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Like Leaves, Life Always Drifts Back To Earth

Sorry to tell you this Chuck Grassley and Sarah Palin and Virginia Fox and Glenn Beck and the rest of the Teabaggers and people who think the richest nation on earth is doing just fine having one-third of its population uninsured or underinsured: The only death panel is the one inside each of us.

By this time last November, I’d already wrenched my back shovelling. Twice. But this year, November in Toronto feels like May. Of course, May felt like March and August like late October so maybe it’s all just evening out.

golden retriever

It’s been in the 50s and 60s – called “double digits” in Canada, which insists on using the totally unfathomable Celsius thermometer – and sunny since Halloween. Knowing that such warm weather this late is like living on borrowed time, my dog and I are taking full advantage, spending afternoons in a nearby off-the-leash park. Prince, a Golden Retriever I adopted a few years ago, romps, stomps and rock-n-rolls with assorted friends – some familiar, some new, but to dogs it doesn’t make any difference and they greet all comers without prejudice. Finally, he hauls his tail over to where I’m sitting on a bench in the sun and lays down, panting, smiling and utterly exhausted.

He rests there contentedly, his white fur flecked with red and orange and brown bits of dried leaves, looking up at me every so often as if saying, “Thanks, pop, that was way too much fun!” If a buddy dashes over for more, all Prince has the energy to do is roll on his back, legs flailing at the air while making gentle, throaty sounds of joy as he plays mouth games with the other pooch. When the dog runs off to find a more active and eager buddy, Prince is content to let them go. At nine, he knows his limits; once he lies down, that’s it.

I know mine, as well, and it’s time for me to lie down.

I know this because, along with incredible weather, November brought me both a birthday and a report from the latest round of medical tests I underwent that had been administered by a long line of anonymous Torquemada’s dressed in identical white coats and pale blue scrubs some 10 days earlier. My cancer is back for a return engagement.

I’ve decided not to undergo more treatment. After I’ve-lost-track of how many rounds of chemo and radiation, plus a bit of surgery stuck in there someplace, enough’s enough. After thinking about it seriously, I’m not going to submit to months of feeling lousy – I mean really lousy – during treatment again only to be told six months later I need more treatment. I’ve heard “… and this should take care of it” one too many times to believe it anymore.

Naturally, my oncologist was beside himself and sent me off to see a hospital social worker. It was a pleasant enough exchange but not so pleasant I want to have another one. I did talk about this at length with my psychiatrist, who sometimes calls himself Flapping Lips, and while urging me to reconsider, he admits he doesn’t know what he’d do if he were in my situation and had lived my life.

I’ve had a great time during big chunks of that life.

When I was only seven, Warren Spahn taught me how to throw a baseball in the outfield grass at the old Milwaukee County Stadium before a Braves’ game. I couldn’t have learned from anyone better: Spahn went on to win more games than any left-handed pitcher in Major League history – a record he still holds today, decades after he retired from the game – and is in the Hall of Fame.

At one time or another, my work took me all over the world. I’ve been to all of Western Europe, much of Eastern Europe, China and Asia, and parts of Africa and South America. I've eaten dinner in the Eiffel Tower, stood in Red Square, played with a lion cub in a South African game preserve, walked on the Great Wall, watched jade traders at a street corner market on a Kowloon backstreet in Hong Kong, seen the sun rise on Bali and set over Phuket. There’s an elegant Chinese expression that, translated inelegantly, says "The same man does not return from a journey as the one who departed on it." I think it is true of all types of journeys and not just those involving travel.

I’ve lived in six great cities in two countries, absorbing bits of each along the way ranging from how I pronounce some words to a more expansive view of the world, and life, and me.

I’ve enjoyed five fairly distinct and generally successful careers; along the way, I was employed by only one place that I detested so thoroughly I couldn’t wait to get out.

I’ve met four US presidents, one in the Oval Office, and two Canadian Prime Ministers. I spent some fascinating time with two different men who played major roles in changing the face of Eastern Europe, and several days with a Chinese premier who turned his nation into the coming economic powerhouse of the 21st century before retiring. I’ve dined with authors, artists, playwrights, actors and artisans.

I’ve also met and written about the downtrodden, the helpless, the throwaway people who lost when life rolled the dice for them. In a few cases, what I wrote brought them to the attention of others who were able to help them turn things around, if even just a bit and for a little while.

I’ve seen the positive glow of pride and self-accomplishment that came into the eyes of more than two dozen adult illiterates I helped learn to read for the first time in their life.

And, since I fancy myself something of a writer, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with a number of them, often on airplanes and typically by accident.

