Traveling Along the River

On August 4, I lost my friend Mario to cancer. He was the third friend of mine to die of the disease this year. His death wasn’t unexpected. He was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer in July 2021, and the last time I saw him, this past April at another friend’s funeral, I barely recognized him. Still, Mario was one of those larger-than-life people you can’t imagine not being in the world.

Without meaning to, Mario became the center of attention in any room he walked into. He was intelligent, talented, had dozens of friends, and a heart big enough to make Santa Claus jealous. I met Mario more than 30 years ago, when I was 18, when we were both freshman in college—kids. We didn’t see each other all the time, but it’s still hard for me to imagine my life as an adult without him in it.

I was in the middle of working on developmental edits for my second novel, The River Is Everywhere, when Mario died. (The book will be released in March 2023 by Vine Leaves Press.) Before sitting down to work on it near the end of July, it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the manuscript. The book’s main character, Ernest, is a 16-year-old high school student who loses his best friend in an accident. He spends much of the story trying to make sense of his friend’s death.

I wrote the book years ago, before any of my friends had cancer, before I could have imagined any of them ever meeting such terrible fates. And yet, when I was re-reading the manuscript, I found myself drawn into Ernest’s world: Here was someone who was dealing with the some of same feelings that I was. The fact that I had made Ernest and his story up didn’t seem to matter at all.

As hard as it was at times to motivate myself to get my butt in the chair, working on the book helped me begin to heal from the loss of my friends in ways I hadn’t expected. At its heart, the novel is a coming-of-age tale and adventure story. When I wrote it, helping readers deal with loss and grief wasn’t one of my intentions.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes art so important: Often, it’s much more powerful and meaningful than it appears on the surface.

This experience has made me hope that someday The River Is Everywhere might help someone else in the same way it’s helped me.

ENP

Kill Your Bucket List

American jazz musician and composer, Miles Davis, once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” In a world where many people can’t afford to feed their kids, statements like this used to make my eyes roll. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to agree with him.

Over the past couple of months, two close friends of mine from college have been diagnosed with cancer. Neither of their prognoses are good. Because the three of us are the same age, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I still want to accomplish in my life, as well as about the ways in which I spend my time.

Like many people, for most of my adult life I’ve had a “bucket list” mentality. That is the tendency to divide the things I need or want to do into two categories: “things I have to get done now” and “things I plan to do at some later time.” The former category usually includes tasks like writing magazine articles, grocery shopping, and folding the laundry, while the second encompasses activities like hiking in Scotland, reading the stack of novels on my bedside table, visiting old friends, and finally finishing the three book manuscripts currently living on my hard drive.

I never saw a problem with this until recently. When, after all, is “later?” And what would I have to show for myself, and my life, if I were suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, unable to walk or talk or write another word? The answer, of course, is not the one I want.

The good news is that I still have time (knock on wood). I’m in the process of trying to figure out what work I can afford to turn down, and what household chores I can put off or delegate in order to make my bucket list my to-do list.

I don’t think it will be easy. It’s difficult to break old habits. And it’s even harder to ignore the voice in my head that tells me I’m being irresponsible if I choose to hike up a mountain instead of mowing the lawn.

Miles Davis died suddenly at the age of 65. It’s something that happens all the time. On an intellectual level, we know we are finite. But ours is a culture that eschews talking or even thinking about death. I think we need to start, though. Admitting to ourselves that we won’t be here forever, on a daily basis if necessary, is the best way I can think of to get the really important stuff done.

ENP