Am I Glad to See You: A Story About Visiting Dying Friends

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The last time I had seen Don, he was beaming with more than happiness and strength—he seemed downright victorious. 

“Man, am I glad to see you!” I said as I gave him a bear hug around his now-scrawny frame. I didn’t mention that it was because Don had been battling cancer for months and had just been told that the brutal treatments had been successful. 

Though months of treatments had resulted in him now being half of his original size, he hadn’t been a skinny fella before the diagnosis, so he carried his new frame well. In the dimly-lit downtown lounge, he, my brother, Don’s military-pilot son, and I shared drinks and caught up after almost a year apart. Though we weren’t necessarily toasting to Don’s victory over his cancer, it definitely hung in the air like a delicious aroma. 

I still have a picture of the four of us together, taken by a kind stranger whom my brother had asked to snap a picture. A mere selfie wouldn’t do. 

Don isn’t a family member, but he might as well be. He’s my brother’s ex-father-in-law — which makes him my…friend? Despite this, my brother and I share an affinity for Don that we don’t have with many biological relatives. He’s larger than life, so to speak. He’s always been the life of the party and the someone you can call when you’re in a jam. Everyone he knows has a Don story — and he’s quick to tell you what actually happened…though his version isn’t any less hilarious or crazy — he would just tell it as though the events were no big deal. Classic Don. 

Months after that night at the downtown watering hole, the pandemic hit, and everything went into lockdown. I didn’t hear from Don because I hadn’t really heard from anyone. Before the pandemic, I had opted out of social media in lieu of personal interactions and was beginning to regret it a bit. One night, the topic of Don came up with my parents—the few people within my germ circle who were also on social media. 

“Man, I miss Don. How’s he doing?” I said with a smile. 

Both of my parents’ faces drooped and they looked at each other, so as to say, “oh, yeah…he doesn’t know.” 

“His cancer came back. That’s about all we know,” my mom said. 

The rest of my evening was fairly deflated and thoughts of Don swirled. 

A few weeks went by. While working in my home office, my brother called. 

“Don is in hospice.” 

My heart sank and my feet started to physically tingle with shock. After a bit of silence, my brother asked if I was still on the line. I was, I just had to take a bit of time to regroup. Don, whom I’d always seen as the pinnacle of strength, bulletproof, and always ready with a snarky comment, was now dying. This new reality left me shaken and disoriented. 

“I’m coming to town this weekend to see Don while I still can,” my brother said. 

Over the next few days, I wrestled with myself whether or not I would accompany my brother. 

I should see him. No, I shouldn’t. He probably doesn’t even want visitors. No, he’s Don — of course, he wants visitors. No, I don’t want to remember him that way. Ah, what do I do…

I tried to justify not visiting Don by telling myself that he likely wouldn’t even recognize me in a mask, or that he’d be too weak for visitors, or something else—anything to hide the truth: I was terrified that seeing this version of him — Dying Don — would shatter my image of the Don I knew and cherished. I didn’t end up visiting him with my brother in that instance due to sheer logistics, but that didn’t remove the option of visiting him from the table. 

In an odd twist of fate, we all received this news around the same weekend that was Don’s birthday — likely his last birthday. Pandemic precautions meant no usual party, but Don’s sons arranged a drive-by birthday celebration. I felt better about this — I’d get a little bit of closure out of actually going to see him…without actually visiting with him. My version of Don could remain intact. 

Before the drive-by party, my parents drove over to my house. We all decorated our cars with birthday greetings. Posters held firmly to the sides and fronts of our cars with masking tape read sayings like “Wild Man Don!” with a cartoon portrayal of him in his prized Jeep and other greetings covered our cars. We met up with a good dozen or more cars covered in signs and balloons with mask-wearing friends and family of Don. 

As we approached Don’s house, his sons had pushed him outside in his wheelchair to his porch and wrapped him like a burrito in a blanket, topped with a stocking cap. As the parade of honking cars made their way past Don’s house, they would slow to a near stop to wave and proclaim their birthday wishes. Don, though obviously very weak, cold, and thinner than I’d ever seen him, was grinning from ear to ear. 

Our car was up next. I briefly stopped my car with myself, my wife, and our sleeping toddler son in front of Don’s house and stopped to honk and wave. As I waved and yelled out happy birthday wishes, I noticed Don’s eyes squint to try and make out who this person was. Soon after squinting, his eyes shot open wider than I’d ever seen them in life with a smile that revealed every tooth in his mouth. 

