Friday, April 2, 2010


Well, there it is--all 245 pages. I read this last chapter--Goodbye--at each of my Dad's memorials. I thought each time how wonderful it was that he had left this gift, his own eulogy almost. After having transcribed the whole book--it gains greater context and seems like even more of a gift than it did before--the whole book does. It feels to me like he left a part of himself with me, with all of us, something almost tangible. The anniversary of his death is in 9 days.

Thank-you readers for coming on this journey with me. It has not always been pleasant (at least for me) but has been ultimately extremely moving and fulfilling. Peace.


My tale has come full circle. From the kid perpetually in trouble to Frog to Private Gill to the California hipster to husband to Dad to the homesteader to the fallen one to the lawyer to the granddad. My dying time will come, like my Dad and his Dad before him. Sarah, Jeff, Sam, and Oliver will live on, blessing the world with their presence.

Looking back and taking stock, this life I've lived is certainly not the one I would have chosen. When viewed in hindsight, life seems to overtake us, like something that happens to us, rather than something we do. If I could go back and tell Frog not to drink that piss, or that impetuous homesteader to steady that damn ladder, or that husband to stop being distant and unavailable, I'm not so sure I would. I figure I'll take the life I've known rather than one unknown.

Despite all my flaws, stupidities, failures and surceases, I've come out alright. This one feels right and ordained, quadriplegia, divorce, and all. It's as if someone decreed, "Alright, Raymond Gill, this is what you get. Good luck."

I have been a spectator of and participant in this wonderfully absorbing, vast cosmic drama. From the Big bang fourteen billion years ago to the uncoupling of the four forces to this fabulous universe expanding at the speed of light to the mammoth supernova exploding in our stellar neighborhood that seeded our solar system with heavy elements that grew together four billion years ago to create our sun and eventually our Earth.

From the molten fireball that was our early planet to a temperature to sustain life to plus three billion years of bacteria to dinosaurs to Cromagnon man and Neanderthals to civilization to Jesus to Buddha to Allah to the Great Spirit to Egypt to Greece to Rome to England to these United States to Ohio to your truly tapping away on my keyboard to share some of my story with you.

What more can one ask?


April, 2002 + Austin, Texas

I had moved to Austin. Jeff, Sara, and I, with lots of help, had built a small home for me about thirty feet behind their house. Sam was close at hand and I loved it. To be near him, I had left a vocation and a cause that had given me purpose and fulfillment.

Sam's photo at three presents a boy with wide-open blue eyes, sandy blond hair, chubby cheeks, and an alert, curious manner. He is looking directly at the camera. He was attempting to climb through a wooden slat fence built to keep him contained. His look says, "Well, you caught me this time, but..."

Sam who was three at the time of this story, was playing outside in the yard between the two family homes on a glorious Texas spring day. The sky was aquamarine. The sun was warm, but not hot, maybe 80 degrees. Luminescent white clouds like satin drifted by. Birds were flying from tree to tree, lawn was growing into a deep green, early flowers brought an array of color. This back yard felt warm and cozy. All-in-all it was a great day to be alive and so close to my beloved grandson.

I watched him dance about in awe and wonder as young ones do. He was briskly and cautiously toward me. I knew a big moment was about to happen. I could see it in his sparkling eyes and hear it from his very first syllable:

"Grandpa, I've got a butterfly on my finger."
"Bring him in so I can see him."
"He loves me. He's so beautiful."
"He is beautiful, Sam."
"I feel special."
"You are special, Sam, to have a beautiful butterfly who loves you."

See what I mean about adding twenty years? Profoundly artless and sweet and wonderful was the sincerity of that moment. Wisdom is where you find it. I found it in the heart of this three year old. We shared a moment in the company of that delicate and iridescent creature. Like Sarah's chickadee, this wild and fragile little butterfly perched contentedly on Sam's finger. When our moment had been fulfilled, Sam whispered, "I'm going to take him outside, so he can go back to his family."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

this makes me cry, of course and miss him wicked--still some days I expect that if I picked up the phone and dialed his number he would answer--feeling that he could be right around the next corner at the grocery store--especially on a Spring day like today--he should be sitting out in front of his apartment arms akimbo, eyes closed, face lifted to the sun, listening to the birds--strange that he's not around in his former easily recognizable solid physical form--strange that i have to work hard to recognize him in the dirt and earth worms, sun's rays, lilac leaves--but really he's all over the place, especially in my boy's eyes--everywhere and nowhere--he would like that paradox.


