In August 1978, I hitchhiked south from Seattle to Mesa, Arizona, in 5 days, camping out alongside the road. I arrived at my parent’s home exactly 2 months before my mom died of painful bone cancer. My mother, Amy Margaret, was only 60 at the time, and had decided to come home from the hospital in her last few weeks and be surrounded by her 9 grown children. Many of us had come there to be with her, intermittently, to offer comfort, share fond memories or light-hearted family stories, and console her as best we could in her pain.
At Mom’s Bedside
In her last days, one of us would often sit at her bedside, even as mom slept. At such times, I remember trying to bargain with God, trying to strike an agreement, offering a few years off my life, if he would give mom a few more years to live. When I realized no deals could be struck, and no cancer therapy or cures were coming, I prayed that God would take mom soon.
When days passed, some better and others worse, I would often read to her. I recall reading her a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy, What Men Live By. As the story drew to a close, I became affected by emotion. I distinctly remember that a pair of siblings touched my shoulders lightly, while I struggled to avoid choking up, struggling with the words.
Curiously, 42 years later, I recently reread that story again. The exact same emotion overcame me, and tears trickled down my cheeks. The therapy, called androgen-deprivation therapy, I receive for my stage IV cancer had made me sentimental at times, and yet I did not mind.
Mom died in her sleep, early one morning, with me at her bedside as the few family members slept. One minute her breath came in slow regularity, and the next it ceased. I sat and watched, praying perhaps, awaiting a breath that never came. No panic or shouts on my part, but silent prayers that she was at last in a better place. Ten or 20 minutes passed before I took her hand. Then I awoke a few of the other family members.
Distress: Thoughts of Suicide
After mom’s funeral, I recall being in a somber, if not surly, mood. I felt content to conceal my distress, not anger, from others. Some days or weeks later, I recall walking away from the little house on West Frito, in Mesa, Arizona, with a small backpack. I carried a length of chain, a lock, and a blanket, along with a canteen. Walking for hours, first along the streets and then in the dry Salt River bed, I finally came to a canal at the base of Mount McDowell, also called Red Mountain.
In my sorrow and distress, I intended to scale the rugged mountain, attach the chain to an outcrop or bush and my ankle—and die of thirst. A painful way to die, but no worse than the extended pain I had witnessed from someone I had not been able to save. Was I angry with God? Probably more angry with myself and others that nothing could be done to save mom.
I camped along the canal that night under a lovely little tree, as the waters drifted past. I recall inching down the concrete slope that evening and filling my canteen for some last few refreshing sips.
Water of life! How delicious it tasted, even right from the canal. Tomorrow I would ascend halfway up, find a secluded spot to anchor, certain no hiker would find my bleached bones for years. Or forever.
The Next Morning
Curiously, the next morning I arose in a state of calm. My resolve—to kill myself in the most painful and slow fashion—had evaporated. I cast one long glance at the imposing, rugged red mountain, inwardly shaking my head, gathered my blanket and canteen, and set off walking back along the dry riverbed.
When I returned home, no one asked where I had been for the past 2 days. Neither did I tell anyone of my tormented resolve, my goal, for decades.
Forty years later, on a confessional moment during a road trip to Payson, Arizona, I pointed to the red mountain, showed a sibling the canal where I had camped that night, and revealed what I had intended to do the next morning. Shock would have been mild to describe her reaction.
To Enjoy, To Endure
Not until very recently, only months ago, now that I have my own mortality revealed to me, having been diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer, did I realize that perhaps the spirit of my mother, always so caring for her children, might have interceded with God that evening, while I slept.
And that morning, when I awakened with my suicidal resolve completely dissolved, I was granted a bright reprieve, a lifetime—40 more years to live—to enjoy, to endure, to grow slowly into some realization that we are all interconnected, and that kindness generates kindness. Indeed, what men live by.