And my dog died, too.
For some months I believed, simply enough, that this year was just a bad year, a particular period with much death and cancer. So when my 17-year-old hound dog passed on this winter, it was more than just her time. Missi's demise was one more bleak moment in a year that began with my mother-in-law's funeral.
My wife's mother was good company -- not in some obvious loquacious manner, but in ways unexpected and sharp. One holiday I cooked an elaborate meal, all the time keeping a wary eye on the whereabouts of Missi, a dog who would eagerly swipe the Eucharist out of the baby Jesus' mouth if it smelled like food. Thus engaged, I missed my other dog, Sadie, devouring the stuffing I'd hand-crafted for a dozen guests.
When I discovered the theft, the top of my skull came off and, I am told, I kicked the miscreant, who tore off, out the door, not to be seen again. After dessert, but before coffee, I was combing the neighborhood, calling for the missing dog. Sadie? SADIE! Up and down the driveway, through the front and back yards, out into the street, around the block, I called that dog's name in every voice register, deep and high, and all at top volume. You can do a lot of dog calling and thinking at the same time: How would I explain to the kids that the dog had left us because, well, because their father had kicked the dog? No one kicks a dog. Am I some sort of hillbilly? Do hillbillies even kick their dogs? I did not sleep much that night.
The next morning the missing dog showed up walking safely behind the legs of my wife's mother. The two of them had been in the guest bedroom the entire time. The two of them had just sat there listening to me calling, "SADIE!" The two of them had said not a peep. One of them had figured I could just shout myself hoarse.
We buried my mother-in-law on a cold morning in Salt Lake with a brace of veterans discharging rifles in honor of her years as an Army captain in World War II. My sons got their first taste of Funeral Potatoes and molded Jell-O in numerous colors, a vestige of their Mormon ancestry that conflicts warmly with the Irish wakes that are the other half of their grieving heritage.
I wondered how many of the Mormon devout at the services knew that my mother-in-law smoked marijuana as a young girl in rural Idaho during the depression.
I figure it's people like my mother-in-law -- fine, decent, hardworking, imperfect citizens -- who've quietly smoked pot that account for the remarkable record of marijuana at the polls. Pro-pot measures have passed twice in the notoriously law-and-order Arizona, the first time with 65 percent of the vote.
Back in Phoenix, Missi's time came and we made a Mexican roadside shrine for her. An elaborate tin cross sheltered pictures of the old girl and we buried her remains beneath a stand of Baja cactus in the backyard. Her water dish still sits in my office.
But no matter what ceremony we undertook, the prospect of death lingered, the phone kept ringing and throughout the year people announced that they were fighting cancer.
I don't know if medical marijuana would have helped them, but it sure would have helped me.
My friend's father has lung cancer. A colleague developed cancer of the larynx. A co-worker's brother dropped dead unexpectedly and the autopsy revealed two hidden cancers raging inside. A neighbor's cancer returned. A friend's mother was discovered to have a tumor attached to an organ. Skin cancer lesions were mentioned, only in passing, though, because even if they were carving holes in your head, it didn't really count unless the cancers were malignant.
The phone again: "Mike, I wanted to tell you, I have prostate cancer."
I have never had a ballot issue hit so close to home as this November's Proposition 203, the medical marijuana measure. Under a doctor's supervision, the sick and dying would have access to pot. More important still, the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana would be decriminalized. Violators would face civil fines of no more than $250.
It is long since time.
Years ago, I got the first cancer call from a friend, Deborah Laake, a best-selling author who'd discovered a tumor in her breast. I didn't know what to do. No matter how many calls you get, you never know what to do. You have to fight the urge to run.
Some people retreat from each other during a bout with cancer. Not Laake. She pulled all of her friends closer. I went to chemotherapy with her. Everyone went to chemo with her. She deepened her ties with others, like my wife, at small dinner parties where, in the beginning, hats were selected for the stylish bald woman about town, and later, in hilarious show-and-tell cocktail soirees where Laake's new breasts were too obviously featured. My mother-in-law broke bread with Deborah during this dramatic period, the two of them wonderfully misbehaving Mormons, each with a glass of wine, one quicker than the other to laugh. Laake's book, a memoir, had gotten her excommunicated from the church. My mother-in-law, then in her 70s, read Deborah's book in Salt Lake on the sly.
