Howard’s Divine Comedy: Canto 2

It’s time for the next installment of Howard’s Divine Comedy, wherein Howard continues his journey toward death with his hero companion.

8C081A0B-EC7E-4DF7-9E76-602EEBEFA018When Units of Measurement Lose Their Meaning

Jerry Garcia: [sings] Long distance runner what you holdin’ out for? Caught in slow motion, in a dash to the door… [–Robert Hunter, from Fire on the Mountain by the Grateful Dead]

Howard: Yo, Jerry, sorry to interrupt, but it’s funny you should be singing those lines just now.

J: Yeah? Why’s that, Howard?

H: Well, first of all, there’s currently fire on the mountains all along the west coast of the U.S. Also, I’ve been thinking about units of measurement losing their meaning, and in the song there’s that whole business about the runner caught in slow motion … I mean, is that, technically, even running? And, it’s a “long distance” runner … who’s actually dashing? Seems like she/he won’t be running for very long!

J: Yeah, that Robert Hunter “blind man takes your hand and says, Don’t you see?” | “sky was yellow and the sun was blue” thing that he does. Love that stuff! 

H: Yeah, me too.

J: So, what’s all this about units of measurement losing their meaning?

H: Well, ever since I was told that I had six months left to live, and given the extent of my deteriorating condition thanks to ALS, distinctions such as how fast/slow, faraway/close, long/short, heavy/light any given thing is seem either trivial or nearly meaningless.

J: [sings, again from Fire on the Mountain] The more that you give, the more it will take, to the thin line beyond which you really can’t fake…

H: Exactly, my brother. That thin line is six months wide and I’m definitely in the the thick of it!

“Life is too short to be this long.”

Bruce “Utah” Phillips, folksinger, storyteller, poet, activist

I recently had a visit from my dear, longtime friend Laura, the friend who was the subject of a chapter in my memoir, I, Too, Heard The Owl, and she shared with me that quote from Utah Phillips, spoken by him in the late stages of his painful, debilitating, and ultimately losing battle with heart disease. I immediately had to pause the conversation and jot the quote down, because it so succinctly stated what I’ve been feeling ever since I was diagnosed.

Multiple Choice Question

Which of the following would be your least preferred way to die:

  1. Hit by a bus traveling at 100 miles per hour.
  2. Falling off the roof of a skyscraper.
  3. Six months of aggressive pancreatic cancer.
  4. Over the course of 2-5 years, your motor neurons die, your muscles atrophy, and you eventually lose the ability to walk, use your hands, speak, swallow, and breathe (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

“Life is Short.” The idea — often reduced to cliché platitude — that in the vast, infinite, mysterious, grand scheme of things life is short, a relative blink of an eye in human history, and so it should be lived to the fullest, in every moment. Sounds nice, but when wannabe gurus and advice givers preach this, they often conveniently fail to account for factors beyond the individual’s control that serve as very real barriers to living life to the fullest, or worse, that fill the life they have with pain and misery.

More units of measurement losing their meaning:

  • The walk from the living room to the bathroom and back feels as long and uncertain as a backcountry trek in the Cascade Mountains.
  • The hours confined in an armchair or wheelchair or the rented hospital bed feel like eons.
  • Infinitesimal fragments of time with family and friends feel like Grand Canyon filled to overflowing with love.
  • Lifting the carton of orange juice out of the fridge, pouring a glass, and returning the carton to the fridge feels like a Herculean task.
  • By the time I’ve simply undressed, bathed, and dressed myself, I feel like I’ve run a marathon, and I need to spend some time on my ventilator due to shortness of breath.

Howard: So you see, Jerry, for me, right now, life is absolutely too short to be this long.

Jerry Garcia: Well, some trips are long, some are strange, and they all end at some point, man. 

H: True that.

J: Peace out, brother!


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