Noelle Graves

And so, our hearts are broken, but our resolve remains. We are committed more strongly than ever to find and report the truth to the public.

We will not be cowed into submission. We will not forget our Constitutional mandate. We will not abandon our public trust.

We stand together. Shoulder-to-shoulder.

Take care of yourselves, and I’m here if you want to talk.

All my best,
Noelle

 

Boo Radley in Reverse

I don’t really know too many of my neighbors. In that regard, I’m probably like many of you.

There are a few neighbors with whom I converse, but mostly I have smile-and-nod relationships with the people in the houses around me.

Last Sunday — Fathers’ Day, it was — I was sitting in the front yard with son Jack — Spawn No. 4, Son No. 2 — and we were spending a magnificent afternoon discussing the German philosophers, the state of modern cinema and Lego — our usual topics.

The girl from across the street tiptoed up my driveway. I saw her and waved and smiled, but she just continued tip-toeing, never breaking eye contact with me the whole time.

This girl is in second or third grade, I would estimate, and her younger sister I would guess is in kindergarten. Their parents are nice in a nod-and-smile way, and her father is the only person in the neighborhood, other than me, to do yard work. I am his Brother of the Bramble. Everyone else hires landscape companies.

That other dad and I nod and smile on those Saturdays when we’re out with our mowers, while our neighbors take off for an afternoon on the water.

So anyway, this little girl comes up the driveway, puts something on my stone wall, then backs away. I wave, but don’t immediately get up.

When I do get up, a half-hour and one beer later, I go to see what she has left me. It’s a stone, on which she has written ‘breeth’ and ‘kind.’ She wrote something else that I can’t quite decipher.

I thought it was sweet, and put the rock on my kitchen sill. For the last week, it’s given me pleasure to look at it.

Today, when I checked the mail, there was another stone, propped up against the mailpost. It had ‘love’ printed on one side and ‘fly’ on the other.

John and Yoko

I thought about when John Lennon met Yoko Ono. He went to a gallery opening to see her work. He saw a ladder in one part of the gallery. There was a note tacked to the ceiling but it could only be read by climbing the ladder. So he climbed, fearing the note would be some joke or something negative. Instead, the note said, ‘Yes.’ That message of positivity helped him fall in love with Yoko.

So maybe my little neighbor just wants to share a something positive with me. She knows I have teen-age boys around every weekend and occasionally she sees my adorable grandchildren.

But maybe she sees me alone a lot — she’s often waiting at the bus stop when I leave for work and I give her a wave — and she just wants to do something to make my life better.

She has done that.

She’s kind of like Boo Radley in reverse. I think her parents should be proud to be raising a child concerned about other people and what they might be feeling.

When I see her parents out front next time, I think I’ll do a little more than nod and smile.

Writing that Sings in the Shower

Back in 2011, a longtime friend that I’d never actually met — Beef Torrey, known at birth as Gregory Kent Torrey — came to visit.

Beef and I had corresponded for years and he helped me immensely with my Mile Marker Zero book. When I was going to interview Jim Harrison, a central character in the book, Beef advised me to show up with American Eagle cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Jim appreciated both gifts and talked my ear off.

Gregory Kent Torrey

Beef died suddenly a few years later and when it happened, all of his friends felt a disturbance in the force. He was a great man, a literary character, and a person who enjoyed life on earth.

When he came for that visit, he brought my boys gifts, including vintage issues of Mad magazine.  He spent a lot of time with them as we sat on our veranda overlooking the ocean. They adored “Mister Beef.”

Mile Marker Zero was dedicated to Beef and to Tom Corcoran and Dink Bruce. The paperback version, which came out after his death,  is dedicated to his memory.

He brought me a gift too — a  copy of his latest book, Conversations with Tom Robbins, which he compiled with Liam O. Purdon.

Beef and Liam interviewed Robbins for the final piece in the book and it contains this wonderful passage:

Tom Robbins

I’m for writing that is willing to wrap itself in the chiffon of dream and the goatskin of myth, but that shuns the mummy bandages of good ol’ earnest mainstream social realism because it can’t abide the smell of formaldehyde. I’m for writing that has the wisdom to admit that much of life is indisputably goofy and that has the guts to treat that goofiness as seriously as it treats suffering and despair.

I’m for writing that glugs out of the deep unconscious like ketchup from a bottle: writing that can get as drunk on ketchup as on cognac — and then sing all the way home in the cab with Cutie.

I’m for writing that sings in the shower. I’m for writing that shoplifts sleazy lingerie from Victoria’s Secret and searches the clear night sky for UFOs.

I’m for writing that quivers on your lap like a saucer of Jell-O and runs up your leg like a mouse. I’m for writing that knocks holes in library walls.

I’m for salty writing, itchy writing, steel-belted, copper-bottomed, nickel-plated writing, writing that attends the white lilacs after the heat is gone. I’m for writing that can swing like Tarzan — on a vine woven from the nose hairs of Buddha. I’m for writing that rescues the princess and the dragon.

I thought you might enjoy that.

Thank you, Mr. Torrey.

God’s Voice on Earth

About 20 years ago, I made two discs of music my father loved. One was devoted to classical and one to popular music.