I imagine my mother-in-law in Salt Lake with Laake's book, Secret Ceremonies, smoking a joint and laughing out loud with members of a book club. What would have been the harm? It didn't happen, but it's what I like to imagine.
Deborah beat breast cancer, but, a few short years afterward, succumbed to depression and committed suicide. At the memorial service, a law professor regaled the mourners with a wonderfully picaresque tale of driving around the streets of Phoenix, in low-income neighborhoods, trying to score pot for Deborah during the chemo phase of her cancer.
Leave it to Laake. Half the people at the memorial service could have brought her all the pot she would have needed, but, instead, she asks the innocent law professor to try to score for her. Some friendships are more complicated, and funnier, than others. And, despite the professor's stumbling, Laake had some very strong grass during her convalescence.
Since that first cancer call from Laake, I've known a number of men with prostate cancer. The good news is that they detect it early these days. The bad news is that a successful surgery often mangles your sex life. Under these circumstances, the love of a good mate cannot be replaced by any drug, even one as soothingly supple as marijuana. But if two men have renewed a friendship with a road journey, or eaten a fish caught by the cancer survivor, gone out onto the deep ocean together under sail, what does law enforcement have to do with those men and a joint?
The phone again: "Mike, we've been estranged too long. Let's talk. Give me a call."
The voice behind these sweet words belonged to retired newspaper columnist Tom Fitzpatrick.
Quick to recognize a heart larger than my own, I phoned back, and Tom, who'd never had the cigarette addiction, told me he had lung cancer.
"It's from all those years of hanging around in smoky bars with assholes like you," he explained.
Who could argue?
Unlike prostate cancer, news of lung tumors never has a good ending.
"I've lost all my weight, all my hair and all my muscle tone," said Tom, "but I'm alive."
I drove to Tom's home and we talked. Some days we only gossiped. Fitzpatrick loved to gossip and often ended conversations once he'd run out of dish. He described a former daily journalist's ongoing scams and frauds upon hospitals, insurance companies, car rental agencies and, apparently, anyone and everyone the ex-reporter came into contact with. Fitz still had the eye for detail. You could see why he'd won a Pulitzer.
Tom asked about my boys, which wasn't like him. He wondered if the oldest son had ever read the copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island that Fitz had given him. He talked about his own children, proud of their achievements but shamed by his absence from their early lives.
"But kids forgive you," he said.
We attempted lunch a couple of times at Avanti, a charming place where Tom was still befuddled by the menu.
We convinced ourselves that he would write a story for us about the man who car-bombed journalist Don Bolles. Tom said the killing was the reason he'd wanted to come to Arizona in the first place. The murderer, John Harvey Adamson, had served his sentence and Tom had stayed in touch with the killer and his girlfriend.
After one lunch, Tom had me drive him into the Phoenix Country Club and gave me directions to the home under construction for the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns, Jerry Colangelo. Fitzpatrick did not approve. The stone work was not to his taste. Colangelo was not to his taste.
Damn near dead, Tom was still capable of a slap in the teeth.
Tom called one night laughing out loud and told my wife that he had a picture of John Harvey Adamson wearing an Osama bin Laden tee shirt.
"Isn't that wonderful?" asked Tom.
Tom said the killer and his girlfriend reminded him of Rodya Raskolnikov and Sonia Semyonovna in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Whenever I stopped by, Fitzpatrick made sure to have a legal pad out and a pencil as if my arrival was detaining him from making a phone call to advance his article. He doled out pictures of Adamson, one or two each time, as if I might not come back without the promise of another print.
Years earlier, journalism between us was loud enough to end in silence and separation. Now we padded around his tale of a killer like dogs circling before lying down for the night in front of banked embers.
I'd been married in this man's backyard and now I was stepping around oxygen tanks on my way out of his living room.
John Harvey Adamson died.
