And now, the next installment of Howard’s Divine Comedy, wherein Howard continues his journey toward death with his hero companion.
The Last Time
Howard: Hey Jerry, did you have any inkling at all, even just the slightest sense … I mean, did the thought occur to you, no matter how briefly, that the show you played on July 9, 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago, the final show of that summer tour, that it would be your last, and that that Black Muddy River encore would be the last song you’d ever sing?
Jerry Garcia: That’s a good question, brother. Let’s see. Well, I knew that my health sucked, for sure. I was having trouble making it through shows that whole tour, and we started calling it the “Tour of Doom” after the gate crashing, three fans struck by lightning, and the death threats, so it was certainly ominous. But, after 30 years in the Grateful Dead, I couldn’t imagine life without it, so I doubt that I did ever think it was over.
H: Ok, another question then: If somehow you had known, going into that last show, that it would be your last, would that have changed the experience in any way?
J: Well, you know what Hunter said: [sings, from the Grateful Dead song Stella Blue] It all rolls into one, and nothing comes for free, there’s nothing you can hold, for very long. So, I don’t think it matters, man.
When the last rose of summer pricks my finger
–Robert Hunter, from Black Muddy River by the Grateful Dead
When you live — as I have for the past 27 years — just 25 miles south of the 49th Parallel, in the legendarily rainy Pacific Northwest, autumn arrives each year like an arrogant bully. After glorious, idyllic summers of sunshine and flowers, of daylight as late into the evening as 9-10pm, the days grow drastically shorter seemingly overnight, and the clouds come, the temperature drops, precipitation showers down regularly, the leaves on the deciduous trees fall, and the wind slaps you with it all, right in the face. Autumn comes with an attitude, as if we needed a reminder — I don’t! — that nearly everything comes to an end eventually, that all living things die.
But, this will be my last autumn, just as Summer 2020 was my last summer, seasonal additions to the growing List of Lasts.
Some other Lasts that have come to pass:
- last time tying shoelaces
- last time hiking
- last time playing guitar
- last time lifting a glass to my mouth with just one hand
- last time visiting New York City
- last time riding a bicycle
- last time cutting my own food into bite-size pieces
- last time climbing stairs to the 2nd story of my home
So, I’ve got this mindfulness meditation app on my phone called Waking Up, which was developed by author, neuroscientist, philosopher and podcast host Sam Harris. I’m no huge Sam Harris fan, and in fact I disagree strongly with some of the views he expresses in his work outside the app. But, I’ve got to hand it to him: Waking Up‘s guided meditations provide an excellent course in mindfulness practice, and the app also includes interesting talks on practice, spirituality, and even psychedelics.
In one of his talks, a 4-1/2 minute piece titled The Last Time, Sam states that upon completing any given task or experience, since we never really know whether or not that will be the last time we’ll ever have that experience, even some of the most mundane things in life might feel less mundane and more valuable if we’re paying better attention.
“Everything represents a finite opportunity to savor your life. On some level, everything is precious, and if it doesn’t seem that way, I think you’ll find that paying more attention can make it seem that way. Attention really is your true source of wealth, even more than time, because you can waste time being distracted. … Connect with your life, and mindfulness is the tool that allows you to do that.”
Something in the formula changes when you have a physically debilitating terminal illness like ALS, and even more acutely when you know you have less than six months to live. Suddenly, you’re certain, in the most painful, sorrowful terms, about the various things you will never be able to do again, or more painful yet, the people you will never see again. What Sam Harris intends as a method for more thoroughly enjoying life now seems like a wonderful idea for younger and/or healthier people, but not for me. What for some may be an opportunity to savor life, manifests for me as long goodbyes amidst an interminable parade of loss.
Howard: Jerry, sorry to be such a downer today.
Jerry Garcia: I feel ya, brother. That’s some bummer stuff you’re going though.
H: Hey, grab your guitar and let’s sing a fun song.
J: Right on!
H&J: I had a hard run
Running from your window
I was all night running, running, running
I wonder if you care?
I had a run-in
Run around and run down
Run around a corner
Run smack into a tree
I had to move
Really had to move
That’s why if you please
I am on my bended knees
Bertha don’t you come around here anymore*
(*–Robert Hunter, from Bertha by the Grateful Dead)