I sent these sets to my mother, brother and sister with instructions that they not be opened until June 14, dad’s birthday.

For the cover photos, I used a picture of my newlywed parents caught mid-canoodle. The inside picture was of the family, just as we were about to move to England.

This week, I’ve been playing the classical disc while driving around and this is some extraordinary music.

There are a couple pieces that some might not consider ‘classical’ – Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ by the New York Philharmonic and ‘Solace’ by Scott Joplin, played by the magnificent Joshua Rifkin.

This is the music my father loved and hearing this brings him back to me.

The disc starts – as so many of my childhood mornings did – with ‘The Flying Dutchman Overture.’ Dad used to blast that at 6 am to wake us for school.

Think of how much of your life is defined and preserved in musical memory. I was driving to the ferry terminal this morning, serenading — at top volume — the sleeping denizens of Nantucket Avenue with Wagner’s ‘Death of Siegfried.’

That particular piece of music often unfurls in my dreams. My hair stood up. To borrow a phrase from that great musician, Ry Cooder, it was chicken skin music.

Thank God for it.

Music is a gateway to memory. In song, Brian Wilson wrote, ‘Music, when you’re alone, is like a companion for your lonely soul.’

On another occasion he said simply, ‘Music is God’s voice on earth.’

And so it is.

 

Here’s some of the music:

 

My Mother

This is an episode from my cancer memoir.

Symmetry does not exist in nature, but sometimes the curves and inclines of life lead us back to the starting point. As a storyteller, I’ve always liked cyclical structure — to end where we began.

(If I start singing Elton John’s ‘The Circle of Life,’ you have permission to shoot me.)

I had these thoughts a few months before the cancer diagnosis, when I sat by my mother’s bedside massaging her legs. She was in her “assisted living facility” — Jesus God, I hate those antiseptic euphemisms — the place she called “the old folks home.” She was 92 but did not consider herself old.

She was right — in a lot of ways. Her body was giving out and she was entertaining a guest late to the party: Parkinson’s Disease. But she never saw herself as old and hated the sloth and inactivity her body’s betrayal had brought upon her.

In August 2014, Nicole returned from the Philippines and so I took a late-summer weekend to see my mother for the first time since the spring.

With my mother during the years we lived in Germany

I surprised her. My flight landed just before five and I rented a car to speed down to Bloomington from the Indianapolis airport. I got to her open-door apartment at Hearthstone Health just after 7 that evening. She was already asleep, but I stood over her for a moment, then reached down to touch her cheek. She opened her eyes and the look on her face is one of those memories I will take to my grave.

She was surprised, elated, loving — this was the one person I could always count on to love me, and now my appearance at her bedside had brought her joy. I was aware that waking her was selfish, but her reaction made me realize everything was all right.

“Bill — oh, Bill,” she said. “You’re here.”

“Yep, I came in for the weekend. I’m sorry I woke you, but I wanted to surprise you. It took a long time to get the rental car and then the traffic was crazy.”

“You’re here,” she said again.

“Yep. And I’ll be back in the morning. You need to get your rest, but I couldn’t get in town and not immediately come see you.”

Her health and her memory might have faded, but I could see the love I’d been lucky to know all my life.

“I promised the nurses out there I wouldn’t stay, so I have to go. I just wanted to see you.”

She couldn’t pull herself up, and her head remained nestled in her pillow as she looked at me. That smile. That moment will be on my death-bed highlight reel.

That weekend, I made a feeble effort to pay her back for the splendid life she and my father had given me. Her legs pained her and so I massaged them for her. There was an anesthetic ointment that provided relief but the nurses said the supply was gone and the new order hadn’t arrived. I drove to a pharmacy and found a tube and massaged it into my mother’s legs. To hear her sigh with comfort, to see that she had some respite from pain, gave me pleasure. Later, at mealtime, I fed her. Her arms were useless to her, so I repaid my debt. At the beginning of my life she nourished me. Now, at the end of her life, I got to repay her, even if it was in such small measure.

I thank God for the opportunity to help my mother.

My father and mother on their wedding day in 1943

We were close. My father died when I was 20. I spent that last day with my parents.

I lived across town in a decrepit shack with a friend from my newspaper days. He had left the paper and taken over a bar downtown — Bloomington, Indiana, one of the nation’s greatest college towns — and turned it into a hugely popular hangout in a ‘burg with a lot of them. When my newspaper went out of business, he took me on as a roommate and doorman.

But every Sunday I’d go home to my mother and father — to do laundry, help with yardwork, watch football and consume a great dinner.

That particular Sunday, the three of us watched The Last Picture Show together. Afterward, I recall turning around on the front porch to say goodbye. My father was standing there, and the door closed — dramatically in my recollection — in front of him.

I was back in a couple of hours, summoned by a phone call. My father had died next to my mother in bed. When I got there, the medics were removing his body from the house. My mother couldn’t return to the bed. She took up residence on the love seat in the family room and I lay down on the floor beside her. Eventually, we slept.

I moved home. This was a difficult strategic move for me — a randy 20-year-old man — but she was my mother. I stayed there for more than a year and it was hard. My father’s physician friends showed little true sympathy for my mother’s enormous grief and wrote ‘scrips to keep her in a drugged haze. She was difficult, sometimes irrational. And I was a selfish young asshole.

