The Big C

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try

“For A Dancer”
Jackson Browne

My friend just died. You can Google him, search for him on Facebook, you won’t find much. Although he was addicted to Foursquare for a time. He loved being the mayor.

I met Andy Oliver at the Vail Mountain Club. New members, we knew nobody and he seemed to be the center of attention, everybody came up to talk to him, I told Felice to say hi.

And thus began a beautiful friendship. One of my closest. That didn’t quite last five years.

Andy was the only person I’ve ever met who was as into skiing as I was. He knew all the hills, the lifts, the vertical drops. He’d been everywhere from Whistler to Val d’Isere, but now he was in Vail, because he could no longer work.

It wasn’t long before you knew something was off. You see Andy had a very soft voice. And when riding the lift the day after we met, I can tell you exactly which one it was, #26, the Pride Express, I asked Andy what was up. I mean he could barely talk and I could barely hear.

You can do that when you’ve been afflicted too. That was my ace in the hole. My own experience with the Big C. It’s kind of like being Jewish, you can tell anti-Semitic jokes when you’re a Jew, but if not…

Andy was Jewish too. Maybe that was part of our bond, the shared values. There was a streak of Jewish skiers in the sixties, back when assimilation was everything and skiing was an everyman’s sport, before it became about the haves and the haves only.

Andy told me he had salivary gland cancer. That it was a result of radiation for lymphoma two decades before. That it had been hard to diagnose, he’d gone to multiple doctors and spent time uncovering the cause of something that wasn’t quite right.

There was treatment.

And then there was the day Andy removed his feeding tube to ski the powder.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Andy grew up in Baltimore. At least that’s what I recall.

But then he went to Boston University. My sister and mother went to BU.

Then he went into real estate.

Then he got sick.

Then he got another job.

Then that job ended and Andy skied and traveled.

He took a train trip to Russia. He’d e-mail me from Asia. Sounds fantastic, I know, but Andy knew that time was running out.

Then it became harder to eat. It could take Andy an hour to finish a sandwich. People lost patience with him. But Andy was always up for making some turns. He was always optimistic, then again he bitched that people were beating the EpicMix system. He was high on the leaderboard, since he skied every day. But there were some with so many vertical feet that Andy couldn’t believe it was real. Andy had a strong sense of fairness.

But life was not fair to Andy.

Andy’s wife Nancy would talk about Andy not being around, not living forever. I didn’t believe it.

But then Andy got worse.

It happened two years ago. I got to Vail and went to the VMC, the Vail Mountain Club, where everyone knew Andy, where Andy held court…and he was not there.

I called, I texted, and there was no response.

Days later he sent a message that he had pneumonia. He’d been in the hospital. He was recovering at home. But I knew the truth, he was too depressed to connect, I’ve been there.

But after going back to NYC and returning to Vail Andy was back on the slopes. However, he was using a feeding tube. Ensure was his friend. But I’d get off the lift and see him there in his puffy Uniqlo jacket, ready to hit it.

But then Andy faded further. His voice got worse.

Oh, there’s much more. Much, much more. The stuff those who’ve been dragged through the travails of the Big C are utterly familiar with, but don’t broadcast. For all the advancements too often cancer is a slow sink to the bottom. With endless doctor visits. Trials. Hope that is too often extinguished.

There was radiation for spots on his back. The first time the doctor told Andy he couldn’t ski. But Andy found a doctor in Vail who said it was okay. And if you can’t do what you live for, why go on living?

But then the spots returned. Andy would go underground when things were bad. That’s how I knew they were bad, I’d e-mail him ski stories and get no response. Andy lived for ski stories.

And I’d see Andy in New York. And we’d get together during the summer.

And when the double vision came and went it seemed Andy had nine lives. If only he was that lucky.

There comes a point when you know the screw has turned, that you’ve passed the point of no return. That was last March, when Andy was complaining of pain on the chairlift. He wasn’t even trying to speak.

That’s what they don’t tell you about cancer, the pain.

And then Andy disappeared. Except for the wedding invitation. His only daughter was getting married in August, would I come?

Of course I would.

By this time Andy was wearing glasses with one lens fogged, the double vision had returned. His voice was so low and indecipherable that he typed his words on his iPhone. Andy was happy that night. But when I put my arm around him, all I felt was bones.

You can’t will someone to health. The latest studies show positive thinking to be a myth. You just pray for a miracle. That’s what Andy told me a couple of weeks back, he was praying for a miracle

But at least he was responding, I thought Andy was on the upswing.

But when I texted him on Sunday about coming to the VMC for wine and cheese, Andy never missed wine and cheese, he said no.

I then asked if he could ski.

And he said…

I don’t want to pull up the text. But the essence was the double vision remained, he couldn’t turn his head, and if someone ran into him on the slopes it would be very bad, he didn’t think he could ski.

Nor did I think he could. But he’d come to Vail. Andy was so sick, but sometimes people hang on for years.

But not Andy.

Andy Oliver died last night. Not even sixty. Unlucky in life.

And this might all be meaningless to you. But the time will come when you’re touched by the Big C, when Mr. D. comes dancing into your neighborhood. Suddenly life will get very narrow, very constrained, what was important just moments before will lose all meaning. You’ll be left with the question WHY? You’ll be soldiering on in a fog, like a zombie, not one on TV, but one who is truly marching in one’s own universe.

It’s the nature of life, it ends.

We just don’t know when.

Get old enough and health dominates conversation. Some become hypochondriacs, still others are deniers, believing if they just don’t go to the doctor they’ll survive forever. There’s a trail of dead who adhered to this philosophy. You might feel fine, but be completely unaware that plaque is building and you’re about to stroke out. Happens every day. Doesn’t have to, if you go to the doctor, but you don’t want to.

But that wasn’t Andy. Andy went.

But he didn’t make it.

No one does.

But what is important is what you do while you are here. Andy provided for his family, his wife Nancy and daughter Danielle. And Andy skied.

You’ve got to live to do something. Time passes slowly and then it accelerates so fast, you want more, but you see time running out of the hourglass and then you’re done.

You can’t play it safe.

But you can’t test all the limits either.

You can just reach out and grab it. You can live for moments. You can be thrilled by exhilaration.

That’s why we’re skiers. Because of the thrill. Of sliding down the slope. Of being amongst the mountains.

But there comes a time when we can’t even do that. You think you’re gonna live forever, but you don’t. And you are not healthy until the day you die. My mother still regrets she can no longer play golf, she’s using a walker.

But my mother is still here.

Andy is not.

Andy is now pain-free. He’s been released. His pain has been transferred to Nancy and Danielle and me and the rest of those who loved him.

You’ve got an Andy in your life. Whether you know it or not. The Big C lurks everywhere.

So smile. And laugh. And gaze at the landscape and treasure this great world of ours.

Because you’re not gonna be able to forever.

Trust me.


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