Deron and his best buddy Kai Sakata sat outside a cafe near Denver’s Washington Park, a brick-solid neighborhood where Deron and his wife had lived for 27 years. He would normally have been delighted, even ecstatic, on this first really warm day of summer, June 6, with its composite fragrance and verdant flush of oxygen. But things were different now. After he and Kai ordered salmon burgers and a huge salad, Deron skipped the usual banter and just dropped the bomb: “I have some news that has… kind of turned me inside out,” he said with an involuntary gulp. Deron’s hazel eyes met Kai’s brown eyes squarely as he continued, “In my annual check-up, the blood analysts found something – a virus similar to meningitis that’s very hard—usually impossible—to get rid of.” (He still couldn’t believe it was his turn to say these words!) “The typical course this disease takes is to slowly, steadily destroy white blood cells. The immune system checks out, and then within a year or so…” He snapped his fingers to complete the thought.
Although Deron had willed himself to shift gears, they were still grinding like a vintage Mustang transmission. For only the second time in his previously trouble-free life, Deron felt vulnerable, even a little betrayed; the recipient of a terse Tweet from the universe saying, “Fuck You.” Seeing Kai’s frozen face, Deron added quickly, “It’s not contagious!” He delivered his news deliberately, like a parent carefully stepping over a sleeping child; but the starkness of the words seemed to conk Kai in the skull like a wild pitch. (Are we ever really prepared for news like this?)
Each man was strong in his way; Deron quietly confident, a man of knowledge who’d always taken care of his own health and was always supportive of others’ successes. In his modest way, he downplayed the PhD after his name, always more focused on the work itself rather than his status. He’d willfully, heroically bushwhacked through a dark forest at the edge of life following his wife’s death; and now, in a sunnier clearing, this little surprise…? WTF? It felt as though Superman’s demonic nemesis, Mr. Mxyzptlk, had slipped kryptonite into his breakfast smoothie.
And Kai? A grateful drop-out from the New York City world of high-risk, high-return investment, searching for his personal true north while apprenticing – even in his late fifties – to his father, an herbalist. Though less commanding in stature than Deron, Kai was more intense, more focused. Physically in tune, he was a gentle person with a strong will. Since his early years he’d supported the peace, civil rights and environmental movements. With a vehement mandate from his Japanese family and its culture to do his very best in all things, he had dropped out of the obsessive and corrupt world of Wall Street as other, more intrinsic priorities had crystallized. He wanted to help heal a badly-bruised civilization, and he wanted to be of service to those he loved. These priorities overlapped Deron’s as well as his parents’.
Deron’s announcement was like a nuclear bomb exploding down the block, on Wash Park. “Shit!” Kai said, outraged, in the tone of a lifelong Yankees fan watching the Red Sox sweep another World Series, those bastards! He reached across the table to grab his friend’s arm. “I’m so sorry to hear this, man.” With improvised bravado he continued, “But people beat things like this all the time. My father’s good friend had a tumor the size of an orange taken out of his brain a few years ago and he’s clearer and more energetic now than he ever was…” Deron nodded, trying to communicate with his manner that he was dealing with it, as he had with Karen’s illness and death.
“Are there natural cures for this?” Kai asked, shaking his head slightly as he processed. “Mega doses of superfoods, herbs, biofeedback, acupuncture, deep meditation, prayer…?
“Sure, they’re all part of the strategy,” Deron said. “And I’m also researching the side effects of ‘conventional drugs,’ even though I’m skeptical. With a statistical five percent shot at coming out alive maybe you toss a coin and bet on a prescription that could either cure you or kill you.” Then with a slight, sarcastic smile he added, “Some concoction that the scientist’s son mixed up with his chemistry set…” Kai noticed that Deron seemed to be in a different, somehow more powerful place. Deron continued, “I saw a documentary the other night about three cancer patients who wished they’d skipped the side effect-heavy drugs and opted for clearer quality time with their families and friends at the end. So…. the main reason I wanted to get together is to talk about an endgame, in case it’s checkmate.” The two were silent, then Deron continued, as if speaking from the other end of a long hallway, “I just want to make the most of my time, right? Whatever time I have.” Having dealt with his wife’s early passing, Deron knew death personally; he knew in his bones that it sometimes has its way, like a flash flood in a desert canyon.
“I have to say, you seem to be dealing with this news pretty well,” Kai said, admiring Deron’s dispassionate cool and his dry, academic sense of humor. “You’ve told Lisa, of course?” he asked. Lisa was Deron’s high-energy, very analytical daughter, thirty-three and strongly simpatico with her Dad. Working through Karen’s illness together had redefined and strengthened their bond.