But we got through it. I dealt with my tremendous grief with silence. My mother didn’t understand why I wasn’t talking about him. She was a vessel of incoherence and pain, constantly asking why my father had gone.

Eventually we found rapproachment, and began to understand each other. She removed herself from that tissue of grief and pharmaceuticals and again joined the living.

My mother — second from left, standing — with her brothers and sisters during the Second World War. This was the last time she saw her brother, Richard — right, front. He was killed in the Pacific not long after his visit home.

She traveled, she made friends. Eventually, she started dating one of my father’s oldest friends.

They ended up dating more than 30 years, until his death. But the poor guy suffered by comparison. Superficially like my father in many ways — a physician, a lover of literature, a raconteur and deeply witty man — he still was not my father. He became my mother’s regular companion for trips and television, but when he died, she did not cry. She’d had only one love and never allowed herself to love again in that way.

In my divorced-guy years, I saw her monthly. I’d drive up from Florida for weekends with the kids in Indiana — my ex-wife moved to the same town — so I’d stay with her and we’d have coffee and long talks and spend time together with the children. She never told me how to run my life but did offer advice now and then, especially when I let my girlfriend — a devoted and charming divorced mother of two — get away.

But she did what a parent was supposed to do: she believed in me. I saw myself as the black sheep of the family. My brother was a physician and he and his wife built a wonderful life with five children, right there in Bloomington, where my mother lived. My sister, a nurse, married a superman and together they raised two nearly perfect children and built yet another handsome life, outside Washington, DC. Her husband John had been in my life since I was nine, so he was more brother than brother-in-law. He stumbled at the start of adulthood, got drafted and served in Vietnam, returning home to build a career that ended with his retirement as a respected aerospace executive.

My mother found this picture in an album a couple decades back and gave it to me. “When I die,” she said, “and they need a picture to use in the newspaper, give them this one. This is how I want to be remembered, not as a little old lady.”

Then there was me. I chose paths — journalism and education — that traditionally did not lead to great wealth. I did all right, but then came the shame and embarrassment of divorce and my feelings of failure. But my mother always stood by me and encouraged me.

So it meant so much to me to be able to repay her. I hadn’t visited as often since the older kids were grown and I remarried and had little ones at home. Visiting just three or four times a year, I could see the changes in her more dramatically than I did when I saw her monthly.

She had rebelled when it came time for the “assisted-living facility” and when my brother told her, at age 90, that she could no longer drive. He and his wife took a lot of her wrath because they were there — their farm was a five-minute drive from Hearthstone. They took the heat and took care of her.

And despite my sister’s great distance from Indiana, she — often with husband John; always with husband John after his retirement — came monthly. A parent could wish for no more devoted and loving child than my sister. Yet she too was sometimes on the recieving end of my mother’s anger.

She was angry because she had always been so independent and active. As her body and mind betrayed her, she’d sometimes take it out on the ones around her. As the old song said, you always hurt the one you love.

Now I was the distant child, the one she saw only two or three times a year. I got the pass. Still, we talked once a week by phone and I felt I could tell my mother anything and everything.

But not this.

During that visit in August, my mother’s hospice nurse, Mary Ann Iracliano, took me aside and told me it was time to say my goodbyes. My mother could be gone at any moment.

“Think about those things you’d want to say,” she told me. “When she’s gone, what will you wish you had said to her?”

I’d tried to always be straight with my mother. I remember that years before, we were watching terrible afternoon television talk shows while waiting for the kids to get home from school. On the television, some guy in his forties was screaming at his mother about what a lousy parent she’d been and how she’d ruined his life.

“Don’t worry, mom,” I said. “I’ll never turn up on one of these shows.”

She laughed.

“I mean it,” I said. “I have no complaints. You were great. You and dad made me feel loved. And I always loved you.”

“I know,” she said. Her eyes held a whisper of a tear.

So was there anything left unsaid? I didn’t think so, and I also didn’t think I was ready for the final goodbye.

That August visit was among my last lucid moments with my mother. I sat at her bedside, fed her, massaged her legs, and talked to to her about my life. But I did not talk to her about what was going on with my body.

I was back a month later for son Graham’s wedding — my mother could not attend — and spent most of my non-wedding time with her, but could tell she’d slipped a lot in just a few weeks. I could not talk to her about what was happening to my body, about how my problems were worsening weekly.

I planned a quick trip home before Christmas – to see her, to see Graham and his new bride, and to see my brother’s family. But then I got the diagnosis and canceled my travel plans.

I called my mother and said that work was just too crazy — which was true — and that I had to cancel. She understood; she always understood.

Now I remembered the words of Mary Ann, the hospice nurse: “She needs to let go. You need to let her know that everything is fine, that you’re doing well.” Mary Ann didn’t know about my cancer; I didn’t even know about it when she told me this. But now the words took on meaning.

All of my life, I’d told my mother everything. But now, I couldn’t tell her this.

Of all the secrets I had to keep, this one was the hardest.

The First Time I Died

This is an episode from my cancer memoir.