“KENNY!” he exclaimed—not only my name but my nickname only reserved for family and the closest of friends. Most people knew me as simply as Ken. His ecstatic face almost made me think he was about to throw off his oversized blanket and run over to the driver’s side of my car and hug me through the window.

“Wow…Kenny!” he said, eyes returning to their normal size with a sleepy grin. He settled back in his wheelchair as I let the next car approach. 

As the cars pulled down the street, we soon realized that this was a dead-end and that we’d have to pull back around and pass Don’s house again. Some cars went by and then on their way. Others pulled over. I followed my parent’s lead and pulled in behind them. Many of Don’s family members got out of their cars and began to gather in his front yard — all spaced out and wearing masks — to sing happy birthday to Don. Others sang from their cars on the streets. I thought I would be among these people until Don made a special request. 

“I want to see Amir” – my sleeping toddler in the back seat. Not about to deny the request of a dying man on his birthday, I gathered the snoozing Amir from his car seat. Donning a mask and 30-pounds of snoring toddler, I walked up to Don’s stoop — staying around a dozen feet away. 

Don’s face softened with a smile as though he was listening to a favorite song as he gazed upon Amir’s sleeping face — a face he’d not seen in over a year or longer. Don’s eyes then lifted from Amir’s eyes to my own — falling upon them like a warm hug from four yards away. 

“Man, am I glad to see you,” he said to me with a gentle smile, repeating the words I’d said to him that victorious night in that dimly-lit downtown bar.

“I’m glad to see you, too.” 

The Don I knew was still there. The Don I know will always be there, and nothing will ever change that.

What I Learned in 2019: My Last Journal Entry of the Year

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I do believe that 2019 has been one of the most transformational years of my life. It will forever go down as the year of intention — of discovering what I believe a great life to be and what is necessary to live it out daily. 

This year I learned…

Good habits don’t have to suck. They can be downright enjoyable. In fact, they should be enjoyable or else you probably won’t stick with them. Removing as much friction between you and your doings is the only way to ensure they actually get done. 

I am not the voice in my head. Meditation has shown this to me. It has also shown me that the voice in my head may actually represent the worst side of me, but that this is only through years of leaning into a negative bias. Training the voice in my head to be positive and the idea that I can do so has been immensely inspiring. 

It’s surprising how little I need to be happy. And these aren’t even “needs”, but falling more under the category of “pleasantries.” A good book. A comfortable pair of shoes. A jump rope. A practical watch. A french press coffee maker. The occasional drink. A few musical instruments. A means of hearing great music. My prayer accouterment. Boom — I’m a happy camper. All other joys are nonphysical. 

Social media is no match for a one-on-one drink with a good friend. Keeping up with a myriad of acquaintances online has lost its luster. But even the cheapest of beers with the oldest of pals has really become a release valve for me. I would take an evening with a buddy over the most spectacular, extravagant entertainment money can buy. 

There’s a certain pleasure in getting my attention locked into a good book. This has been the first year that my attention span has been trained to the point of being able to do this. In fact, there are times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to be left alone with whatever book I happened to be enjoying. This is new for me, but I pray that it continues. 

Memento mori. Tomorrow is not promised, that I am going to die one day so that I need to take active steps towards my goals now. If you’re going to write that book, start now because tomorrow is not promised. If you’re going to be that amazing father, start this instant because you’re not promised another breath. Avoid deathbed regret whenever possible. 

Amor fati — love your fate and let it update who you are. The good and the bad should both be leaned into to become a better you. 

Don’t react — respond. If you don’t know how to do so, train your mind through meditation. Sit with your thoughts to see that they are thoughts. This is how you will be able to create the buffer necessary to respond to life’s happenings rather than impulsively react to them. 

Life is too short for your second string anything. After finding the cut of pants you like the most, the coffee mug you go for first, and socks that actually positively transform your mood, don’t feel the need to regularly tolerate anything less than these if you can help it. Your second favorites are likely only taking up space not only in your cupboard and garage but also in your mind. 

There is a certain buzz that can be attained by simply choosing to be present. Most of the time, we’re not wherever our bodies are or actively taking in experiences as they unfold before us. Even during moments of elevated experience, our minds are time-traveling — considering the possibilities of the future or ruminating about the past. Life-changing moments are witnessed through phone screens instead of being fully savored as they unfold. Purpose-infusing experiences are completely missed due to mental scab-picking. Deciding to let the past remain in the past, the future to come in due time if at all, and to concentrate fully on experiencing the present moment like a live-streaming camera is so rare that doing so can actually bring on a lively rush. Choosing to be fully present can drastically transform your life. 