“Sure, she’s offering great support and I want our connection to get even stronger, that’s a high priority.” He proudly thought about Lisa and her lovable husband Brad, who together owned a small business on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, marketing fine, handmade crafts from around the world. Although they couldn’t afford to live in Boulder’s real estate bubble, fortunately, with their parents’ help, they’d bought a more reasonably-priced house in nearby Louisville—a town often on those “great places to live” lists. (Did anyone remember that it had once been an unfashionable coal-mining town?)
There was another pause as Deron reached for his iced tea. The glass was cool to the touch, with drops of condensation on it. He took a long thirsty guzzle, marveling how vivid the world becomes when life seems to be in short supply. Was this sharpening of the senses an evolved strategy? Would it help a person cope more effectively in the last hours, sharing love and valuable lessons learned? Deron knew it would be impossible to explain his new clarity to Kai, though his good friend was certainly sharper than most. Setting his glass down forcefully, the professor silently invited Kai to talk. Always calm and deliberate on the surface, Kai was internally searching for a useful response for his friend. The muscles of his jaw bulged, revealing the man’s intensity in times of crisis; he was a man of action and also empathy. Quickly moving from off-balance to core-centered, he said, “I’m going to ask my father to look at your diagnosis and see what herbs can zap this virus.” Acknowledging Kai’s strong belief in natural cures, Deron raised his eyebrows and nodded. Kai continued, “I’ll email to remind you to send us whatever diagnostic data you have, okay? Symptoms, genetic markers, possible locations where you could have caught the virus…”
“Sure, man, thanks. But let’s go back to my original question,” he said, leaning forward. “What would you do in my shoes?”
“I’d fight it, of course,” Kai said without hesitation. Though he held his own version of Zen Buddhism, or pantheism, or whatever you wanted to call it, Kai’s belief system was grounded in nature and didn’t rely on what he thought of as “tall tales.” In his twenties, he’d been a firefighter on a hotshot crew that jetted around the country wherever needed; slight burn scars on his neck and right jaw were an indelible reminder of that hellish day near Chico, California, when he’d saved an elderly couple’s lives as well as their horses but just about paid the full price. To Deron, these barely-noticeable marks had always seemed like a badge of honor.
After a thoughtful pause, Kai continued, “If I absolutely knew I was going to die – which you don’t know – I guess I’d see what small contributions I could make before my time was up…. I’d drill deeper into things I’d already connected with, rather than desperately assembling a ‘bucket list.’” He joked, “I’m just not that interested in going to Disney World or Las Vegas…” The hesitation in Kai’s voice was evidence he’d much rather talk about Deron’s heroic return to health than a grim, sailboat voyage into the sunset. It was also a symptom of his cultural upbringing; as the only child in a Japanese family, Kai had learned to avoid dramatizing one’s own challenges or accomplishments. You just did what you were supposed to do, out of respect, honor, and duty.
“If I beat this, we can cycle through Tuscany like we’ve always talked about,” Deron promised, his wistful words slicing through reality like a laser. “That’s a little more appealing than Disney World.” Then, rebounding a little, he reported whimsically that Walt Disney was still “on ice,” waiting to be revived when and if science permitted. “He’s in suspended animation.” Deron said, waiting to see if Kai got the pun.
“But still making billions a year,” Kai added, then leaning forward to tell his friend emphatically, “You’re going to beat this, dude! Of course you want to use your time well, I get that. So dig deeper into your passions, do more of the things that have made you happy,” Kai said, trying to coax Deron’s will-to-live out of the shadows. “I mean, you love teaching and learning about cultures; getting together with your friends; being out in nature; your softball league… you’re going to keep doing that, right?” (Deron was player-coach of a co-ed softball team.) “I may play,” Deron answered, “But I’m going to find out if somebody else can do the managing.” The first scheduled game was in a few weeks, and the first practice, in a few days.
Kai nodded, continuing, “You also love art, jazz, western swing; you like to travel… ski… ride your bike… your Scrabble tournaments… you’re learning to cook like some five-star chef… you like your garden in the backyard … You’re a helluva productive guy! I’ve always been amazed by your energy.” Deron was grateful that his friend knew him well enough to list his interests and passions. “Thanks, man. But the question is, which pieces of that busyness really matter, as the frickin’ clock ticks? And by the way, my garden’s just a potted plant compared to yours and your parents’!”
