My 49th birthday was spent in the hospital where I was diagnosed with stage four neuroendocrine carcinoid tumors that had invaded multiple organs.
I have survived this ugly disease for 20 months now. I have good days and bad days. Some days I’m happy; some nights I pull the covers over my head and cry myself to sleep.
I find myself feeling alone and struggling. Not struggling with how to die with dignity, but with how to find the purpose to live the last part of my life for however long that may be. What do I do? Where do I go? How do I fill my final days and nights that are passing too quickly? I figured if anyone could share some heartfelt words it would be you.
I am the wrong guy to talk to. I have no words because I am severely unqualified. In fact, I am so inept that in many circles I used to be known as “Critter,” and any guy bearing such a piteous nickname probably knows jack squat about life.
You know who I wish you could talk to? My friend Martin. Sadly, Martin is no longer alive. Martin would have known just what to say here.
Oh, you would have loved Martin, which was not his real name. He was a mess. He was loud, outgoing, sturdy-built, with a unique New Jersey accent. He was the main attraction of every party.
And I’m not exaggerating because whenever people invited me to parties, I often realized it was only because I could bring Martin.
These people would always remind me, “Hey! Don’t forget to bring Martin!” Which made me feel about as interesting as underprepared bratwurst.
Years ago, Martin had skin cancer that moved from his shoulder-blade region to his organs. He went through the medical care gauntlet. This drew out for months, then years.
One morning all Martin’s friends received an email saying that he was terminal. Martin pretended to be upbeat, but something was off. Martin was always a jocular, animated guy. Now he seemed sullen.
This was a tragedy. Because Martin was the kind of guy who was always joking around. Once I saw him drink Wild Turkey out of his own sock at a birthday bash.
He lived for laughs. He knew millions of jokes. He could tell you the classic joke about Mister Rab-BIT and Mister Buz-ZARD. Likewise, he could tell family-friendly jokes fit for the company of children and practicing nuns. Such as one of his most famous jokes:
“Late one night a Baptist preacher was driving on a country road and had a wreck. A farmer found the preacher in his wreckage and said, ‘You okay, preacher?’ The preacher answered, ‘Me? I’m always okay, I have the Lord riding beside me.’ The farmer replied, ‘Well, let Him ride with me from now on because you’re gonna kill Him.’”
It was better when Martin told it.
When Martin announced he was dying it was like being kicked in the sternum. In his email he also announced he was going to complete many items on his “bucket list.”
This was a long time ago, back then I didn’t know what bucket lists were. Martin explained that some people had a list of adventures they wanted to do before they kicked the “bucket.” Hence the name.
So that’s what he did. Martin’s wife took him to Europe, Japan, and South America. Martin went for a ride in a hot-air balloon with his kids. He even went to Vegas, but not to gamble. Martin paid a ridiculous amount of money to drive an actual race car for 15 minutes.
The reason I tell you all this is because after he had done these things, I can never shake the memory of what Martin said about it.
“Bucket lists are stupid.”
I wish I had Martin’s exact words right now, because he always had a special way with the English language. His staccato streetwise accent sounded like a submachine gun and he could make anything sound brilliant.
So I’m paraphrasing his remarks here because I think this is what he would say if he were alive. Keep mind, he said this a few months before he passed:
“Hey, listen, man, you wanna know what life is about? I’ll tell you. Nobody lays here and says, ‘Gaw, I wish I woulda seen Rome or Jamaica, or gone hang gliding, or done something really important.’ And I don’t give a [bad word] about my career anymore.
“You lay here and you think about one thing. ONE thing, man. People you love. You wish you coulda spent more time with them. You wish you woulda kept up with old friends instead of losing touch. You wish you woulda worked less hours. You wish you could just hold your kids for 24 hours a day until they mesh right into your body and become part of you forever.”
Then he started to cry. Not sad tears. Reflective ones.
“I ain’t afraid of dying, man,” he went on. “I’m afraid I didn’t tell my people just HOW MUCH I love them.”
Then Martin held my hand, which is something we guys never do. He said to me three small words. Special words. Words that, even if we said them every second of every day until the end of infinity, will never convey the full depth of their meaning. His words to me were: “Love you, Critter.”
Right now I’m saying three similar words to you, my friend. And I mean them with all my heart.