All of our lives we know we’re going to die. But then it becomes a reality, not a hazy, distant concern. When I heard those words from a physician — you have cancer — death became a reality.

Suddenly, Death sat on the seat next to me as the train hurtled me home. My encyclopedia of useless information — I speak of my brain — paged through the Death entries on file.

Henry James said, “So here it is come at last – the distinguished thing.”

Hunter S. Thompson

There’s that quote often attributed to Hunter S. Thompson: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’ ”

And again, from Woody Allen: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering and it’s all over much too soon.”

True that, Woody. 

And I would die in a distinctly unglamorous way: death by asshole. How fitting.

It wasn’t pain that I feared. If I was going to die this way, I knew that it would be in that haze of which I spoke — a tissue of medication and incoherence into which i would slip. It was not the act, but the aftermath — of being gone, of being so totally absent — that I feared most.

And I believed,  in some way, I’d been there before: I’d visited death.

The first time I died was Thanksgiving Day in 2001. Nicole and I were married that July and she was already pregnant by fall. She wanted to spend the holiday with her father, who lived in Santa Fe, so we loaded up Savannah, then five, and my daughter Sarah, then 21, and her boyfriend, Ryland. Jack was our silent passenger, deep within my wife’s belly. Thinking back, that’s probably the only time that wonderful kid has ever been silent.

It was our first flight since the September 11 terrorist attacks and we were all a little anxious, but after eye-balling shady passengers for four hours and planning to neutralize ruffians with my devastating choke-hold, we landed without incident. Nicole’s father, Danny Cisneros, picked us up at the Albuquerque airport and drove us to his condo in Santa Fe.

Danny and his roommate Mark were preparing Thanksgiving dinner for a significant portion of Santa Fe’s population.

We got to his place Wednesday evening and discovered he already had two or three dishes going, the turkey readied to cook all night, and enough wine to supply a week’s worth of Roman orgies.

We were tired, so I had a couple beers and went to bed. Since Nicole was pregnant, she didn’t drink, and snuggled with Savannah in our guest-room double bed.

I don’t like bodies poking me at night, so I didn’t sleep much and finally got out of bed around 5:30 on Thanksgiving morning. Danny was already in the kitchen. The turkey was done, the yams were ready and he was working on oyster dressing.

My Nuclear Green-Bean Casserole in all of its glory

My contribution to holiday meals was my Nuclear Green-Bean Casserole. This is not your father’s green-bean casserole; its key ingredients are sour cream and cheese. I put that together and had it ready for the oven before the guests arrived. (See the recipe here.)

Gradually, the house awoke. Mark was a church organist and he took Sarah and Ryland to services, because actors Val Kilmer and Daryl Hannah attend the church and Sarah wanted to stargaze. She came home afterword and reported that Kilmer attended services dressed as a pilgrim.

Everything was more or less ready by late morning. Guests were expected around one o’clock.

“I’m all tired out,” Danny said. “I think I’m going to go lie down for a bit.”

We didn’t see him for another 24 hours.

The friends began arriving. I’d met most of the guys when they’d come to Key West for our wedding, so I wasn’t my usual socially awkward self. Nicole is one of those people with an overabundance of the hospitality gene. She was knee deep in an uncomfortable pregnancy, but still turned on the immense charm she reserved for company.

The Ortiz Mountains

Friends kept showing up with desserts. Some assembled in the living room and others drifted to the large back deck, which had a beautiful view of the Ortiz Mountains.

Danny’s friend Roger brought two Pyrex dishes of brownies. I’d already had a few beers, so my judgment and manners were impaired.

Roger set down one of the trays near me in the living room. There wasn’t a huge rush for it, so I began eating brownies in my regular style — using my hand as a backhoe and regarding the brownies as earth in need of removal.

I gobbled a few delicious scoops when I heard a noise from above. I looked up the stairwell and saw Nicole at the second floor landing, shaking her finger at me and mouthing stop.

“You know those are loaded, right” Roger asked, amazed at my lightning-quick excavation of his brownies.

“Oh yeah?” Another scoop.

“I put Marinol in them,” he said.

“I love Marinol,” I said. “Danny gives me some when I’m stressed or can’t sleep.” Danny and several of his friends had prescriptions for this form of medical marijuana which comes in burgundy-colored spheres the size of BB’s.

“Well, slow down,” Roger said. “I used a whole bottle.”

“Really?” I mumbled as I shoved in another handful of brownie.

“That’s 60 tablets, you know.”

But I was oblivious. Sarah and Ryland went to work on the other tray of brownies and soon we were all fairly high — able to function, but in the zip code of fucked up.

By early afternoon, dinner was getting cold and most of the guests had arrived. Still no Danny.

Mark went upstairs to check on him. “He’s still breathing,” he reported, “but I don’t think we’re going to see him the rest of the day. He is out of it.” He clapped his hands, then rubbed them together. “Let’s eat!”

Danny and Mark had set up tables on their back deck, out in the open, and had enough chairs to seat 20 or so.

It was cold out, but space heaters and body heat warmed us, and we enjoyed the stark sunlight and mountain view. We all held hands as Mark led us in grace, then we started the circulation of the dishes, including a platter the size of a Goodyear on which Nicole had rendered the huge turkey into neat slabs of white meat.

Of course the dinner was perfect. Danny was a superb cook and everything was delicious. He was inside, passed out on his bed, missing the appreciative mass of friends and family enjoying the fruits of his labor.

I collected compliments on my artery-clogging casserole. I wanted to impress Danny with it — still in that eager-to-please new son-in-law period — but he was, according to Mark, unlikely to wake.

I was next to Nicole, with Savannah on her other side. Sarah and Ryland faced us from the opposite side of the table.

Then my life stopped.

I became aware of the quiet. Everything stopped, but of course it didn’t.

Conversations muted. I looked at Sarah, who’d begun crying. Yet I could not hear her.

It was me; I’d gone quiet.

But it wasn’t me; I was watching me, yet I was still there.

I was mute, stock still, my face flushed.

I’d never seen Sarah cry so hard, not even when she was a baby. Ryland held her, but rather than burrowing into his chest for comfort, she watched me, her body jerking with sobs.

What followed was unspoken. There was no conversation, because we didn’t need words. I felt a presence.

Everything was burned out, like an over-exposed photograph. Only the high contrast remained. There was a strong, beautiful light and despite the chill of November in the mountains, I was warmed and cocooned.

Of course there was light — a stunning beautiful light, more than the brightest sunlight, utterly enveloping.

Come. There was no voice, but I heard it.

I can’t. Whatever it was, it heard my thoughts.

Yes.

No, I can’t.

But it’s time.

I won’t leave; not now.

A silent negotiation continued.

There was no time.

Everything had stopped.

I had no idea who or what I was talking to.

I felt a sudden determination to push back. This is not it, I said without speaking. I’m not done.

I refused to leave. I looked across the table at my firstborn, heaving with sobs. And I thought of the little one, tiny as an acorn, in the body of the woman next to me.

I turned to Nicole. Unlike Sarah, her face showed no concern. Neither did Savannah’s, but after all, she was five, chowing down on my life-changing casserole.

I turned to Nicole. In a calm steady voice, I said, “I think I’m dying.” I put my hand on my chest, figuring if I covered my heart, it would soothe its pain. Its pace was accelerating, like a roaring engine.

“You’re not going to die,” she said.

“Please.” Remarkably, still calm. “Call 911.”  I was determined to push back. Maybe this voice or this presence was a test. Maybe my commitment to life was being tested and I needed to show how I could or would respond.

“We don’t need to call 911,” Nicole said. She looked annoyed, not concerned.

Come. It was a persistent presence. If the presence had a gender, it was female, kind but firm, like a teacher. But I pushed back. Still, there was the message: It is time to go. Do as we say. Let it all go.

No, I won’t. I know you want me to, but I can’t. Not now. I can’t leave them.

Part of me was stunned by the simple beauty of what was happening, that I was in negotiation with something or someone — this presence. Was this an angel? Was I pushing back on an angel? For a person of wavering faith, I found comfort in this, even though I was fighting against it.

I gripped the arms of the wrought-iron chair, scooted back and pulled myself up. The noise of the chair on the back deck sounded as if it came from blocks away, not beneath me.

Sarah was still crying. “Call 911,” she told Nicole. “Can’t you see he’s dying?’

“He’ll be all right.”

I stood weaving for a moment, then the sound of the other conversations on the porch resumed, as if someone gradually turned up the volume. I slid open the screen door and staggered into the living room. The rest of the guests out on the back deck were unaware I was dying.

I crossed the living room like a deckhand on rough seas, and collapsed head first in the half-bathroom next to the fireplace. I was face-down on the rug, my lower half jutting into the living room.

I flashed back to childhood: When I was a little boy and felt sick at night, I’d poke my father awake, inform him of my condition, then crawl into my parents’ bathroom and curl up on their rug for comfort. Something about being so close to my mother and father, on the warm green terrycloth rug, made me feel secure and invulnerable.

Wonderful symmetry, I thought, as I burrowed my nose into Danny’s terrycloth. I begin and end on a bathroom floor.

During long pockets of silence, the laughter from the guests out on the back deck disappeared. It didn’t, of course, but for me, all sound was gone.

I continued my silent negotiation with the presence that had come for me. I expected death at any moment.

Someday, I argued, I know it’s part of the deal, but not now. Please —  not now. I can’t leave them. I need to get the children to adulthood. And now there’s my acorn, and that acorn is going to need me.

Later, Nicole and I argued about this. I contend that I died and came back. “You’d just never been that high before,” she said. But I’m certain that I died and talked my way back into living. I made a deal to buy more time.

How else to account for my hour bathed in stark, white light? It might have looked as if I’d passed out on the bathroom floor, but that wasn’t me. I wasn’t there. I was away, negotiating for my life — for more of it, at least.

I gradually came back but didn’t move, so comfortable was I in my terrycloth cocoon. Like a good boyfriend, Ryland carried Sarah upstairs and held her hair back while she bent over the toilet, vomiting. Savannah appeared at her side, in her red party dress.

“I think Daddy’s dying,” Savannah said.

“In that red dress, she looked like the devil,” Sarah told me later. She also told me that she believed I died. She said I’d turned white, my eyes emptied, and that I left. She could feel me leaving and was certain she was watching her father die. That’s why she’d burst into tears.

