There is a saying—“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”—which is neither true nor helpful.
In the last few years I was diagnosed with colon cancer, which, thankfully, was caught in time. After treatment, I recovered and went back to work, and on I went.
Then my wife Kathi was diagnosed with a dangerous and aggressive form of breast cancer. With the help of very fine doctors we did everything possible. After a brutal regime of chemo, surgery, and radiation, we had reason to hope we had the cancer under control. We settled into a new rhythm.
One day I went to work and was informed my position had been eliminated, and with it, my career and our source of health insurance.
We fought back. Kathi and I found new work. We got a book deal. We played music and celebrated life.
And then, just before Thanksgiving 2011, we flew to Miami to play with the Rock Bottom Remainders at the Miami International Book Fair. As we were exiting the plane, Kathi said, “I can’t walk.” She was in excruciating pain. Soon we would learn that the cancer had returned in her bones, lungs, and liver.
We fought back. Help came from everywhere. But for Kathi, time had run out. Bit by bit, month by agonizing month, the cancer stole her away.
“The universe had a different plan,” she wrote in her last blog. “I really wish the universe had consulted with me.”
When Kathi died I was bereft, bewildered, and lost. It had to pick myself up one more time, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I was beaten. I wandered around our house, but it wasn’t our house anymore. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely dress. I was increasingly dependent on friends and family for my survival.
A time came when I had to either get up and live, or lie down and give up. I wasn’t really capable of making a decision, but I knew what Kathi would want me to do. I chose life.
A lot has happened since that terrible time. My son Daniel married his gorgeous bride Dilek at a fabulous wedding in Turkey. My daughter Laura moved back to the Bay Area. My stepson Tony is emerging as a talented humor writer and producer. I moved from San Francisco to Marin and took on a new role as marketing director at the great independent bookstore Book Passage. I’m working on a new book and I am playing music. I'm in love with a beautiful woman named Megan. I am a lucky man, blessed with amazing children, those wonderful years with Kathi, and now, a new chapter.
Life isn’t easy, but it is a gift, and while I am here I want to appreciate it as much as possible. We don’t know how long we have, but I am old enough to know it will go by fast.
Recently I had an exchange with Liz Perle, a dear friend who is fighting cancer. “My spirits are good and I feel well, within reason,” she said. “You get used to being bald and having no feeling in your fingers.” In spite of her suffering, Liz had encouraging words for me. “Kathi would want you to pick up and move on and laugh and play music and be with your friends and family,” she said. “Keep on keeping on, as someone wise once sang. That’s our job.”
I am forever amazed by the power of the human spirit in the face of hardship; by people who have been dealt the worst possible hand in life and yet manage to maintain their dignity, hope, and sense of purpose.
The other day I was listening to a show KQED’s Forum about hunger and Bay Area food banks. A woman named Trish called in to remind the listeners that people who need assistance are not freeloaders—they are our neighbors, and they are trying as hard as anyone else to live well. Trish had a motto for her life on the margins: “We’ve been doing so much with so little for so long, that now we can do most anything with nothing.”
Thank you, Trish. Thank you, Liz. Thank you, Kathi. Because of you, and so much more, I know what true gratitude is.