Happy New Year.

The Trusted Voyage – In Memory of Sara Disney

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Sara Louise Disney, March 11, 1988 – July 9, 2019.

This weekend, I received word that a friend and fellow spiritual explorer passed away. Sara Disney was a vivacious Tulsa free spirit known for speaking her mind and seeking substantive answers to the questions we face. She attended our Passover seder last year where she seemed to thoroughly lap up the experience like an investigative reporter. She had spent time at our home, mostly firing spiritual questions in our direction with a hunger for alignment. She craved perspectives, books, resources, and even homework assignments. Our text messages were dotted with conversations about prayer, the Sabbath, and drug policy reform. As the President of the Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma, Sara was outspoken about patient’s rights. She remained outspoken on these subjects long into experiencing the severe effects of advanced Crohn’s Disease — even writing and posting from hospital beds. 

While I will miss Sara, I feel blessed to have known her and been inspired by her insatiable appetite for truth and tenacious drive to effect change. 

With her in mind, I’d like to jump into something peculiar that occurred this morning. I had recently changed siddurim (sih-der-eem — prayer books) to one with a layout I favor. In addition to a layout that lends itself to aligning meaning with the Hebrew text, commentaries fill the footnotes and margins. While most of these are helpful, they can almost consume the text — leaving essential passages somewhat hidden. I didn’t realize until this morning that I had been passing over the last piece of the blessings just before Kedusha:

You are faithful to restore the dead to life. Blessed are You, HaShem (G-d), Who revivifies the dead.

While I knew that this blessing was a part of the prayer service, because of its placement in my siddur, I had managed to skip this blessing for months…until this morning. 

Did G-d conceal this blessing from me for a period of time just to make Sara’s death a moment of learning and reflection? Was I just a fast davener (praying person)? I may never know, but the moment did allow me to reassess and now reiterate what we believe happens to “us” when we die. 

There is an array of answers to the question of what happens when we die according to Jewish tradition. 

  • The afterlife, despite not directly mentioned in the Torah, is commonly referred to as Olam HaBa, The World to Come. 
  • The 13th Principle of the Jewish Faith according to Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka: the Rambam) instructs the belief in the resurrection of the dead. 
  • Some say that we will be later resurrected from the dead just like what happened in the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. 
  • The more mystical branches of Judaism claim that our souls are reincarnated into different bodies until our soul has completed its mission. 

If you were to ask me precisely what happens, even according to my faith, what happens when we die, I couldn’t tell you. I simply don’t know. Still, I’m not very worried about it. Why not? Because I believe that the Creator is just. Whatever His plan He has for my soul after my breath has ceased from my body will be a perpetuation of His Holiness, His Love, and His Just Nature.

Another way to describe this sensation would be to allow a loved one to plan a trip for you. Say a dear parent, spouse, sibling, or friend were to plan an exclusive journey for you. This journey may not be a vacation, but whatever it is, it’s the excursion you need. It may have elements of difficulty, but these are also elements of growth. You may experience things you never even imagined, but ultimately, are glad you did. The entire time you would know that the designer of your itinerary had you in mind. 

Would you be nervous about taking this trip? I know I would be. Despite knowing that I’m about to board a fully-inspected rollercoaster, my knees still shake a bit while waiting in line — not for fear of my safety, but because I don’t know how I’m going to feel yet. The unknowns that would make my palms sweat would not be out of distrust for the one leading me up to the rollercoaster line, but simply not knowing precisely how I will handle something I’ve never experienced before. 

Still, I steady my knees and dry my palms on the assurance that my Creator is One of Love. Even if my consciousness ceases and my soul returns to the Source of All, I know that I have nothing to fear besides not doing enough with my life while I can. Pondering the mysteries of the next world is largely a waste of time in the present world. We need to love while we can, touch lives while we’re breathing, and set acts in motion that will perpetuate love and justice after we’ve left this world. 

I believe Sara understood this. Despite having physical difficulties, she continued to ask piercing questions and support causes close to her heart. To those her mourn her, may you continue to be comforted. 

“G-d is love. G-d is beauty. G-d is everything good! The truth is exquisite! The truth also expounds upon itself, so it just keeps getting better. Words cannot express.”
– Sara’s last text message to my wife.

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You’re welcome to contribute to charity’s close to Sara’s heart.
Tulsa Jazz Hall of Fame
Drug Policy Reform Network of Oklahoma
Youth Services Tulsa
Black Wallstreet Gallery
Tulsa Humane Society
Tulsa SPCA
Pause4Paws