Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Giving It All Away

Less than six months ago, John's wife told him that she wanted a permanent separation after more than 50 years of marriage. She wanted to sell their house and buy into a senior living community. So she did. Shortly after that, John (not his real name), a resident at the retirement community where I work, Drake Terrace, found out he had inoperable pancreatic cancer.

This double later in life whammy might have knocked mere mortals down a emotional spiral that would have caused them to curl into a fetal ball and wail for 23 hours a day. But not John. He reacted to the heartbreaking split in his marriage and his terminal illness with the same positive energy he applied to life when he was an award-winning cameraman for more than 30 years for a local TV station.

With humor. And affection. And generosity. And lollipops.

Humor is crucial to John's upbeat attitude. After a bout of chronic diarrhea, he suspected there was something wrong. For most of his 77 years he has been the best judge of his body's health. The doctor ordered a proctoscopy, but John suspected the problem was closer to his abdomen. So he asked for an endoscopy as well.

"You can use the same scope," John told his doctor. "Just be sure to do the endoscopy first."

He is such a wise guy that when he begins a story or launches into a comment at the weekly current events session I lead, none of us know if he is going to be serious or crack a joke.

But more than having an incurable funny bone, John is hopelessly and lovingly philanthropic. He must have stock in See's Candy, because he hands out a steady stream of lollipops each day. Dozens. Today the choice was between, he told me, caramel apple and caramel apple.

But his generosity extends most to the those he loves unconditionally. He gave his son and daughter-in-law, who toil as public school teachers in this county, each $30,000 so they could do something special for themselves. He sent another check to his brother in the Midwest for $35,000.

"My brother was always taking care of everyone else," John explained, "while I was off seeing the world. He took care of our mother. He still takes care of our sister who lives in a home (for the mentally challenged). And he's 82.

"So I wanted to do something for him," John continued, "no strings attached. When my brother called and asked me why, I said, 'because you have always taken care of others.'"

John said it was his way of showing gratitude because, he realizes, you can't take any money with you when you die.

John admitted that there has been a slight crack in his sunny veneer, and some anxiety has begun to seep in. Death, even, has been on his mind. He asked me today about the experiences of other residents who had pancreatic cancer.

"One woman was diagnosed earlier this year," I said. "And she died..." I hesitated. "...within about three months."

"What were her symptoms?" he asked me.

"She had pain and stomach problems," I said. "She was a nurse and knew something was wrong. She went to the doctor and found out she had end stage pancreatic cancer."

"See, the funny thing is, I don't have any pain," John said. "Hospice gave me a supply of morphine, but I haven't needed it."

John is more than content to go to lunch or dinner with family and friends (he is still close with his estranged wife), drive by the old neighborhood and schmooze with his former neighbors (he is still on the HOA board), pop over to a local watering hole for a glass of wine or a beer, or just give of himself.

For the past several Fridays, he has purchased gourmet pizzas for the staff at Drake Terrace. Last Friday, just before five pm, he came over to me with three fingers showing.

"Three," he said.

"Three?" I asked.

"Three pizzas. Coming for the staff. Enjoy."

A little while later he asked me, "Did you get a slice?"

I lowered my head, almost in shame, and said, "No, I am a vegetarian. But I know the staff loved the pizzas. Thanks so much."

I nearly ate a slice of the spinach-tomato-feta-hamburger pizza out of loyalty to the gentle giant John, who did not curse the world or himself when his wife moved out and they sold their home and he then discovered he had cancer. He simply remained true to himself, content to give, give, and give and then watch the ineffable joy on the faces of those whose lives he has touched with more than pizza, lollipops, or money.

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