June, 12 + Austin, Texas

I carried an empty feeling for a year. In October of 1998, Sarah told me she was pregnant. Deep in my bones I felt this was absolutely right and natural. I knew Sarah's pregnancy was in the ordained order of events, like season following season. Dad had lived a full life, and passed on in due course. Soon another life would come along in the Chain of Being. This someone I could mentor like Dad had mentored me. Minus the belt, the notes to Miss White, and the piss-drinking, of course. I was very happy, more for Jeff and Sarah than for myself. For me, being a grandparent was something abstract, imagined, but not concrete. I had no emotional context. That all changed June 12.

Samuel Dylan Williams had been born at home on June 10, 1999. My little bird charmer had given the gift of birth at home as Linda had. This was the old way, before modern medicine had taken over. All had gone well, very well. There's a video tape to prove it. They are something, these women.

I was to meet Sammy D. June 12 at Linda's funky cabin in a rural town outside of Austin. The cabin was a dead-ringer for a typical Wellington home. How fitting. Imagine the setting: You entered the main room and kitchen through a low door. Against the walls were sink, gas range, refrigerator and shelves of herbs, dishes, all in plain view. We were sitting around the old cast-iron wood stove in the middle of a 15 by 15 foot center of the dimly lit cabin. Dogs barked in the distance; we heard no traffic, no music, no TV or radio, no city sounds. This quiet was one feature that had drawn us to the Maine woods.

Sam was two days old. I felt like a fourteen year old on a blind date: nervous, self-conscious, awkward. I chattered about nothing as I waited for my date to show up. I caught the first sounds of Sarah, Jeff, and Sam. Their car motored up the dirt drive. My heart beat double, my palms got sweaty, and my breath came in fits and starts. Something grand was about to happen; I just knew it. Like saying goodbye to Dad, except this time there was no sadness, no emptiness, only joy and anticipation.

Sarah and Jeff came in quietly, on tip-toes, with this silent bundle totally wrapped in swaddling. Sarah placed the bundle in my lap and pulled back the blanket. My blind date was love in infant form. I beheld a perfect, tiny, and beautiful pink cherub. My heart split wide open. I sat speechless, weeping without restraint. I held Sam like he was a delicate vase.

Head over heels in love, I was changed from that moment forever. With this magnificent little being, there would be no room for cynicism or sarcasm. With Sam I would be emotionally immediate and open; there would be no distance between us. Unabashed joy and abiding fear entered with him. Like my love for Sarah, joy and pride came mixed with anxiety. Strange economy that deepest love carries strongest worry. They suffer most who care most.

Sarah was blooming and radiant, vitally alive with motherhood. My Princess of Narnia had become a Madonna, fulfilled and complete. Jeff was glowing with fatherhood. He was a man born to be a dad. These two presented me with the gift of a lifetime, one precious beyond reckoning. 'This little guy's gonna add twenty years to this old cynic's life,' I thought.


June, 1997 + Greenfield Center, New York

My Dad died October 4, 1997 after a six month bout with lung and liver cancer. The Gill family was given the four dreaded words that spelled the end: malignant, aggressive, inoperable, and terminal. He was 79 and had smoked a pipe for sixty years. dad had been feeling listless and fatigued for months. That was not Raymond Gill, Senior, at all. That he lived so long is a testament to his nearly indestructible life force. The pipe notwithstanding, I was nonetheless stunned. He faced his mortality in a natural and peaceful way.

I pondered, could this unquenchable spirit, this Mount Fuji of men die, and be no more? Could his unassailable, powerful presence pass from the earth as if he were like other men?

I wrestled with the inevitable and steeled myself, knowing full well what his death meant for me: grief and loss. The Gill family would be leaderless, like an Army company without its feared yet beloved commander. I was moving onto the front line of mortality, as in the Oriental formula: grandfather dies, father dies, son dies. As politics is local, so death is personal.