Back on the floor of the bathroom, with with my ass end sticking out into the living room: I couldn’t move, but I could hear people arrive:

“Happy Thanksgiving! Where’s Danny?”

“He’s passed out upstairs.”

Then they’d see my fat ass sprawled in the living room. “Who’s that?”

“That’s his son in law.”

The blessing here was that Danny slept through until the next morning. He didn’t witness this episode or the prolific vomiting that followed. Small blessings. He did, however, miss the casserole.

Was that death, a quiet slipping away into nothingness, bathed in bright light? As I rode the train home that night after hearing those three little words, I remembered dying, and what it felt like.

All aboard?

Was life just a cruel joke — a pleasure palace until it’s suddenly taken away? I remembered that quote from Richard Farina: “When you’ve walked a little with death, you learn to court it, play with it, defy it if you choose.”

I hadn’t walked with it, but I had negotiated with it in the shadow of the mountains. I don’t know that I won that argument, but the presence left and I remained.

It was the nothingness that worried me. What is it about death that bothers me? Probably the hours. To suddenly not be, for there to be nothing — maybe that was the real hell. The world would carry on and had it really mattered that I’d been here?

I’d be just another ex-parrot. I’d procreated and my children would remember me and, I hoped, miss me. As a teacher, I hoped I’d affected some people along the way, but probably most students thinking back on their college days wouldn’t remember my name.

So death was on the seat beside me. It came for me a second time. As I faced it, I feared the nothingness and the eternal void. I would be gone and who knew, beyond the beautiful light, what awaited.

An Ex-Parrot

This is an excerpt from my cancer memoir.

The train was so loud squeaking into South Station that I didn’t hear my phone ring. I had a short layover until the transfer to my homeward-bound line, so I jostled through the crowd, toward the CVS Pharmacy. Maybe I’d score some trail mix or yogurt-covered raisins. I needed something to tide me over until dinner.

It was a Friday, with a  chilly pre-Christmas weekend yawning before this mass of humanity in the train station. The place was packed. In addition to the usual horde of commuters hurrying to the ‘burbs for home, hearth and highballs, there was a gaggle coming into the city for late-afternoon Christmas shopping and dinner. In the terminal’s huge main hall, a brass band bleated carols.

I pulled out my phone, hoping to blend in with the lemming-like masses holding phones in front of their faces. That’s when I noticed I’d missed a call.

No Caller ID, it said.

But I found it in my ‘recent calls’ folder. A missed call from the 305 area code, meaning South Florida or the Keys. The first 305 I could think of was Nicole’s mother. But she was in my contacts, so her name would have come up. Plus, she’d been dead since March. I’d be surprised if she called.

Could be a former student from my Florida days. Maybe it was someone from the Miami Herald, calling for a quote about a rock star who’d just died. Since I teach rock’n’roll history, I’m on speedial for death-beat reporters. Hell, since it’s South Florida, it could be a face-eating zombie.

I don’t answer phones if I don’t see a name on the caller ID, but I decided to call this one back.

“Oh… hello,” came the voice. “Mister, uh, McKeen. Yes . . . this is” — throat clearing — “Dr. Martinez.”

“Hi, how are you? The 305 area code threw me off.”

“Oh, yes, yes. This is my cell phone.” University of Miami Medical School — I’d looked him up.

I was bumped by a guy in some kind of apocalyptic hurry to make the train to Stoughton. No apology, no acknowledgement. Between the general harrumph of the crowd, the brass band and the distorted announcements on the PA system (why do they even bother?), I had trouble hearing Dr. Martinez. I looked around and saw a narrow alcove. They’d built the CVS that fall, and its display windows jutted out from the building, leaving a narrow opening between the side of one window and part of the old granite walls of the original station. It was tight, but I was pretty sure I could fit my controversial girth in the space. I slipped in, plugged my non-phone ear with my finger, and prepared myself for Dr. Martinez.

“Yes, well, I’m afraid I have some news — news that might be, well, I guess you could say it was disturbing news.”

I wondered how old he was. Thirty-three, thirty-four maybe? I wondered how often he’d delivered “disturbing” news. I braced myself, but felt the need to comfort him; he sounded so upset.

“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Martinez, “but I’m afraid it is,  pretty sure, as I had feared . . . you have cancer.”

“I have cancer?”

Three little words.

“Well, it’s not one-hundred-percent confirmed. I want to see you in my office on Monday and then I will get you in to see a specialist at Dana Farber. I’ve already made the call. Can you come to my office on Monday?”

I had two classes on Monday. I’d never been in a teach-or-die situation, but I figured I’d find someone to cover for me.

“Yes, okay,” I said. “I can be there. You name the time.”

“Okay, and I’ve arranged for you to see Dr. Corwin at Dana Farber a week from today. I don’t know him personally, but he’s supposed to be an excellent surgeon.” He went on, trying to give me hope. I’m sure he knew how hard it was to hear: you have cancer.

Probably the standard rah-rah’s of encouragement. Once the surgeon cut out the tumor in my colon, he said, everything would probably be all right. He assured me that cancer isn’t the automatic death sentence it used to be.

