Monday, July 07, 2008

O Death, O Death, Won't You Spare Me Over Til Another Year

The world is a sacred vessel, which must
not be tampered with or grabbed
To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to
grasp it is to lose it.
In fact, for all things there is a time for
going ahead, and a time for following
A time for slow-breathing and a time for
A time to grow in strength and a time to
A time to be up and a time to be down.

--excerpted from Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching, translated by John C.H. Wu

Back in March 2007, late on an El Sobrante winter afternoon, my mobile phone sent a series of emotionless vibrations into my left thigh. Bret's girlfriend Suzie said hello when I picked up the line. I could tell right away that something serious had taken hold of her mind. A jovial mood was busy echoing through our house at the time. We were nearing the end of a birthday party I'd thrown for myself, so before I heard her voice I figured that Bret was calling to wish me a happy birthday, but that wasn't it. Rhabdomyosarcoma, a sinus tumor, behind the left eye, a sizable mass of cells gone wrong that had his left eye bulging half-way out of his aching head. Bret had been asking me for advice with regards to a persistent sinus infection that he and his physician had thought he had for the couple months prior to that. The alleged sinus infection had been puzzling me because the treatments that I prescribed had no effect, and I'm somewhat of an expert on sinus infections due to my own painful experiences. The "infection" did not respond, of course, because it was cancer, scary, kills-you-dead cancer.

I kept my party face on for the rest of the afternoon, but afterwards the malignant enormity stunned me deep. My only other friend that had shown up with a giant cancerous tumor, Paul, his was in his thigh, a grapefruit-sized melanoma, died within about a year. Bret was scared and full of pride, didn't want to tell anyone, which is why Suzie called. They had moved to New Mexico from Oakland a few months previous, and had a son in December 2006. Bret & Suzie got married in a New Mexico hospital later that March. They moved back to California, got a place near Suzie's mom's house in Merced, and started treatment at UCSF, arguably the most advanced cancer treatment center around. The doctors told Suzie early on that Bret's cancer was in stage four of four, and that their goal was to improve the quality of the remainder of his life rather than provide a cure. They advised her not to tell Bret any of this, lest it freak him out, which I thought was weird, but I'm not an oncologist, so who's to say. Just like the doctors said it would, the sickness got worse, worse, and more worse. The sinus tumor shrank, but a hot spot in his pancreas flared up, and then it strangled his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down, which is where the salt water refuses to stay in my eyes, very painful even to contemplate. Bret was a strong athlete and profoundly graceful capoeira artist. I recall a time that the police arrested him but could not get his hands behind his back. He had his arms out like Jesus on the cross, and two burly San Francisco police officers, boots & knees dug into his back, muscles straining, sweating profusely, could not bend those big tattooed arms, not even a little bit. That damned rhabdomyosarcoma, usually a childhood cancer (it accounts for more than half of the soft tissue sarcomas in children), sucked the strength out of him like no cop ever could, like a vampire from hell.

Suzie called me yesterday afternoon. Bret had not woken up for more than 24-hours, and had been unable to speak for at least a day before he lost consciousness. His breathing became rapid and stressed early yesterday morning, so she pulled him onto her lap and held him close. The fast breathing gradually changed to slow breathing, and the slow breathing got slower, and slower, and even slower, until stillness settled into that space. Suzie kept holding him, cradling him, and loving him with all her might, for another three-hours. By that time all the warmth had left his body, death hovered in the Central Valley air, and morning was on it's way to an afternoon overflowing with tears.

One time I loaned Bret a bicycle, my old Fuji Special Road Racer, and we rode from my old flat on 29th Street near Noe, right across the Golden Gate bridge, through Sausalito, and out to the beach at Tennessee Valley. Bret complained about the long distance, but we had a rollicking time. When we were having fun we flew like kids, laughed like hyperactive teenagers, drank hard (back when I drank), told each other stories like long lost brothers fresh home from the war. Bless those good times.

We discussed death and the dying process a good amount, when Suzie wasn't around to get upset about it. Bret & I shared huge love & respect for death & dying, talked freely about how the final time might be. We decided that the best thing would be to instill as much grace and charisma into his dying as he could, to set an example, and to feel that we'd each done what we could. It worked out swell in that regard. Bret made me feel proud and happy the way he died, cool as a cucumber, exuding much love, that's my brother, my friend, my blood. You did it Bret! You stayed strong and kind, ever true. I hope to be cool like that when my time comes.

O, Death
O, Death
Won't you spare
me over til
another year
Well what is this
that I can't see
With ice cold
hands takin' hold
of me
Well I am death,
none can excel
I'll open the
door to heaven
or hell
Whoa, death
someone would
Could you wait
to call me
another day
The children
prayed, the

Time and mercy
is out of your
I'll fix your feet
til you can't walk
I'll lock your jaw
til you can't talk
I'll close your
eyes so you
can't see
This very air,
come and go
with me
I'm death I
come to take
the soul
Leave the body
and leave it cold
To draw up the
flesh off of the
Dirt and worm
both have a
O, Death
O, Death
Won't you spare
me over til
another year
My mother came
to my bed
Placed a cold
towel upon my
My head is warm
my feet are cold
Death is a-movin
upon my soul
Oh, death how
you're treatin' me
You've closed my
eyes so I can't
Well you're
hurtin' my body
You make me cold
You run my life
right outta my
Oh death please
consider my age
Please don't
take me at this
My wealth is all
at your
If you will move
your icy hand
Oh the young,
the rich or poor
Hunger like me
you know
No wealth, no
ruin, no silver no
Nothing satifies
me but your
O, death
O, death
Won't you spare
me over til
another year
Won't you spare
me over til
another year
Won't you spare
me over til
another year"

--Ralph Stanley's O Death


Zahra said...

Although I did not Bret, I wish him well on his journey across the river Styx and into unknowable lands.

Fourth Musketeer said...

Thanks Darling, he's doing well out there I feel. It's hard for a person [me] to lose a close friend like that, though I guess that the more close friends one has, and the longer one lives, the more this will happen, so it must be a blessing too. I thought that writing a post about it would help me process it onward, but it's also rather upsetting to re-read. Could of, would of, should of nonsense plagues me terribly.