Life Lessons From a Dying Friend

Given the size of my existing medical debt, a second miracle remission is simply out of the question. The resulting stress would prove to be fatal.
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My friend Robert Gordon is dying of lupus. He's a novelist who spent a decade teaching in the Washington State prisons and written essays for everywhere from Esquire, to The Christian Science Monitor, to the Boston Globe. Two months ago he wrote a wise and powerful open letter to Obama, asking him to tell the truth to America about our economic predicament, how deep a hole we've dug and how difficult it will be to get out of it. He sent it out to his friends. I was so moved by it, that I offered to post it here. It touched reader's souls, as it had mine, and Robert got hundreds of emails in response.

With his death approaching closer, Robert has now sent out a follow up letter to his friends, a more personal reflection, looking back on a life approaching its close. Again, it seemed too powerful to be seen by just a handful of intimates, and so again, I'm posting it as Robert's gift to a broader public community. I hope it touches your heart as much as it did mine.

Paul Loeb


Dear Friends:

As many of you know, back in September of 2003, I experienced a medically inexplicable "miracle" remission that lasted five years; a remission that enabled me to slow down and explore the Spiritual side of life. I trained and practiced Reiki healing, and strove, with mixed results, to become a less insufferably driven writer, teacher, partner and friend.

Writing? In time, I left writing behind. Just walked away. No regrets. Never again. Done.
Politics? Too stressful. No mas. Done. I devoted more time to my first love, music, and spent as much time as possible in the wild.

So it went for five years. I re-entered the work force as an assistant trailer hitch installer for U-Haul. Up to my elbows in grease all day. Learning how to read blueprints, solve problems and to drill through metal under the patient tutelage of the lead, Grandma Butterfly. Her story was such that working with her was like working side-by-side with a living beat poem.

Butterfly earned the same minimum wage I did. And--so that U-Haul wouldn't have to give her benefits--was designated as a part-time employee even though she worked 60+ hours per week. In order to feed her financially struggling children and their children, Butterfly made weekly stops at a local food bank.

For my part, I found trailer hitch installation to be absorbing. However, the pay wasn't high enough to enable me to make a dent in my medical debt. In time, I returned to teaching, and augmented my income by counseling ex-convicts and establishing a Reiki practice.

Teaching, counseling, Reiki, music, wilderness. Couldn't ask for more. Setbacks? Yes. Some life-threatening, all annoying. And none worth going into. Better to focus on the good, and the good was very good. A good life. A sweet life. One I savored all the more because I'd come so close, on so many occasions, to losing it.

Then? In September of last year, the miracle remission came to an end. My decline was precipitous. And much to my consternation, even as I was forced, for reasons of health, to resign from three jobs I loved, the literary muse awoke.

I did my best to resist, but the poetic frenzy is the poetic frenzy. Moreover, since the locus of this untreatable hence fatal flare is my brain -- well, the secret to permitting the muse to take over is simple: bypass the intellect. Don't think. Hence, with an increasingly compromised intellect -- with windows of lucidity closing daily -- bypassing the intellect was a breeze.

Within a matter of weeks, and against my will, I had an outline for a book I never wanted to write. An outline, mind you. Just an outline. I had no obligation to sweat every word in an attempt to turn that outline into a living breathing entity, aka a story. No way was I about to embark on this project. No way no way no way. And I stuck to my guns. For a week.

Then in mid-February, I met up with Barry Lopez: friend, mentor, whose every word, written or spoken, is in service to the Sacred. Barry Lopez is the Thoreau of our times. A National Book Award winner, yes. But above all a decent and generous man. A light house to many, myself included, for when we met, 25 years ago, I was most certainly drowning. My old friend took one look at me and before I had a chance to break the news to him, he broke it to me: He said "Bobby, your time is short. Please write the book."

How could I say no to this great man, this friend of the land and all who love it and mourn its passing? How, above all, could I say no to a cherished friend? So. I stand at the edge of the River. I stand there and yearn to go Home. I yearn in the deepest way. I miss my dad. I miss Bobby Kennedy. I miss the Blessed Mother.

Sometimes, during windows of peace, during windows of lucidity, during times, in short, when I ought to be at the computer, I just lie on the couch, reach over for my 15-year-old bodhisattva dog, Three Bears, and pet her soft ears, her soft soul. And weep because the time is soon, and when it comes I'll go with joy. But even as Home floats towards me and I float towards Home, I tell them, "Not yet, not quite yet. I have a promise to keep."

Writing from the middle of the crossing, writing from a place of transcendent death makes for a quiet life. I walk Three Bears. I enter the wilderness of my soul by playing Leonard Cohen's repertoire. I spin a yarn, the final yarn. I spend time with the people I love.