I still reverberated from the news: cancer. “Pretty sure” meant yes. I thought I was ready for the diagnosis, but then realized you can never really be prepared for that word — the cancer word.

We set an appointment and when I hung up, there was no more time for trail mix. I stepped out of my alcove — which henceforth I’d think of as the cancer corner when I walked by it every working day  — and slipped back into the mass of humanity.

They had called my train and I walked stiffly toward Track 13. Of course, Track 13. What rotten luck.

I walked in the mob of commuters with the same phrase on repeat in my head: I have cancer; I have cancer; I have cancer.

I thought I was ready for it, but I was not. Sixty years sounds like a long time, but I was greedy. I wanted more. Was this it? Was that it? Am I done? Am I out of time?

Please, Sir, can I have some more?

I was slow and my legs were stiff and unbending. I walked like Gort the killer robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I was late to the train and all of the comfortable and anti-social seats were gone. I sat on one of the bench seats and looked around at my fellow passengers. We all rode this train every day, but I didn’t know anyone’s name. Talking to a stranger on commuter rail was sufficient cause for a restraining order.

A stocky woman with short blonde hair sat next to me. I wanted to say, “Guess what? I just found out I have cancer.”

I looked at the other commuters and played Spot-the-Cancer-Patient. Who else was sick?

Guess what, everybody — I might die soon, so the train won’t be so crowded . . . .

All my life I’d been obsessed with death. At 8, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was certain I’d be vaporized. When I saw that “Twilight Zone” episode about the dead astronauts, I was gripped with the fear of imminent demise. I’d imagined so many ways of dying: a car crash, a house fire, a stabbing, a shooting, and the new addition to my gallerie du mort, a terrorist attack.

No one talks on commuter rail. I looked out the window at Boston. The Greenbush line runs along the South Expressway and hundreds of cars poked down the asphalt as we went gliding by.

At least this takes the mystery out of my death, I thought. Now I knew how it would happen. There would be no murder, no pain, no fire, no gallant charge of the light brigade, no self-sacrifice to save the lives of others. I probably wouldn’t feel much of anything. Instead of dying heroically, I’d be shot full of medicine and drift away. I would just . . . end.

I would be an ex-parrot.

I laughed, thinking about Monty Python’s pet-shop sketch. John Cleese returns his parrot to the shop where he got it because he has realized it is dead. Shopowner Michael Palin is dubious, but Cleese convinces him with brutal truth:

He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff — bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot!

Michael Palin, John Cleese and an ex-parrot

The Monty Python group effectively retired when founding member Graham Chapman died of AIDS in 1989 and at his irreverent memorial service — preserved by YouTube — John Cleese’s eulogy adapted the parrot sketch to Chapman’s death (“he has ceased to be!”) and called his old friend an “insufferable bahstad,” cracking up the church full of assembled mourners. I laughed again. Maybe someone would take the Cleese approach and make people laugh at my memorial.

My memorial — would I have one? And where would I be buried, and would I be alone, a solitary grave at the edge of an old New England cemetery?

The blonde woman looked at me for a moment, sizing me up: another crazy, laughing at traffic. One restraining order, coming up.

I couldn’t get it out of my head: you have cancer. I might just drift off in a haze, but still: I would cease to be.

Again I laughed, thinking about Woody Allen: What is about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours.

This time, my seat mate didn’t look up, but when a spot opened across the aisle when people got off at the JFK/UMass stop, she lunged for it. She’d obviously written me off as a crazy.

I didn’t get so far as to think about heaven, or an afterlife. I just thought of being gone — of suddenly being absent.

I still felt like a work in progress. I thought of duty to my children and what would become of them. The little ones, the boys, are louder than war. Too much for one parent. Probably too much for six or seven parents. What would become of them?

Would I suffer, and how would I deal with that? What kind of Cancer Guy would I be? I never really believed in Happy Cancer Guy. Hi, everybody! I’m Captain Andy and I have cancer! Let me tell you all about it! I’m too noisy and goofy to be Stoic Cancer Guy. I wanted to be Brave Cancer Guy. Now that it’s here, I wondered if I had the courage to be that guy.

I couldn’t get the grim thoughts out of my head, despite the efforts of Monty Python and Woody Allen. I just thought about the void, about what it would be like to be . . . nothing.

My phone buzzed with a text from Nicole: “Any news?”

“Yes,” I texted back. “I’ll tell you when I get home.”

I’ve Always Been into Death

This is an excerpt from my cancer memoir.

“My family’s always been into death.”

That’s not me talking. That’s the opening line of Lisa Alther’s great novel Kinflicks, one of the key books of my life. I got it new in 1976 and look at it now: raggedy-ass cover, coffee-circles burned into the binding, dog-eared pages and spills here and there. This is an appreciated book. I lent it to so many friends and brought them into the Kinflicks world. (And a few of the apparently used the book as a coaster, a practice I find reprehensible.) Still, this book has been read by many hands — hands of people I loved.

That opening line is followed with the story of how our protagonist, Cissy, was raised in a family that was always talking or thinking about death. “My father, the Colonel, always kept a serving fork on the dinner table in case he needed to perform an emergency tracheotomy.” Great book, as I say.