Kai and his parents shared a huge, Zen-inspired landscape in the yards of two adjacent houses in Denver’s lively Highlands neighborhood. Several years earlier, when Kai returned to his family with a stash of serendipitous Wall Street money, he’d signed mortgages for both houses with large down payments – an action that challenged his parents’ sense of authority but at the same time made them intensely proud of their son. (Kai was stone silent about some of the shenanigans his firm had gotten away with.) Together, they’d torn down and recycled a rickety cedar fence between the yards to create the large, contemplative garden space that became a neighborhood landmark, even catching the attention of national media. Both their front and back yards—including a large greenhouse on the parents’ lot—were abundant with fruits, vegetables, and ornamental and medicinal flowers and shrubs; many of them with names like goji berry, bok choy, and hardy bamboo.
There was another long silence as both Kai and Deron examined their thoughts, then Kai continued, “I know I’d spend as much time with May as possible.” There was a barely-audible quaver in his voice; he knew that Deron would always carry the loss of Karen with him like a heavy backpack. Deron didn’t have a solid partner to provide support, and his parents were gone, too. Besides his daughter and son-in-law, Deron’s only immediate family – his brother’s clan – lived in northern California, busy living their dream of an off-the-grid, self-sufficient lifestyle. In addition to his daughter, Deron had instinctively reached out to Kai and his wife May, who had over the years become Deron’s and Karen’s closest friends. When Karen was alive the two couples often hung out – sometimes vacationing together in places like Belize or Peru. Karen and May frequently ran or skied together, and the two men liked to explore rural Colorado on their bikes, or just walk and talk. Occasionally they got out their archery bows and set up a target in Deron’s backyard, or sat down at a chess board with a pitcher of locally-brewed beer.
Kai, too, still felt a heaviness in his chest about Karen’s passing, especially given the troubled period before her sudden death. (She’d contracted a suddenly-lethal staph infection after a minor surgery, possibly a fortuitous turn of events, since dementia can linger for 7 or more years.) Fourteen months earlier, at the age of 58, she’d been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, a finding that Deron had known was coming. In earlier days, when she and Deron played Scrabble together (they’d always been an even match despite Deron’s nerdy competitiveness) her words shrank to four letters, then to a childlike three. She would wander away from the house, one time inexplicably gone all afternoon. She’d lost her ability to speak descriptively – in stark contrast to her years and accomplishments as a writer. One day, she’d gone out for a run and tumbled down a concrete embankment, requiring 31 stitches on her face and arms. Deron had gotten a call from St. Anthony Hospital’s emergency room, informing him that someone had called an ambulance and that she was in intensive care. Her clothes covered with blood, Karen had gotten flustered after the fall; she couldn’t remember the president’s name, or even Deron’s name. (Luckily, she’d had an ID in the pocket of her running shorts.) They’d done an MRI and although she wasn’t bleeding internally, they’d found something even more ominous: some of the image’s light-green lobes were fading to gray, like once-vibrant coral reefs fade to white. Diagnosis: fronto-temporal dementia; untreatable. About that time, the repeated phrase, “….all right, all right…” began to dominate her sentences. She could still receive and understand much of what others were saying, but she couldn’t form sentences to transmit her own thoughts, not even on paper. Being so close to this degenerative process, Deron increasingly began to think of Karen’s brain as a cotton ball; she still had thoughts, but he guessed they were mostly cotton thoughts.
Another time, at a Target store, he was holding a picture frame and turned to see by her expression if she liked it. Presto, she’d magically dematerialized! He frantically ran up and down the aisles, trying to find her before she wandered out the front door, oblivious to traffic. He alerted store managers, then the mall’s security police. Standing as sentry from the store into the mall, he imagined a mass of marching shoppers, sweeping her along in the currents like a piece of driftwood. But after ten or twenty long minutes a security guard returned with a smiling, clueless Karen by his side. As they walked out of the store – his hand firmly grasping hers – Deron wondered what had been going on in her mind, on her silent, self-guided tour. Maybe something like, “Those swimsuit colors are so bright…. Something about a red bicycle I’m riding but Mom is calling me.… Look at that over-sized, stuffed-animal dog, standing next to those laughing kids. The dog seems so soft and happy and I want to pet him….I like the shape of that little building, made out of…. Legos. I want to touch it and feel all the raised dots…. I feel something, is it hunger? ….”