The family came together for a reunion and goodbye visit three months before the estimated time of death. For me, our time together was not pervaded with tragedy or even sadness. Dad would have none of that. Not him. There was no avoidance or denial or false anything. I blanch at what I'm about to write, yet it is true. The atmosphere for me was that of a family visit to the VA hospital shortly after my injury. There were no tears, maudlin displays, or pity. During this visit, we had an unspoken agreement of togetherness and mutual resolve.

Our family accompanied Dad to radiation treatment, ate together, laughed at dumb jokes as always, watched Dad's favorite old war movies, and swapped stories heard many times before. A sense of emptiness hung over us all, and we felt it. This week together was somewhere between a wake and a reunion, depending on who you were and what your relationship with Dad was. Mom was very quiet and extra solicitous of Dad. This would invariably elicit, "I can do that; what do you think I am, a baby?" Rugged and independent to the last curtain.

The evening before we travelers were heading home. I asked everyone to give me some time alone with him. They all went outside. Dad was seated peacefully on the couch in the living room of the home on the land of my childhood. A heavy white curtain was directly behind him, like a frame of an old photograph. Dad sat composedly, quiet and upright. No slouching for this man.

I sat directly in front on him, very close. I knew this was it: my final goodbye to this huge presence in my life, this man who had withheld so much and given so much. He had been the standard of manhood I had emulated or rebelled against every day of my life. We were like unfriendly neighbors sharing a contested border. Strife could break out at any time over any issue or imagined slight. We were never neutral.

We were straight with each other at long last; it took my injury to bring down many of the walls between us. The first embrace I remember getting from him occurred after the wheelchair had claimed me. I was 33 years old. I guess I was no longer a threat, in that Freudian oedipal father/son economy. I would say, "I love you" to him; Dad had never reciprocated. Never. He was always uncomfortable with that, witness the inevitable silence that always followed, like an echo that refused to sound. I longed to get past that reluctance.

I eventually won his respect and admiration when I became an attorney. I felt his pride in me law school graduation day. I had traveled a great distance from my piss-drinking Cortland days, and we both knew it.

The room was shadowy and very still. The only sounds came from the 'tick tick' of a small pendulum clock on the kitchen wall and the muted laughter of the family at play outside. I labored to breathe, like I do at times of anticipated emotion. I felt nervous and claustrophobic, like a young man going into combat for the first time. I had never opened up to a dying person, much less this one. I felt like the first time parachutist about to jump. I knew this was a momentous occasion. I was afraid to begin. Time passed. I had at least to say something.

"Dad, I want to say a few things." I felt relieved, even though the words hung in the air like Banquo's ghost. There was no question now; I knew this was our final scene together. Dad stayed true to himself, getting right to the point. "Go ahead, say what you want." We were all alone in the world, no past or future intruded, this was now, this was here. I started to weep.

'This will never do', I thought. I struggled to stop, my body shaking with the effort. I managed to put words to the sadness, giving this man his due, and this instant its fulfillment. Word welled up from that silent abyss where love is. I told him Sarah was OK, that she had married a man like me, like him. I told Dad not to worry needlessly about her. I knew that was very important to him.

I thanked him for what he had given me, especially in living with my injury: "I could never have made it through this injury and gone to law school without the strength I got from you." He remained as absolute as Hamlet's gravedigger: "Well", he said, "You're doing alright so far." So far. Almost twenty years. From Dad, that was high praise, indeed.

"Dad, I hope you live to see a hundred." As we mutually drew the curtain over his days, he gave me greatest gift he had left to give. He showed me how to die: "I want to live," he said, "but if not, it's OK." He was ready and at peace. Centered. Time, his time was no more. He was about to enter the Unknown as if it were a nap after dinner.

Have I adequately conveyed how profound and poignant this was? This tough, yet loving tiger of a man had become gentle, wise, and immediate. I unabashedly loved him without constraint, love clean and manly. "I love you, Dad." Our journey together, rocky road that it was, was complete.

He died at home in his bed surrounded by loved ones. I was at peace, though I missed him and felt empty. I attended his funeral, as we all did. Dad's death came fully home to me when I first saw him in his grand ornate casket. he looked so small, so pale and so icy, lying there, out of place in that huge velvet and walnut box. As if you could confine Washington on Rushmore in a cardboard carton. My accumulated feelings from years of turmoil and rebellion to peace and resolution burst in upon me. I let go. A convulsive flood of bitter tears poured, cleansing and consoling.

