This isn't the post I was planning, but life is what happens while you make other plans.
And sometimes... Well, sometimes the aspect of life one must deal with is the undeniable, unavoidable, and unpleasant fact that it is finite.
Our cousin Jonathan had a rare, slow moving form of what is normally a virulent, fast-moving cancer. It went undiagnosed / misdiagnosed / unnoticed for so long that the "normal" form would have left his doctors going, "Oh, so that's what was wrong..." -- but the ugly beast that took up residence in his body was an odd kind that left him time for some very important and very, very difficult decisions.
Jon chose to counterattack with everything he had, to give himself as much life as he could for as long as he could. There was some chemo, and some astonishingly drastic surgery; there were good days and not-so-good days, but the important point was that he put his all into extending life on his terms for as long as he could and succeeded beyond most people's expectations.
Jon wasn't the kind of guy you'd expect to be growling and snarling in a fight, chest-bumping with other fighters, talking about how he was gonna beat this thing no matter what. He was the quiet guy who kinda sorta faded into the background, the one at the party you were never sure was still there or had already left until you saw him through the crowd, the quiet wallflower with a hidden but wicked good sense of humor. He was one of those rare lawyers who chose that field not because it was a great way to make money (which he never had much of), but because, "justice, justice shalt thou pursue" really, truly meant something to him.
But he chose to meet his terrible disease head-on, to fight it on an even field and tackle it in his own, quiet way.
Jon was a husband and a father. His wife was known by family & friends as something of a force of nature, one of those two-legged dervishes who whirls so fast that one is never sure if it was her or a small tornado that just passed by. She established a semi-(in)famous business in DC, and Jon was often a quiet presence behind the counter while she was the public face of the business. After her sudden, shocking death, Jon kept the store open for as long as he was able, making sure it provided an income to its employees and service to the community to the greatest (shrinking) extent possible, then presided over its sad, quiet demise.
They had one child, a boy who is truly the combination of the best of both parents. Over the years we have watched him grow into the kind of man one can only hope one's son grows up to become, highly independent and self-contained while simultaneously being caring, empathic, and connected, a brilliant mind tempered by true, non-feigned humility. Not too long ago, he helped his father scatter his mother's ashes in the land of her birth, meeting her family for the first time as the two of them were immediately welcomed as long-lost close relatives by cousins and grandparents previously unimagined, some of whom could only communicate through bilingual interpreters.
I won't go into details of how Jon's lawyering helped me in a time of need, but he did it just to help his cousin Brian and for the satisfaction of de-sliming his profession a bit (and if memory serves, neither requested nor received much more payment than that for his insanely important services). He also had a great relationship with the Pipsqueak. He celebrated a couple of his birthdays with her, and he happily let her "force" him into wearing one of those silly pointed cardboard hats, and blowing out his candles & cutting his cake the way she told him to, and sharing what was on his plate when smiling little fingers aimed a fork in that direction instead of at her own plate.
When it became obvious to Jon that he had delayed the inevitable as long as his body would allow, he gathered his strength for a last trip back to his old haunts scattered around California and what I think he considered his real hometown of Klamath Falls. True to form, when he only had enough strength to sit in his hotel room and have friends come to him instead of his being able to see them in their homes, he would apologize to them for the inconvenience as if it was his choice.
This is a large family, so (even though Jon only has one son) Jon was not an only child by any means; his sister and brothers decided everyone should get together near the end of this month at Jon's house for a celebration of his life, one last big sharing of stories and jokes before the family's numbers were diminished. Mom told his sister she wasn't sure Jon would make it that long, but sometimes we choose to err on the optimistic side of things so a late August date was set.
In July, when part of the New York branch of the family made their annual trip south to spend our folks' birthdays here, Jon was unable to join us for more than a short time one evening. Then, a couple of weeks ago, his son mentioned that things might not be going quite as well as we'd hoped, so our folks and I spent a little time at the house, quietly shocked at how much thinner and weaker Jon had become in just a few weeks. He was already on hospice, but a steady flow of neighbors with foods he could still eat and a sense of humor about the whole thing was keeping him going. (He made a point of showing us the Lego Homer Simpson mezuzah he'd been sent, holding it up for me to take a photo.)
We did a little (just a little!) snooping, and AJ quickly discovered Jon's social worker for hospice was an old colleague, so word was passed that this guy deserved some special treatment -- and word came back that he was so appreciative, such a nice guy, and so concerned at being a burden to the social worker or hospice nurse that no such request was necessary because it came naturally in his case.
Then came the text message from his son saying Jon was telling his siblings that maybe they should visit "sooner rather than later." AJ and I headed over this past Saturday, and the four of us had a pleasant time reminiscing about this & that. My sister and I were quietly shocked at how weak Jon had become, how thin, how gray; his already-quiet voice had been even quieter when I'd visited just a week earlier with our folks, but now it was often barely a whisper, and Jon had to stop frequently to catch his breath or just close his eyes & rest. There was something different in his eyes that day; no one said anything out loud, but he knew it was time, and he was ready.
I wasn't at work too long Thursday evening when my cell phone rang, the Caller ID showing the name of our cousin in New York. He said he'd just gotten home from work and found an email from Jon's sister saying he'd passed earlier that afternoon. I went down the hall to tell AJ, arriving at her office just in time for her to have picked up the phone to talk to Mom, so I wound up giving her the news as well. I called our cousin (Jon's sister had already come in to help him and was at the house) and she told me he'd had a really good day, with pleasant visits from both the social worker and hospice nurse; he'd eaten something for the first time in 24 hours, and even managed to walk around the living room a couple of times (with help) before getting ready for a bath. He'd gotten into a nice, hot tub (she added he was wearing boxers so his dignity was intact despite needing some help), brushed his teeth... and leaned back to rest...
...and finally, in his usual quiet, dignified way -- with just a touch of humor, sitting of all places in a bathtub -- accepted the inevitable that his body no longer had the energy to fight.
We haven't had much time, but before she left for home later in the evening, AJ and I discussed what to tell the Pipsqueak. She knew Jon, and genuinely liked him, and remembers who he was in relation to other family members. AJ has reached out to some friends & colleagues with expertise in the area of helping children understand & deal with death, but the basic decision was that she'd speak with Miri about it and let her know Jon had died. The poor kid's already had her share of exposure just in the past few months, with at least two classmates losing close family members during the regular school year and then one of the little boys in her summer camp group telling her he wanted to die so he could visit his grandma in heaven... Trying to hide what's happened, especially with so many cousins normally scattered across two continents all suddenly appearing out of the woodwork, really isn't an option any more. Our biggest fear isn't so much how she'll react to Jon's loss, but how she'll apply it to our folks' slowly-increasing health issues (which she's already reacting to with real concern). We'll have to work our way through this with her and see how it pans out, but at least we know we'll have some help & support.
Thank you, Jon, for all your help... and thank you for showing us how it should be done. Godspeed.
My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅-- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!