God and Lung Cancer

I shook a man’s hand Thursday night and that man was dead Friday morning. I’ll call him “T.” That I hardly knew T is an understatement. I met him for the first time at a hospital on Wednesday night and the second on Thursday. We never spoke but for my own “hello.” He was lucid but weak, and while his lack of strength was no doubt appropriate to his condition, the frailty that possessed him was not. T had not lived as a frail or fragile man, this much was abundantly clear. His beard was very long and very grey, and a fair amount of his tattoos were done back when tattoos made one unwelcome in most places. I don’t know how old he was but in normal, civilian years I’d guess he was probably around 300.

T was never without visitors, so many that the hospital staff first asked if he could stagger them out a little more, this man who could barely whisper or lift his hands. They gave up and moved him to a large, private room to accommodate everyone. Like T himself, his visitors were notoriously easy to spot among the rest. We all dressed alike, though my hands were cleaner than those of the other men and so I kept them folded or hidden in my pockets most of the time. The men talked shop—welding and cutting and fabricating; the merits of a certain bike’s frame or its particular year—and T’s eyes lit up, his smile wide behind his oxygen mask.

A loved one introduced me to T and a great many of their mutual friends over a few short days last week, and I can hardly recall all of their names. This group was united by, among other things, a code. I mention no one by name and T only by his initial because part of their code includes anonymity. Like many others, T had started up another chapter years ago—a meeting—for people who wanted to support each other in their practice of this code. His deepest passion was for working with hospitals and institutions, bringing meetings to those who would not otherwise have access to them. As with any other commitment, one’s declaration of fidelity to a code, one’s creed, is only as good as one’s actions in the present moment. Past mistakes have no more bearing on the present than do good intentions for the future. A promise spoken once has to be kept every day, and these people tally themselves accordingly. The first day. Thirty days. Ninety days. Some go away and come back and reset their tallies more than once. Some can count their time in years or decades. Many of them, and I understood this for the first time, were struggling to become better people in a profound sense of the word. Not comparatively better than anyone else, but as good a person as each was capable. And from what I’ve heard, an honest assessment of one’s own particular capacity is a grueling step in their code.

I’m not a religious man. I don’t believe in God or the Devil or ghosts or ESP or anything of the sort. I do believe that there is far more to the universe than we can perceive or necessarily prove. Things like dark matter or superstring theory. But what I see over and over again is the pattern by which many species thrive. Behavior that may be fundamentally selfish—hunting, eating or mating—can just as easily serve the longevity of a species by procreating and feeding the young. Some animals have evolved at least in part because of their place within something larger than themselves such as herds, prides, flocks, tribes or clans. Our species is at its most poetic in personifying those unknown things outside of us, bigger than us. God, Vishnu, Higher Power, Goddess, Great Spirit, Allah.

Where am I going with this? Hard to say. I’m tracing a thread of thought that’s been unspooling in my brain since this morning on the train heading out of San Francisco. “A man got to have a code.” Omar Little’s words from The Wire have been stuck in my head since I got on board. I thought I had a code but under scrutiny it’s really more of a few well-intentioned guidelines drawn up in the dark. If I had a child, what exactly would I pass on to her? When I ask that question, I hear nothing but crickets and my pen stops moving. A little later, I recall reading something by an ancestor of mine, Jacob Clevenger:

“A few words to the young and we will conclude: Though you may enjoy better education and better privileges than we did, remember to whom you are indebted for this: It is by our industry and economy that we made this, a howling wilderness, blossom like a rose. As we are about to step off the stage of action and you are taking our places, fill them with honor, be industrious and economical, let not your life be a failure, that you may look back and rejoice in the fact that the world is the better for your living in it.”

Jacob Clevenger was born in 1803 and a blacksmith by trade. Like T, he was “stepping off the stage” of a very long life and this man—a literal pioneer—had a simple edict at the foundation of his code, that the world be a better place for a person having lived in it. And the standing-room-only visitor turnout for T’s last days is evidence that T was the very embodiment of that.

Around 12:30 a.m. on Friday, February 5, 2010, T said, “I gotta go.” He closed his eyes a few minutes later and left the world better for having lived in it.

Godspeed, T.

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