One night Dad came vividly to me in a dream as I lay deep in sleep in Texas. He looked into my tearful eyes, all tenderness and understanding. He held my head lovingly in his hands. He gently leaned forward and kissed my forehead. Like a touch from the Buddha. My Dad was a powerful man.

CANCER (part II)

May 7, 2004 + Cleveland VA Hospital, Ohio

I was packed off the next day for the spinal cord unit of the Cleveland VA hospital. Old friends abounded, including patients and staff. I felt very much at home there. I trusted two of the doctors I saw regularly. Being at this unit felt like a homecoming. Almost everyone had a slightly different demeanor than at previous visits. The usual light-hearted, 'Hail fellow, well met' had given way to a more somber atmosphere. This was understandable, yet unnerving. I checked in as always and was assigned a bed, where I lay worried, my guts in an uproar.

Day followed day I lay in my room alone, waiting for something cancer related to be done. Nobody was telling me anything. That made it all the worse. Every qualm, spasm, or pain meant the end, I feared. I demanded some action. Various tests were done, including CAT and PET scans, an MRI, and bone marrow examinations. For two or three days, nothing more happened.

After a few days my spinal cord doctor came to see me. I had made a deep and lasting connection with her. She was in her sixties and very thin. Her hair was blond; she had a Scandinavian look. Although we were close, she was usually all business.

She walked directly to my bedside and very uncharacteristically took my hand. She looked like she was being crucified. 'Here it comes', I thought 'my death sentence'.

The news was very bad indeed. The Doctor whispered, "There isn't much we can do, I'm sorry."

Oh, my God. This is it. It's official I was facing death. My center caved in, my strength melted away, and my resolve vanished. I cried. Mike, my nurse, cried. I called Linda. She cried. It was awful.

I was left alone in my bed. I struggled in solitude, trying to make peace with this crazy notion I was going to die soon. Twice in a week I had heard the identical diagnoses from doctors I trusted. How much more proof would I get? How much did I need? Somehow, humor got through. Bypassing a number of stages of grief, I went straight to bargaining. I mused, "Let me live; take Bob, or Ed or Sally. I'll tell you their dirty little secrets." (That's a joke, you know).

I was desperate for relief, in any form. Preferably morphine. Relief did come. It surpassed morphine like water surpasses salt in the parching desert.

During the hour following my sentence to death row, I lay in my bed. My mood swung from misery, to depression, to despair. Then two cancer doctors walked in and came to my bedside. These guys were the real thing. I fully expected a confirmation of what I had already heard, this time with approximate date of departure.

"Mr. Gill, you have a particularly slow growing type of lymphoma. This type should respond favorably to an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy. We can begin immediately." I mumbled something about the two prior diagnoses and their dreadful conclusions. The elder doctor informed me he and his colleague were oncologists and had the goods, so to speak. To which he added, almost as an afterthought, "The average life expectancy with your cancer is twelve years."

TWELVE YEARS!! 12 years, I tell you! A dozen, 642 weeks, 4,368 days. My reprieve had come. I was elated, effusively ecstatic, and ebulliently energized. I would live on. I would see Sam grow up, Sarah and Jeff thrive, and new days, new, new, new. The doctors warned me, however, that there were other tests to take, bridges to cross, and hardships to endure. 'Yes, yes' I thought, 'but i would be alive!'

In the days and weeks that followed I pondered my death. How would it come, what would it be like, would I be ready? Would Death be like an old friend, or foe? Would it be like little Reepicheep going over the edge of the world in his tiny carrack, purposely seeking Aslan and the East, as in the narnia Chronicles? Would Death take me to Hamlet's Undiscovered Country or Krishnamurti's Unknown?

Will I step off to the stars like Thomas Merton visioned? Will I see the Divine? Will I pass into another form vis-a-vis the Tibetans? Will I be recycled back into the Universe so that future generations may breathe my atoms? Will I pass through Dante's Inferno? Will I discover something better, or worse? Will I cling tenaciously and fearfully to life like Tolstoy's Ivan Illych? Will I go easy and at peace like my Dad, for whom death was like a nap after dinner?

However it may come, I prefer the Woody Allen approach: "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens".