Death Didn’t Win
During the last months he spend with us, my friend and colleague J.D. Falk reacted to the death of a fellow cancer patient, Canadian New Democratic Leader party leader Jack Layton, with the same aplomb and approach he had his entire life.
Specifically, a columnist had noted, quite rightly, that Layton had not ‘lost a fight’ to cancer, and called for a better nomenclature related to the disease.
Did Jack Layton die from cancer because he didn’t fight the disease hard enough?
Of course not.
It’s a common cliché, one many of us use when talking about a disease that is often feared and rarely understood.
But to those touched directly by cancer, equating the illness with a war against the enemy, fighting an adversary, or suffering in order to survive can diminish understanding of the challenges and complexities faced by patients and their families.
“The idea that he was waging a battle which he lost demeans him,” said Robert Buckman, a medical oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. “I absolutely feel that he did not lose to an adversary.”
J.D. wrote a note to us all on Facebook, announcing the terrible news that his treatments didn’t go as well as we had all hoped, and with his usual unflappable optimism and positive attitude he was far sicker than anticipated. But rather than wallow in self-pity, he also took his typically contrarian stance with the article above, agreeing with part, but providing additional insight
A few days ago I posted an article about Jack Layton, and how the "fight" against cancer is an unhelpful misnomer. There is some fight in the process, though. It's not a fight /against cancer/, but against all the things cancer evokes in us and in people around us: fear, negativity, worst-case-only statistics, the desire to just give up and die. Fear is natural, statistics underlie important research, but neither serves us well as a permanent lens on life.
In the case of both these men, and in fact all of us when we die, death doesn’t win the fight of finality.
The departed leave a deep legacy with those that have known them: Our fond (and sometimes not-so-fond) memories of the person serve as a way to bridge the gap between life and death. The person who has passed is of course physically gone, but their memory endures, and provides us with comfort.
Time may try to rob me, all of us, of J.D., but nothing will ever diminish what remains in my mind; his gentle ‘hee hee’ when we exchanged a joke, our mutual passion for travel (we shared a pork sandwich on the side of the road in Bali, Indonesia that became legendary between us as the best lunch EVUR), and an agreed-upon dedication to the betterment of our society through our countless hours of work to that end. We both had a synergistic passion for music, and would gift one-another things to check out.
The things I shared with JD: Food (of which he took bad pictures), sushi, more food, more sushi, coffee (we once shared a cup of $30 coffee! OK, it was pooped out by Civet cats, but who the hell drinks $30 coffee?!? (it wasn't that good, BTW)), writing, … it is a list that somehow seems meaningless to enumerate, because it fails to express what one person means to another. Relationships are far more complex than a list of shared likes or dislikes. And so I’ll stop listing, because it is truly the shared experiences. Not the coffee itself, or our shared taste for it, but the experience drinking that coffee is what was and is most precious.
I’d be remiss to say that there is something about Jews. We have this thing about black humour, and that too is something J.D. and I shared, joking about his cancer, throughout his illness. I’m certain few could appreciate why we did so, and would have been horrified to listen in, but is was a coping mechanism we both shared, and happily so. There is no such thing as ‘too soon’ or ‘off limits’.
J.D. gave me my first speaking break in the Anti-spam Industry back in 1999 - I predicted, with Bill Gatsean-accuracy the end of spam within the year. Despite that, he let me speak again at other events he organized.
Some of the last moments we spend together were some of my best – when I recently won an award (and he had an active hand in my getting the award), J.D. was front and centre, despite his illness, a gesture for which I will be grateful to the end of my days. I found a new part of my family – J.D. was there for that, too. Those are instances in time that will never disappear, until I do.
J.D. was famously contrarian to those that knew him, particularly those that fell into an adversarial camp – he had no time for silliness, bureaucracy, or immorality, and would provide alternatives to puffery put forth by panjandrums, usually with frustratingly immutable logic, but always done in a calm, friendly manner. Here again, being one of those panjandrums, I often received a correction by my pal. A lingering memory, one I hold dear.
Death simply can’t end these memories; it failed to end J.D.’s life. J.D. and I often lived at opposite ends of the continent from one another, and these thoughts stood in his place when he was alive, as they do now with his death.
J.D.’s was a life incomplete, not because he hadn’t made a significant impact during his time with us, but because he was so energetic, and focused, he had a set of plans he hadn’t time to finish; something I envied of him. We had planned to buy a Villa in Bali. He had planned to finish two of my impenetrable documents, editing them to legibility. Oh, how I wish you were here for this one, old friend!
Death is seemingly monstrously final when it first occurs, but eventually the grief mutates into something bittersweet. It becomes a not-unpleasant place where we can go to visit our friends and loved ones, and share more time with them.
There is a wonderful story by a famous Polish-Jewish rebbe (teacher) called the Dubna Maggid, recounted to my Mother, Sister and I at my Father’s shiva by our Rabbi, I share it with all who have an aching heart over the loss of a friend, a loved-one:
A king had a large beautiful jewel, a ruby, especially precious to him because it was a gift from his deceased queen mother. Through some careless accident, the jewel was ruined by a deep scratch and the king was in despair about this. He called many experts to repair it. Some tried polishing. Some tried chemical solutions. Nothing worked.
A proclamation went out that if someone could remove that scratch the king would be indebted to him for a lifetime. Many tried and failed.
One day, a jeweler of humble demeanor came saying that he would like to try and the king, nearly giving up hope, turned it over to him.
Some weeks later the craftsman returned.
The scratch had not been removed, but the king was delighted because through his artistry the craftsman had turned the jewel into something far more precious than ever before.
On the surface of the jewel at the end of the scratch, he engraved a beautiful rose. The scratch had become the stem of the rose through that craftman's skill; a curse turned into a blessing beyond price.
The scratch on our hearts will heal in the fullness of time, and it is our job to turn that scratch into a rose, to keep J.D. alive in our memories, and to honour him by furthering the tenets he held dear: volunteerism, charity, kindness and wisdom, and applying them to make the world around us an incrementally better place, as it was when Jesse David Falk was with us. Simply put, honour his legacy by continuing it.
I shall try.