Sunday, June 1, 2014

LOST: A loved one to chronic incurable disease

I lost a friend today, someone I've taught with in the science fiction convention world in the past, someone who has a daughter the same age as mine, someone who shared my literary sensibilities, someone I have laughed with countless times and admired for his stubborn desire to live life on his own terms.

We met 11 years ago last April at a regional event, when he was just starting to break in as a SFF writer. Now his bibliography includes hundreds of short story publications, credits in anthologies and collections and more than a dozen books, including a potent memoir about surviving cancer.

Today he died of cancer of the liver after 6? 7? years of fighting different onslaughts (stage IV colon cancer among them).

He kept going, though. He kept working until disability was his only option. He jumped through the ridiculous flaming hoops of our heartless insurance system. He traveled when he could, and wrote until he could no longer pick up a pen or read the words on his laptop.

He was in pain much of the time, he had moments of all-out depression or hair-raising anxiety. He lost functionality in his body that many of us, even with MS, still enjoy or take for granted.

He did not live long enough to see his daughter graduate, which makes me terribly sad. She is a beautiful, strong young woman and they were intensely close. She will survive this because she is cut from his cloth, but it is still heartbreaking to accept.

I was always hopeful for him. He had a relentlessly sunny outtake on life and had made it a practice to turn the bad stuff that happened to him into something he could use to strengthen his resolve. I would see him at a convention and he would look great, then he would disappear between convention seasons as the cancer claimed other parts of his body. Then he would go through the rigors of chemo and radiation, tamping down the cancerous uprisings, and return for yet another season of sci-fi conventions. In between, he continued to write and publish and won some well-deserved accolades. The guy is talented, after all.

He also tattooed his radiation and chemo exploits on his scalp and his wrists and wrote often about his cancer struggles in a way that made it possible for us all to manage its horrors. So public an approach no doubt made it harder for him in some ways, but the response to his words was broad and resoundingly supportive.

He became a hero for so many of us. A small video house is still in the process of making a movie about him, and he has already starred in smaller videos that walk viewers through the experiences of his active involvement in the Human Genome Project. (What else would an SFF writer do but use cancer as an opportunity to take a live role in studying the science behind cancer?)

Well, a lot of others would give up or recede into obscurity, by my friend didn't. He decided instead that he would dance with this new partner, call it names, have fights with it, laugh at its face, have it tested and treated experimentally via the NIH.

Perhaps his biggest challenge was losing his cleverness to the vagaries of pharmaceutical side effects; even working at 50%, his brain was still quicker than most of ours could ever be. Certainly most did not even notice his cognitive slippage, though he was likely hyperaware of it.

He and I emailed back and forth about this annoying "cog fog." It was something we both shared periods of together about a year ago. When he described what was happening to his thinking and creative processes, I could relate. I think it helped that I could share my same experiences honestly with him, that I didn't just pooh-pooh his fears of literally losing his mind because I was also experiencing the same sense of derailment.

When you spend your entire life working in intellectual pursuits like creative writing, the idea of losing your mind is WAY more terrifying than losing your legs. There are no wheelchairs for broken brains. And nobody can see a brain as it atrophies... it's a long, cruel process of gradual decomposition. Meanwhile, others continue to expect you to function at one hundred percent when, in fact, your brain has dipped to less than fifty and all you can think is "THIS IS IT... I will no longer speak again, or be able to understand spoken language directed at me, or find the right words and then be able to transfer them from the jail cell that is my broken brain to the page because all the mechanisms that allow me to type or write by hand are also compromised."

He didn't believe in Heaven, nor do I, not in the religious sense. He was far more convinced he would become worm meat and that will be all, which he was comfortable with. And why not? He lives on through his published words and tens of thousands of people whose lives he's already touched through his writing, his teaching and his inspiration as a speaker and blogger.

I still hope he is pleasantly surprised to find his soul bathed in white light in this moment, moving to the next level of his life pain free, fingers flying on his celestial laptop even now.

I'll be looking for a new star in the sky tonight.