Then Tom Fitzpatrick died.
I'm not going to tell you what Tom went through. He'd have written that down if he wanted you to know.
But I do want you to think about how it ends with cancer.
Abba Kovner, a fabled Jewish resistance fighter who led the Vilna ghetto uprising against the Nazis in World War II, wrote about his own fatal cancer in the recently published Sloan-Kettering.
HIS BLANKET IS STILL WET
His blanket is still wet from the night.
How he longed for the night to end.
To extricate his bare feet
from sinking in the gooey bog
of another life:
naked they are placedon scales one then another
to weigh their chance of remaining alive.
The hand of a young nurse --
for a thousand two hundred days he has known
no one like her -- holding his arm.
Supporting his hips, without noticing
touching what had been his privates and without
embarrassment continuing to talk about him
as though talking about ancient shards --
they could not understand how such a skeleton
could still remain alive.
They could not imagine that this was a man
who had fought the world
it was not he who had given life a name
of such fatuity --
his blanket is still wet from the night.
Until the duty nurse arrives,
he will reclaim his bare feet
from the place into which he has now declined,
revive his frozen toes,
stroke his heels, feel
the dividing line between
a body feeble but alive
and a swamp that smells of death.
It was devastating to see Tom in his final, frail days; cancer, any cancer, horrifies me. What can you do? I find myself trying simply to embrace my friends and relatives, to stay in their company. I force myself not to flee. There is human warmth in the presence of the weakest breath. Marijuana, for some, helps. Whatever gets you through the night is a depressing sentiment when clung to early in life, but it will take on the resonance of Chet Baker's horn as the years pass.
Tom and I never smoked dope together. Not in the old days, not at the end. He wasn't that kind of guy.
I was that kind of guy.
The familiar patter of work comforted our awkward companionship, but the time apart eddied with anxiety. I never left Tom after a visit at the end that I didn't think: I could use a joint right now.
Today, looking back on this year of death and cancer, I believe that I was wrong to imagine that I'd hit an unlucky patch. I'm 54, the age when I should adjust to mortality, my own and everyone else's. My phone will keep ringing. Eventually, I will make my own phone calls.
There is a part of me that looks at the medical marijuana measure and wonders: Is this simply a marketing gimmick? Are the ballot organizers counting upon the demographics of baby boomers who are confronting death and cancer, the same way that I am, to pass this measure?
Of course they are. So what?
It is important to take steps to speak honestly about marijuana, and decriminalizing possession of pot, a key component of Proposition 203, is only the first step. But it is an important step, not for baby boomers who have figured out how to score their grass and not get busted, but for kids who confuse pot with heroin, speed, fumes and all the other toxic elixirs that overwhelm the will to resist.
The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards has said famously, "Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem."
Anyone who has ever taken a close gander at Richards knows that this is a lot of crap. Don't try to sell me the glory of being a junkie. Nor is anyone arguing that we should accept school-age kids using pot any more than we accept them using Jack Daniel's.
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Endorsing a more sensible policy on marijuana is a conservative step that distinguishes the herb from the truly dangerous stuff.
Last week I sat in a school auditorium and watched an anti-drug program called Not My Kid. An Arizona mother and son team tours campuses lecturing about the dangers of drugs. The son was a stunning example of addictive behavior who, like Kitty Dukakis, appeared capable of ingesting anything in volume. In junior high he was bolting down shots out of a flask before class. In college, a friend had him snorting Ritalin, the pharmaceutical prescribed for kids with attention-deficit disorder. He had an interesting response to snorting Ritalin. He said that the grade school appearances of police officers in the DARE program had programmed him to think that snorting anything would lead to his death. When the Ritalin didn't kill him, he figured the authorities were full of it, period.
Perhaps if we were more truthful about the relatively benign effects of grass, kids would listen when we speak the truth about meth.
As I write this, a friend has e-mailed that he'll be in Arizona soon. He wants to sit down. He is making the journey because his mom has just been told she has breast cancer. I'm looking forward to seeing him. We'll have a shot and a beer. We'll have whatever he wants.