But that wasn’t my family, even though Dad could have probably performed a successful tracheotomy with a butter knife.

But I was into death. From the time I was in single digits, I had a sense of impending death.

My real obsession with death began on February 7, 1963, a Thursday night. We were stationed at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, where my father was hospital commander. We’d just survived the Cuban Missile Crisis a few months before. As the southernmost military installation on the United States mainland, we were vulnerable. Those missiles were pointed at us.

I was terrified of death the whole time we were on the brink of nuclear war and imagined being vaporized at any moment. But then it passed. The Americans were eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, and then the Russians blinked.

So I had thought about death a good deal, perhaps more than most nine year olds, but once we realized we were not going to war, my thoughts returned to Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline and Rocky Colavito.

But then came that Thursday night when I saw the “Death Ship” episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Here’s the plot summary, from Internet Movie Database: “An interplanetary expedition from earth finds an exact duplicate of their ship and themselves crashed on the planet they were surveying. Should they stay or risk taking off and crashing?”

The astronauts were played by Jack Klugman, Ross Martin and Frederick Beir. As they debated what to do it occurred to me that I was going to die someday.

Suddenly, life revealed itself to my nine-year-old psyche as a ridiculous spectacle, a cruel and heartless joke.

Why were we brought into this life only to lose it someday? What the fuck was up with that?

When the show was over and I was in my lower bunk — my big brother up top kept the light on, reading Spinoza — I kept pondering the imminence and incongruity of death.

I got out of bed and walked into my parents’ room. I hugged my father and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you, Dad,” I said. Then I solemnly walked around the bed and repeated the ritual with my mother.

I went back to bed and then, ten minutes later, made another trip into the bedroom and repeated the procedure. And then again.

“What the hell are you doing?” my brother asked after my third trip.

“None of your business,” I said, and went to kiss my parents again. Eventually, I fell asleep that night, but the thought of imminent death hung over everything from then on.

Pre-teen death wish

There came an afternoon when visiting my grandparents in Ohio when I drank two milkshakes back-to-back and suddenly felt so bloated that I would suffer death by chocolate.

Another time, Tony Ong and I wrecked our bikes in traffic — I figured for sure I’d be run over by a Buick Riviera and dragged to my death.

Around that time, I remember discovering a bump on the back of my neck. This was it: the tumor that would kill me.

For years, I kept the existence of this nodule of doom to myself. Watching television, my hand would absently go to the back of my neck, to check on it, to make sure it was still there, always hoping it was gone.

I worried about this thing for about ten years until one night, while visiting my aged Aunt Inez and Uncle Cecil, I decided to ask Dad about it. I guess if I was going to pass out dead over Aunt Inez’s beef stroganoff, it would be nice to get advance warning from my father.

“Dad? Could you feel this thing for me?”

He reached around my shoulder and, with only a little guidance, found it.

“That?” he said.

“Yeah. Is it … a tumor?”

He looked at me and started to smile, but then he saw the worry on my face.

“No son,” he said. “It’s just fat — a little ball of fat. Nothing to worry about.” He patted me on the shoulder and we went in for dinner.

Another narrow escape. I can still feel that bump on my neck, by the way.

I always imagined some new way to die: dealing with a fireball on a DC-10 at 30,000 feet; getting skull-fractured by a young hoodlum tossing a bowling ball off an overpass; getting trapped by an inferno in a hotel while in Omaha for a boring academic conference.

Fire was my great fear — so many of my death fantasies involved that, watching my skin catch fire and turn to crust. A good friend married to a firefighter told me not to worry about that, though. “The smoke’ll get you first,” she said.

For someone who drove so much — long, madman drives between Florida and Indiana when I’d steal long weekends to go visit my older kids when they were little — I had a library of death scenarios from the highways. I certainly saw enough accidents and had a lot of close calls. One time, a guy intent on suicide jumped in front of my car but my cat-like reflexes (if you knew me, you’d realize that’s funny) allowed me to swerve at the last minute. There’s a herd of deer in the world that would not exist had I not be able to respond so quickly.

And there were all the times I fell asleep while driving. In order to get to spend as much time as possible with the kids, I’d start driving after work, sometimes going straight through — 15 hours, with stops only for urination. Gainesville, Florida, to my ex-wife’s home in Bloomington, Indiana, was 853 miles door to door. Fifteen hours, unless there was a lot of traffic. A long haul by any definition.

I was once awakened by my Goodyears spitting gravel on the side of the road. I pulled the car back just before hitting a massive oak. Another time, I was skirting the edge of a shallow ditch in the median of I-24 when I woke. I would sometimes be nearly delirious from fatigue while driving. I’d go forty-five minutes or an hour, on occasion, before realizing I had not given a thought to driving in all of that time. My future was clear: I would become a Georgia highway fatality.

But I’d never thought about that other kind of dying — wasting away under my Hudson’s Bay blanket, too weak to speak, nothing but a bed-soiling burden to friends and famiiy, sentenced to living out my last years in a morass of adult diapers and deep cable. That kind of death wasn’t nearly as dramatic as going down in flames on I-75.

As it turned out, after all of my elaborate visions of death I began thinking I might be taking the slow and agonizing way out.