Looking back on my life I suppose I feel like Lou Gehrig must've felt. Yes, I know it's corny. Yes, I know: writing is an assault on cliché. (Except when it isn't.) But I really am the luckiest man alive.

Except, that is, when I'm not. I'm not St. Francis, people. I don't praise suffering while in the midst of it. Indeed, while in the throes, I have been known to utter "not nice" words as my proper Bostonian Ma might put it. Many many not nice words.

Still, during periods of peace I know in my heart, in my blood, in my bones, how fortunate I am. And I know of my good fortune (albeit in the head if not the heart) when the already-swollen brain goes on an inflammation bender, and, by so doing, renders me unable to write, to do much else besides lie on the couch and remember.

I think of the wilderness, the wolves I heard while canoeing solo for nine days in North Central B.C. years ago. Dwarfed by the Cariboos-- an astonishingly epic spur of the Rockies. There is no valley up there. The vast glacial peaks simply crash into the pristine lakes and rivers. Moose and eagles, black bears and grizzlies. The howls of the wolf packs every night. So many stars it took me minutes, some nights, to pick out the Milky Way. To find the North Star. And paddle as my late father taught me to do: using the North Star to guide me. There's no sun at night, of course. Which means, if it's not stormy, there's no wind. No chop. Just still deep water.

The music was the silence, then the sound of my paddle or a distant waterfall. I'd never felt so alone and at the same time so protected. By the stars that danced and pulsed; that lit up the glacial peaks; that reminded me of how small and insignificant I was, but that I was, simultaneously, a part of something more vast than the human mind can begin to begin to comprehend.

I think of the ex-convicts I taught. Some, many, were too predatory and violent to be set free. More than a few of those men told me they were, in fact, glad they were locked up, unable to shatter any more lives.

But then? There were the angels. Some are my friends, my brothers. These are men who performed acts of moral courage; acts that would do Gandhi proud. Prouder, even, for they did so in obscurity. In the bowels of Walla Walla prison. Where no one but God bore witness.

Risking their lives to save a fresh fish from getting raped, a fresh fish they didn't know from Adam. Simply because it was the right thing to do. Walking away from a fight, knowing that their rep would be destroyed, that they'd be viewed as weak, as prey. But deciding nonetheless that violence was not the answer, even if the price was death.

It was not by design but necessity that I spent the years after college getting beyond and beneath the shelter of wealth and academia; living in the America that was invisible back when I attended Harvard; working blue collar jobs (as starving artists must) burnishing my soul-- beginning to, at any rate-- with calluses. Living small paycheck to small paycheck. This was during the early 1980's.

Politics? Foreign policy? Reagan's policy of torture in El Salvador, Guatemala and God knows where else? We trained the death squads, the Atlacatl Brigade, right here on U.S. soil. We threw nuns out of helicopters, tossed them into the sea. The Flying Nuns, as our Black Ops folks, the CIA's worst kept secret, used to joke. Which, for some reason, The Great Communicator neglected to mention.

Me? I was framing houses, installing mobile homes, laying sewer pipes, doing whatever it took to get by. And I experienced the decency of those "Reagan Republicans" that were scorned by some I knew back east. Not because my east coast friends are scornful by nature. They would not be my friends if they were. But children of privilege (of which I am one) do not, sometimes, appreciate what our education provides: the ability to extrapolate. To see how a policy affects those beyond our town, our state, our borders. And our concomitant responsibility to take action.

Now I was receiving a different sort of education: acquiring a visceral understanding of what it means to be poor, and discovering that the poor, the folks on the margins, watch out for one another (because no one else will) in a manner and to an extent that I hadn't experienced while growing up in a time and place where we viewed economic security as a birthright.

Then? I began to publish and became a prison teacher. The hardest (and therefore the best) twelve years before I took ill.

Life? This bittersweet life? I've experienced the extremes of beauty and suffering and who could ask for more? So. A quiet end. Music. Tale-telling. Friends and family. Infusions, hospitalizations, yes, of course, but peaceful nonetheless.

One not marred by the rough and tumble of the politics I grew up with. (Massachusetts in the 1960's? And you wonder why I have Bobby Kennedy as well as lupus on the brain?)
No more political writing. No more. If I knew anything, just one simple thing, I knew that. Which pretty much brings me to the present.

While surrendering to the gentle and poetic musical muse, the cacophonous political muse awoke. I resisted. For an hour. Less. And then surrendered to an utterly ridiculous exercise: the writing of a personal letter to the President of the United States. Knowing that my letter would never but never reach the Oval Office, I did the reasonable thing: with a timeline of weeks or months, I took three weeks off from the final tale to write a letter that would never reach the addressee.