I met Hunter Thompson just this way: The computer assigned us adjacent seats. I seem to be blessed with a peculiar kind of karma with airlines; flights are usually late and the service minimalist, but computers keep plunking me next to wonderful writers. Besides Thompson, over the years I’ve sat next to David Cornwall - John Le Carre - on a flight from London to Paris, Jimmy Breslin on the Boston-New York shuttle and Margaret Atwood from Toronto to somewhere, among others. All were engaging travel companions.

(Of course, it also works the other way ‘round: On a dreadfully long, non-stop flight to Tokyo from Toronto, I endured 14 hours next to an ageing academic who had the pungent aroma of old cheddar cheese and even older moth-balls about him. He had just published a scholarly article on Nietzsche. The premise, he explained in excruciating detail as we crossed the Pacific, was that the brooding, ominous German philosopher’s ideas still can be found underlying many mainstream political theories.. Oh, good: The Boys From Brazil are alive and well and having fun in capitals everywhere.)

I’ve covered one war, two major civil insurrections over war, race and poverty in America during the late 60s and early 70s, and three presidential campaigns that ended up being turning points in American history.

A raft of actresses, models, centrefolds, musicians and an heiress called me boyfriend at one time or another. So have writers, businesswomen, scholars, shop girls, secretaries, a couple of lawyers and single moms.

Ten dogs and one cat have graciously allowed me to share my home and life with them.

On the other hand, parts of my life were overwhelming and deeply disappointing.

None was more so than my sister dying 10 years ago. As hard as it can be to lose parents, one has time to prepare if they live their three score and 10 or more. I saw mine age, lose the ability to do things for themselves that they always took for granted, attended funerals for their friends. But there was no way prepare for watching Janice go from healthy to dead in 11 weeks, of brain cancer. Her loss affected me profoundly, and still does in some ways.

There was a pair of short, disastrous marriages; countless ill-starred, putative relationships with women; one suicide attempt. I was 16 and a sophomore at university, thwarted only because Mr. Donaldson – our retired neighbour across the alley – happened to be awake at two or three o’clock that morning and saw me go into the garage behind our house on Logan Avenue. He was sitting in his darkened kitchen having coffee. Who drinks coffee at three ayem if they’re not working the night shift?

I don’t regret not having children but I do regret never hearing a woman say “I love you” to me and actually mean it. Once, it would have been nice.

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I’ve made horrid choices in women, to the point where, sometime in the early 1990s, a friend from my Chicago days recommended that “the next time you meet someone who’s interested in you, run away!” It took another 10 years but I finally realised she was correct and stopped dating altogether. I’m not sure what took so long; maybe it’s living proof of the triumph of hope over experience. Experience finally won.

Experience with my ex-wives contributed but only partly. There also was Elise, the world’s best juggler who managed to hide her fiancé from me - and, I assume, me from her intended - until a week before her wedding; Louisa, the wacky wop; Jacquelyn, the drunken skater; Barbara, the dark creature from hell; Amanda, the bi-coastal bi-sexual who had a boyfriend in New York (me) and a girlfriend in LA; Grace, who was anything but; Holly and Riba and Sera, all of whom thought men were simply gold cards attached to a life support system.

And people wonder why I haven’t asked anyone out for so much a glass of wine since 2003.

Or why I feel disconnected from the world, especially now as my medical situation stares at me blankly, an expressionless reality that has more fight left in it than I have remaining in me..

So it goes.

Death will be patient, if I let it. No oncologist worth the Hippocratic oath will tell a cancer patient how much time they have left because, frankly, they don’t know and the really good ones admit they don’t know. Cancer is an intelligent and clever disease, capable of thwarting brilliant human talent and crackling machines worth millions of dollars. In my case, I’m told, one cell hiding somewhere in my body, invisible to even the most sophisticated of diagnostic tools, is sitting there throwing off cancerous cells that go directly to my colon.

Thus, should I undergo yet another round of debilitating chemo and enervating radiation, that hidden, little cell will lay in wait in some dark, moist place inside me until I’m pronounced “clear” and then start its dirty task all over again.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in playing medicine’s game another time.


Sorry to tell you this Chuck Grassley and Sarah Palin and Virginia Fox and Glenn Beck and the rest of the Teabaggers and people who think the richest nation on earth is doing just fine having one-third of its population uninsured or underinsured: The only death panel is the one inside each of us.

I’ll keep working and writing as much and as well as I can for as long as I can. When I think the time has come, then Prince, Sparky – my 10 year old cat of unknown and highly suspect origins – and I will cross the Rainbow Bridge and go together into the great void, returning to cosmic dust.

Charley James

This appeared originally at QOR, a site whose contributors discuss culture, and modern life and living in words, images and music. The piece is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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