After the mall incident, he realized he could never again leave her alone in a public space, not even to go to the men’s room – a real challenge if he’d been drinking coffee or an extra glass of juice. (A few times he’d even taken her into a men’s room with him, after first calling inside.) On the positive side, Karen challenged his abilities. Keeping her safe and engaged in a park, a store, or a movie theater tested his patience and his love. He’d comment, “Look at that hawk’s nest!” while they walked in a park, even though her eyes were riveted to her feet, maybe counting the steps between cracks in the sidewalk. Just after the diagnosis, he asked her what he could do for her as she entered this darkest of tunnels, and she’d replied, “Just be there for me.” He’d honored that commitment, protecting her as if she were a beautifully exotic, wounded bird.
To a large degree, he was unconcerned about how they must look to others. He would enhance her quality of life even it meant being a spectacle- one outstretched arm guiding her gently across a busy street while Pepper, their white-muzzled Lab, tugged in the other direction. Deron was not going to hide her away; with millions of Americans on the same doomed path, they could just get used to it. When he did feel self-conscious, he’d mentally recite a line he remembered from some movie: “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations…” Their redefined relationship wasn’t a one-way street at all; he’d gotten as much from their time together as she did, although his faithful visits did compromise his schedule. When they held hands and walked, he knew that hand like he knew his own middle name.
When Karen had walked into an unfamiliar neighbor’s house, scaring the bejeezus out of its residents, Deron knew even sub-normal life was no longer possible. After trying for a year to cope with Karen’s steady decline—watching his class enrollment decline and his weight drop from the stress—Deron and Lisa decided to move her to the memory care floor at Golden Years retirement home, a large old Denver mansion where she was the youngest among six or seven others – mostly women. Although he kept up with research about cures, one of the most promising treatments—ultrasound to eliminate plaque – was still only experimental and unavailable. He found this reality so ironic; would the technique be perfected just after she was gone? In her last days, he suspected that if he’d asked her to “squeeze my hand if you understand what I’m saying,” there would be no response. He didn’t test it; he just kept bantering, as if she could understand. It felt better that way. The last coherent, stuttering words he heard her say were, “I love you, too.”
Fortunately, Deron and Karen had carried a good insurance policy, but this kind of luck felt like a wet pebble in a bucket. Watching her rapid, downward spiral had shifted Deron’s basic understanding of life. He’d witnessed the steady unraveling of his soul mate’s mind, and his world could never again be the same. He read articles about how the memories of a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia are still there, just buried under sticky layers of plaque. This finding left Deron pondering a Zen-like question: What exactly is a memory? Like a chemical photograph?
Deron, Lisa, Kai and May still regarded that long, dark decline as more poignant than death itself, especially the day when they moved her into the memory care unit – essentially, maximum security prison with a would-be homey facade.
Kai, too, was in transition. What should he dedicate the rest of his life to? His father, Yukio, was trying to convince Kai to take over the family’s healing arts trade. Yukio and his wife Michiko ran a business they called Kibo (Japanese for “hope”) primarily focused on aromatic essential oils, medicinal herbs, salves, and teas – some of which they grew in their own gardens and greenhouse. With good success in alleviating pain and supporting well-being, several of his formulations had gained a foothold with both the Asian community and the Whole Foods crowd. Many in Yukio Sakata’s clientele of several hundred respectfully called him sensei, or master. Both Yukio and Michiko were second-generation immigrants whose ethics were still firmly rooted in Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism, and Shintoism, a reverence for the shimmering magic of nature. More than anything, the father wanted continuity; wouldn’t it fulfill him and perpetuate his life work if his son (finally) followed in his footsteps?
Kai and May had been partners for 12 years, a very happy union. She was a remarkably attractive Danish woman with short blonde hair and a trim physique who – coincidentally – Deron had also known and dated many years before. In those young, relatively carefree years almost forty years earlier, Deron and May were considering moving in together when her mother got sick, compelling May to move back to Denmark to take care of her. Deron’s and May’s long-distance relationship continued for close to a year; several times they had each crossed the 5,000-mile canyon that separated them. But Deron wanted more than a long-distance romance, and May’s return date was uncertain. In fact, she’d implied that she might stay in Denmark, why didn’t he move there to be with her? However, just by accident, he’d met and fallen in love with Karen, an uninhibited, self-starting writer, who, after all, lived just a few miles away.
Yet Deron hadn’t seen the last of May, who returned to her much-loved Colorado after her mother died to resume her work in the world of non-profit activism. After quietly confirming through mutual friends that Deron was still married to Karen, May began dating Kai – a man a few years younger than her who she’d met at a conference on solar energy and green building design. Kai had also met Deron in overlapping circles, and step by step, these two couples became an extended family – along with Deron’s daughter Lisa and her husband; and Kai’s parents. They got together routinely for holiday dinners, book and movie discussions, or short hikes in the mountains.
