Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours--Yogi Berra
None of us is immune to cancer. I mean this, not just in the obvious sense that this ugly disease could strike anyone at any moment, but from the perspective that we’ve all been touched by it.
For many years, my awareness of cancer was somewhat abstract: a co-worker’s mother who fought off a medical death sentence for many years beyond the original prognosis; the eerie vision of Yul Brynner, an actor of vast talent and energy reminding us from beyond the grave; “Now that I’m gone, I tell you, don’t smoke”; my wife’s cousin succumbing to breast cancer.
All tragic, of course, but until I was in my forties, I hadn’t lost a close friend or family member to a malignancy.
In 1996, Rick Olsen, one of my best friends from college, asked if he and his wife could stay with us while he was being treated for skin cancer at the veterans’ hospital in Portland. He did, and I saw first-hand the physical and emotional toll the disease took on this bright, athletic and relentlessly optimistic man and his wife. After several years of struggle and, unfortunately, a succession of scams that bled them financially while offering false hope, he passed away in Brookings, Oregon, the town where he grew up.
To this day, I have to fight off the urge to phone him and hear his unconventional greeting when picking up. “Hark,” he would always say. You have to admit “hark” adds a whole new dimension to “hello”. It’s impossible to think of Rick and not smile. Losing him hammered in the final nail on the coffin of my own innocence.
Dennis, a friend I made in the mid-70’s when our wives worked together, succumbed to colon cancer in the fall of 2002. I jokingly referred to him and his wife Pam as “the last of the old-time street hippies,” but that really didn’t do either of them justice. Dennis was a successful businessman, an inventor, and smart as hell. But he lived the best of the 60’s ideals: love for your fellow man, generosity, and love of loud and raucous San Francisco rock and roll. When I think of him, I can still hear Janis moaning “Down On Me.” I
I had occasion to walk the beach at Florence with him just before he died and although I hadn’t touched marijuana in more than ten years, I broke my cannabis fast that day. How could I not? It was an essential ritual for us. His death closed yet another chapter in my life. Like it or not, I am now the establishment. Or perhaps I’m a plain-clothes hippie now.
Lisa Breeden was my newswoman and morning show sidekick for four-plus years at KRKE radio in Albuquerque. Gallons of mega-toxic coffee, riffing on the news of the day, cross-zinging each other on a daily basis, and being called on the boss’ carpet for our on-air transgressions cemented a successful radio partnership and a life-long friendship. Our on-air synergy led to “Mike and Lisa” merging into one word in the minds of our listeners. She was smart, irrepressible and insanely generous. She loved Christmas and showered gifts on her friends and family, even when times were tight for her.
After attending Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe a number of years before she passed, I saw Lisa for the last time. We ate carne adovada, giggled about our encroaching age, and waxed nostalgic about the old days. She seemed fine, upbeat and energetic. A friend of ours e-mailed us the day after she died early in December. Lung cancer. Literally, only days passed between diagnosis and her succumbing to the disease.
I have air-checks from that era, the two of us goofing on whoever or whatever blipped on our radar. One day, when the grief has subsided, perhaps I’ll listen to them and drift back to that smoky studio in Albuquerque. Then I’ll crank up a Janis Joplin tune and think of Dennis. And, if someone should call when I’m lost in my reverie, I’ll answer the phone Rick-fashion. “Hark,” I’ll say. Hark, indeed.