Well, this will be the last commentary I’ll write for the Beachcomber.
If you’ve been reading my recent commentaries, you know that I have pancreatic cancer and that my prognosis is not good — like most people with this type of cancer. I’ve gotten progressively worse since January despite the treatments I’ve tried and the amazing care my wife Allyson has offered me: I’ve lost weight and and energy to the point that I now spend my days just resting.
As I write this, I am out at the end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where my family has had a house since the 1930s. I initially came out here just for a short break from island life, but as my cancer advanced and I began to lose energy quickly, I decided to stay here…for the rest of my life.
And despite the fact that I won’t be able to see my good island friends one last time, it feels like the right decision. Just the thought of a cross-country flight makes me cringe; I simply don’t have the energy for it. Not even the huge hurricane barreling toward us could make me leave!
I’ve been noticing, as my death becomes more imminent, how I’ve been feeling about leaving this plane of existence that I’ve been living on for the past 65 years. I was recently told of a film called “Grief Walker” that addresses death and our Western attitudes toward it. When one of the cancer patients asks the main character whether or not she’ll be cured of cancer he answers: “Well, that depends on whether or not you consider death a cure.”
And I do.
I’ve always seen death as a part of life, just as much as birth. And even as my own death gets closer, I still feel unafraid, even curious. I haven’t been asking myself existential questions or dwelling on deep philosophical issues. I’ve mostly been enjoying this beautiful place and the company of my brother and sister and son and doing whatever I can in the way of physical activity. I had a great two-hour sail with my sister the other day! I’ve been out three times in our little sailboat in perfect wind with people I love. Could I ask for a better death?
As my days become tangibly more numbered, I realize that each minute that passes is a much larger percentage of my time left here in this realm. It’s almost as though it’s critical for me to pack as much into my remaining hours as possible — even as it becomes more difficult to accomplish even the simplest and most mundane tasks due to my weakened condition.
But this is the attitude of the previous Scott, the one who had to pack as much into an eight-hour day as humanly possible, to get things done. Now I feel like I’m able to just sit on the deck in the sun, to enjoy the view of the harbor, to breathe in the smell of the ocean and of the musky sea hay covering the sand. I don’t have any obligations, no chores, no responsibilities. Essentially I’m living out the remaining days of my life here in my family’s home in the place I know best in peace and equanimity.
But I’ve also come to realize that there are things I have to do before I die like, to leave behind as little chaos as possible. Some of those mundane things are managing my finances, my will, my estate. Even with the help of my son to get everything in order, its been challenging: so many i’s to dot and t’s to cross! And there are the phone calls and texts I need to make to my friends, both on the island and around the world. It’s not easy to call a dear friend to essentially say goodbye.
I keep telling people that I’ve never done this before, that it’s all uncharted water. How do we say goodbye — forever— to a dear friend or a sibling or a son? I’ve never done it. Never had to. But now, each day I awake, I feel a little less energy, a little less of the fire that I’ve had for all of my life. These are new experiences that I would never wish on anyone.
On the other hand, not everyone has the opportunity to say goodbye. Some people are in fact hit by a bus and never make it home. They had no idea what was coming! My high school friend, Jimmy, died this way. But my friend, Bobby, died of AIDS at his home in 1985 and was able to plan his own entire memorial service himself.
Strangely I don’t find myself waxing poetic about the meaning of life or how death is the culmination of a life lived. I’m not searching the thesaurus for synonyms for existential. No, I’m spending my last days sitting under the umbrella on the front deck watching the world go by in slow motion, watching the birds soar overhead, listening to the sounds of the harbor, the outboard motors, calls from across the water, the cries of seagulls.
I breathe in the thick air that’s so familiar to me, that takes me back decades to the times when my cousins would visit from across the country to spend a week or two here with my family in this paradise. I close my eyes and remember all of the fun times we had here together back in my childhood when there was nothing to worry about, when cancer was not even a thing.
When I open my eyes and return to the present, to the reality of my illness and to my imminent death I feel okay, like I’ve accepted my fate, accepted that the end of my voyage on this planet is near. I have lived a wonderful life full of adventures and music and relationships and experiences that are unique to me and to my own life. I feel nothing but gratitude for the life I’ve led, and who could ask for anything more?
Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist, and winemaker. He has been a frequent contributor to The Beachcomber, writing on the subject of island life and the environment. In recent months, he has shared his experience of being diagnosed and treated for pancreatic cancer.