Sunday, January 16, 2011


The other night I saw a movie called Wit, directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay was by Nichols and Emma Thompson.

Thompson stars as a literature professor who, in the opening scene, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The cancer has long gone undetected and is in its later stages, so right off the bat we know there isn't much hope.

It must be because of Wit that I had a really weird dream last night. (As I write this it is early in the morning, I've only been up a few minutes, the dream is still fresh.)

In the dream, I'm in the community rooms of a church. It's really crowded. I'm ready to leave, but I've ridden my bike there and am looking for a place to change back into my bike pants.

I bump into a friend of mine named Ivan. We say hello but chat only briefly. We'll be seeing each other later that evening at a writer's group we both participate in.

As we part company I notice that one of Ivan's hands is missing. He sees that I have noticed, and says, "Yeah, another piece of me is gone."

"My God, Ivan!" I cry. "This is terrible!"

"Oh, it really isn't that bad."

I know he's been sick, and the prognosis is not good. But I hadn't understood the gravity of his illness until now.

Then I see bruising around his eyes, which, as I look, begin to resemble puncture wounds.

By then Ivan is turning away from me and melting into the crowd. I can't say anything further, so I resume looking for a place to change into my bike pants. As I search, this nocturnal reverie becomes a typical anxiety dream. I wake up.

The writer's group of the dream did, in fact, exist, and Ivan and I were part of it. For about six years we met weekly in a room at the local library. A core group of four or five, including Ivan, attended for most of those years. Countless others, who I (privately) thought of as satellite members, also took part – some for just a meeting or two, others for much longer.

And Ivan really did get sick.

It began a few years ago with a broken leg – his femur, as I recall. He was a volunteer bus driver at a senior center. One evening after driving a group to a restaurant, he got off the bus to help its passengers disembark. As his foot hit the ground, his femur snapped.

The bone had been weakened by cancer, and the cancer had metastasized. I had to look up  "metastasize." It means the cancer spread.

Ivan spent many weeks in the hospital. Began chemo and other treatment. The writer's group, or at least its core members, visited and telephoned and sent cards. The outlook was rather optimistic.

In a way, Ivan always seemed like the conscience of the writer's group. A divorced and semi-retired engineer, he was remarkably even-tempered, in sharp contrast to my own volatility. Ivan was the first to admit his writing could at times be rather dry. Once he brought a patent application to share with the group. He was passionate about solar energy, and was also designing a new sort of voting machine.

Maybe the conscience-of-the-group thing was just me. But we all appreciated his fundamental decency.

Anyway, Ivan finally got out of the hospital, and soon returned to our writer's group meetings. At first he arrived in a wheelchair, but in time he was walking again. Once he even rode his bike, which I thought was nuts.

But the cancer stayed with him, and there came a very sad day when Ivan informed us that he probably only had a year or so left to live. His initial, good response to the chemo had leveled, maybe even dropped off a bit. And the side effects were becoming more than he could endure. So he quit the treatment.

A few months later, due to what I now see as inevitable personality clashes, the writer's group went on hiatus. The core group remained friendly; the trouble was with the satellites. So we suspended activities. This is a common fate for such groups.

I didn't see or hear from any group members for many months. Then in early 2010 Ivan gave me a call.

"I'm dying," he said bluntly.

I told him I already knew that.

Ivan's voice sounded a little hoarse, a little raspy, but strong. He said he wanted to re-assemble the writer's group, at least for an evening. He wanted to see us all again while he still had time. He was receiving hospice care but was still in his apartment. We could all come by, bring food, and hang out for a few hours.

And that's what we did. In fact, we did it twice.

United in our concern for him, Ivan brought us all back together. The core group decided we should start meeting again, more or less like we used to. We could bring writing samples to Ivan's place and critique them. By then Ivan was tethered to a couple of machines, including a ventilator and one that dispensed morphine. We all pulled chairs around his bed.

Food had always been an integral part of our meetings – mostly chocolate, but sometimes other stuff. Once I made some banana bread. Others brought their homemade delicacies, and once one of the satellites brought in some stuff she'd plucked from her garden. The library staff turned a mostly blind eye to this violation of the rules.

So we began bringing piles of food to Ivan's place – sandwiches, pizza, Mediterranean treats, and of course chocolate. We ate and read our stuff. This went on for several months.

Then one evening I showed up and Ivan wasn't there. He used to leave his door unlocked. I had arrived first, let myself in and found the place empty. All his stuff was there, but not Ivan – and I knew he was in no shape for a stroll around the neighborhood.

Luckily a guy from Ivan's church arrived. He was there to collect some of Ivan's things. Ivan's condition, he told me, had worsened, to the point where he required more attention than he could get from in-home hospice care.

Still, we were able to keep meeting. For the next month we met in Ivan's room at the hospice. The move from his apartment must have been a blow to his morale. Being home may have provided only an illusion of independence, but sometimes it's our illusions that help sustain us.

Ivan's spirits, it seemed, remained pretty good. So did his general health. But none of us were kidding ourselves. He was in a hospice, and that's where you go to die.

One evening I showed up for our meeting. I had written something new, something I was eager to read and get feedback on. I breezed past the reception desk and walked down a short hall to Ivan's room.

It was empty.

It was empty and all of Ivan's stuff had been removed. The bed had been stripped of its sheets.

I could guess what must have happened. But I walked back to the reception desk and asked. Two women there exchanged a shifty-eyed glance.

"I'm sorry to tell you this," one said. "But Ivan's condition declined over the weekend. He died two days ago."

I thanked them and accepted their sympathies. Then I walked outside. It was a warm evening in late May, the cusp of summer. I sat on the curb and waited for the other two core members to arrive. After I'd broken the news we sat on the curb together, eating chocolate and talking about our late friend.

A service was held the next day in the crowded church of my dream.

As the movie Wit nears its own inevitable end, the Emma Thompson character realizes that the most important thing in life is human kindness. Ivan already knew that, and always did.

L-R: L2, moi, Ivan – 2008

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