Sent it to my wise friend Arnie Miller. Who said, "Bobby, your audience isn't Obama. This is a Public Letter." Public. Got it. The audience was not the President. The audience was the body politic. Of which I am a part.

But how to get it out there? Put it up on a major blog. Or two. Or three. Or four. Or six I was informed. (I meander. I write in spirals. The prerogative of those who've lost their minds.) I was saying: the blogs. As many of you know, I am a stubborn cuss when it comes to technology or doctors who misdiagnose me. I've made peace with my errant but truly compassionate physicians. When they tell me that my symptoms are imaginary, I only holler "Freud's hysterical women!" two to three times per minute. ( I've mellowed as you can see. )

Technology is a different matter. I was and remain a technological idiot. I will not budge. It will be a war until the bitter end. On this matter, there is no compromise. I fully intend to lose every battle. So there was no way that this public letter would go public, no way I would learn about blogging. Then? My friend, the astute and insightful writer, Paul Loeb, read my Public Letter to the President and offered his space on the Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, and several other major blogs so as to get the letter into the Public Domain. An uncommonly generous act. The letter was posted.

I woke up expecting another slow, gentle day of walking, music, writing, an intravenous infusion to keep me somewhat lucid and...

The letter had struck a nerve. The deluge commenced at six am. And as I was responding to the growing numbers of comments and emails, my technologically savvy assistant, Amy, reported that the letter was spreading to other posts, to blogs and websites that no one had sent it to, and the emails kept coming and... I never got to the music.

Confession. I've never before felt a moral imperative to get an essay, a novel, any piece of writing into the public domain. If people read my books, that was fine. If they didn't, well, as time went on, as my ambition diminished, I was happy enough to have been a solid triple A minor leaguer who once made it to the Show. For all of fifteen minutes. Which turned out to be fifteen minutes too long. Obscurity, I discovered, is a gentler place to live.

But this piece? This Public Letter? This piece felt different. I felt that moral imperative to put it out there. And thanks to my friends it happened.

The power of the Net is daunting, amazing, and more than a bit frightening. The Public Letter began to go national in a matter of hours. And the trend accelerated. Our new president may or may not have read it. But that is of no consequence. My friend Arnie is right. This letter was for the Public. A public that is ill-prepared for the adversity that lies ahead. (Except for the disenfranchised, the ones who became visible for two weeks in the aftermath of Katrina, and, just as swiftly, became invisible again. Not because they don't exist, but because we chose, as per usual, because it is easier, to avert our eyes. Our loss as well as theirs. For they are the ones who can teach hence prepare us. They are the ones who know what the rest of us are about to find out: that life isn't a Make-a-Wish Foundation. That life isn't, in fact, supposed to be easy.)

Illness and impending death has served two wonderful purposes. The first and by far the most important: an opportunity to re-connect with many I have missed.

The second, provided I die on schedule, a delicious opportunity to beat the banks. You see, given the size of my existing medical debt, a second miracle remission is simply out of the question. It would do more than amplify my existing and catastrophic medical debt: it would raise my debt at an exponential rate and the resulting stress would prove to be fatal, notwithstanding the fact that I'd already be dead.

True: that's a minor detail, or so the nice manager at the credit union told me. He said that dead or twice-dead, the credit union owed it to their healthy depositors to send me post-mortem bill after post-mortem bill until my debt is paid off. That they had a moral obligation to their healthy depositors to hound my gullible 78 year old mother -- to badger my old Ma aggressively -- even though she'd be in no way liable.

"I never thought about it that way," I told the nice banker.

"That's what all our dead clients say."

The first time I received Extreme Unction was in the fall of 1998. The second time I received Extreme Unction was in the fall of 1998. The third time I received Extreme Unction was in the fall of 1998. The fourth time was either in December of 1998 or January of 1999, I forget. What I do remember is this: when I hit number ten before the end of that year, I made a decision about those ten fingers of mine: I could either use them to count or play music.


Robert Gordon is the author of When Bobby Kennedy Was a Moving Man and The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison. He's written for Esquire, the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Ploughshares, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and taught writing in Washington State prisons, juvenile institutions and inner-city high schools. He wrote Funhouse Mirror while undergoing chemotherapy, collaborating with six of his incarcerated students to let their voices be heard. The book won the 2000 Washington State Book Award. As one critic wrote of Bobby Kennedy, "Gordon's vision is at once radical and healing. It teaches us a little about Heaven and a lot about Hell."

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