“Here’s what I think,” Deron proposed. “Life is like a game of Scrabble. You make the best words you can with the letters you get and the skill you’ve gained, but if that Z or Q doesn’t show up, what can you do?” Kai took a deep breath, then exhaled, responding, “So what does that mean? You just give up?” Then he needled, maybe projecting some his own unresolved issues, “Have you done what you set out to do?” He knew his words sounded abrasive, but he wouldn’t buy into the metaphor of life as a fatalistic game of scrabble.
Deron paused, then responded in his practiced lecture mode, “Well, I’ve thought a lot recently about the life choices I’ve made, and why. It feels like my overall goal is to be useful and unified with my larger self – all of life on Earth. Although it’s drummed into us that we’re individual, disconnected, disjointed consumer-machines, I believe that we humans, and plants – hell, even termites – are one interconnected organism, co-designing a world that fits together as well as possible. Isn’t that the purpose of an individual, to live and share new, improved life strategies? So when I die, I continue because the rest of life continues, it’s that simple! I’m safe in the universe, whether I’m alive or dead,” Deron concluded, like the Ted Talk presenter he had once been. It was obvious he became energized when discussing such speculative topics, but the question was, did he still believe what he was saying, given his circumstances?
“Interesting thoughts,” Kai conceded, “But life needs you here, as YOU, for another couple of decades at least. Got that?!” So would you mind putting your energy into living, please?” Kai used this familiar, joking tone with only a handful of other people, and Deron received it with gratitude. As Kai pushed his chair back to go the men’s room, Deron sat running his hand over his chin in thought. He had a neatly trimmed, salt and pepper beard (“mostly salty now,” he would joke) and a few new wrinkles from recent sleepless nights. His hair was receding like a slowly melting glacier, to a more northern hairline, but was still fairly thick on top. (His standing joke, before the diagnosis, was that he wasn’t bad for 93.) Psychologically, he was more solid than many – his parents had been there for both Deron and his brother Rocket, even through the turbulent adolescent years, which—especially in his brother’s case – included crazy-making psychedelic drugs.
Deron was just over six feet tall with an athletic build, but he’d opted in high school and college for the less gladiatorial sports: baseball, golf, and chess, rather than potentially brain-crunching football or rugby. “How’s that for macho?” he’d joke with a self-effacing yet confident smile – narrating a thumbnail-bio to some new date at a coffee shop. Even before dating May and Karen, Deron had had some very resonant relationships in high school and college, getting the “ladies’ man” reputation that went with it. He had rugged good looks, calm but upbeat energy, and he was easy to talk with. Throughout his life, women had often been intrigued, as they were with his older brother Rocket – who’d rebelliously carried his sports nickname into adulthood like a tattoo. The Blake brothers were notorious in Midwest sports circles in their youths, and several pro baseball franchises tried to sign each of them right out of college. In fact, with nothing more pressing at the time, Rocket tried a season with the Indianapolis Indians, a Cincinnati Reds farm team. He had strategically—and in his mind, heroically—dodged the 1970 draft by convincing a friend, a medical student, to perforate one of his eardrums, permanently diminishing his hearing but not his convictions. He did okay with the Indians – a hustling young shortstop with major league potential – but at that time the pay scale required minor leaguers to have part-time jobs or else be damn good gamblers. Although he loved the game, he didn’t relish the collective angst of teammates scrapping to “make it to the house.” When he didn’t get called up after a season, he quit. The stronger pulls were romance and independence; he packed up a van load of possessions and moved to northern California to be with Ellen, his college girlfriend. Together, they conspired to venture “back to the land” in Mendocino County, California, a few hours north of the Bay area.
A few years later, Deron went on a parallel route after college: drafted and also having better destinations in mind than Vietnam, he applied for Conscientious Objector status, serving two years with a health-related non-profit in Rhodesia – later called Zimbabwe. Then he found several international internships—in Ghana and Iraq – finally coming back to complete his educational odyssey with a doctorate in anthropology. For the most part, those student years were fueled by genuine curiosity and a strong desire to make a difference.
Together, the two brothers exemplified many of their generation’s formative maxims and mottos: question authority; make love, not war; you are what you eat; do your own thing; freedom now; and even – in Rocket’s case – turn on, tune in, and drop out.