"Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel." -Aldo LeopoldThe world seems a little darker this week, a little duller. My friend, Brian Sterner, left this earth on Sunday, Feb 2nd, at a little before 7PM. The evening before, he was extremely weak and could only speak in whispers, but his personality and sense of humor were as sharp as ever. He made jokes. We laughed. Before we left, we made sure he was completely comfortable, adding hundreds of pillows at every turn. I said to him, "OK, we're heading out now. Goodnight friend. Are you sure there's nothing else we can do for you?" to which he replied, "Can you leave a diagram of the way these pillows are because I think I have to pee." We all laughed as we removed every carefully placed pillow, and the process began all over again. We left reluctantly at midnight. I hugged his neck carefully and he whispered in my ear, "Take care of Kelley." I tried to tell him, "I will. She's my person. She's my best friend. I will take care of her." He said it one more time, clearly, with staccato, "Take. Care. Of. Kelley." I told him I would with tears in my eyes. I left him in the capable hands of Kelley and his best friend Jim.
The day he died, everything was different. He spoke only a few words in the morning and a few more in the afternoon. He focused mainly on breathing, but he was still present. He motioned for his glasses. He blinked when I asked if he wanted eye drops in his eyes or a swab in his mouth. People filtered in and out to see him, to say thank you's and I love you's and see you again someday's. He wanted things to be upbeat and he didn't want to see people cry. These were his last requests. Brian was not a demanding person, a leader not by brute strength but by quiet honor, and when he asked, people struggled to give him what he asked for and more. His friends and family recalled stories, mostly funny, happy stories with Brian as the instigator or main character. We laughed at his childhood and teenage antics. At one point we were reprimanded by the hospice staff. Positivity in spades, just what he had asked for. As the day wore on and his breathing became more labored, quiet solemness reigned. He passed peacefully with his mother and father at his side and Kelley softly telling him, "It's ok, Brian. I love you. You can go. It's ok. We'll be ok. Don't worry about us. You can go." A few minutes before 7, the light was gone from the room.
I remember the day I became a part of this story. I received the call in July one evening as I was making dinner. Terror in her voice, as Kelley, my best friend in the world, told me the unbelievable news. It's not pneumonia. It's stage 4 lung cancer. My first thoughts: How can this be? He's never been a smoker! He's a vegan! There must be some mistake! Yet there it was, the diagnosis; cancer cells on a slide from a biopsy cut from Brian's very lung. He started treatment as soon as he possibly could. His mantra, "I'm going to beat this. I'm going to live." I tried to encourage him. I thought to myself, If anyone is going to beat cancer, it will be this healthy, happy man, and I truly believed that. I still believe that in some ways, he did. He fought hard and he lost his life, but I cannot bring myself to say that cancer won. It may have taken his body from his life, but it did not take his life from his body. He truly lived, ever positive, even when he was in excruciating pain.
The cancer was invasive. From the moment it was first discovered, it was inoperable, and even with each radiation and chemotherapy, it continued to grow, invading his body like kudzu in the Georgia forest. He still had hope and maintained it until the very end. He had several walkers as the cancer had moved to his hips and the vertebrae in his lower back. His favorite walker was one that he had wrapped tape tightly around the silvery tubes. It was Superman tape, a testament to his strength and determination and a sign of his quirky personality and sense of humor. He did look a lot like superman; chiseled features, tall and healthy, not extremely thin. He was a gentle giant. Tall and lanky, although not awkward as some tall people tend to be. He had a rhythm to his speech. His gait had a bounce to it and his arms and hands spoke as he spoke, with a sway and a lilt. He was always thoughtful when he spoke, not quick to speak, and never in anger. I have never heard him say a disparaging word about another person. He was the kind of man who was filled with passion for nature and education, and although his passion overflowed and infected those around him, it was not pushy or loud. It was quiet and energizing and positive. His actions were a reflection of his words. I remember one day, I was eating dinner at their house and afterwards, I went to throw away a piece of plastic trash in the trash can. Brian never stopped the conversation. He didn't reprimand me or lecture me about the environment. He simply continued to talk as he walked to the trash can, removed the plastic and placed it in the recycling bin on their back porch. It was many lessons wrapped in one simple movement.
Be gentle with people. Lead by example. Be mindful about what you are putting back into the earth.
If only more people would teach that way. It was an easy way to learn.
The memorial was yesterday, beautiful and poignant, and sorrowful, yet dotted with laughter as each person who spoke recounted stories about Brian, his beautiful hair, his candy addiction, his undeniably brightly colored life, and the way he loved other people, the way he loved Kelley, the way he loved the earth; unfillable shoes left empty.
Kelley recounted one story at his memorial that really impacted me. The radiation target was his brain and though he was obviously in crippling pain when all was finished, he said "Thank you. Thank you for helping me," and these people who had hurt him to help him, couldn't help but cry. Thank you is not something they hear very often. What a loss for the world; this simple, sweet, brilliant, thankful and humble soul. Kelley's plea was simple, "Help me help him live on. I can't do it on my own. He always said throughout this treatment that when all this was through, he wanted to be better, give more, help more people. So please do this, in honor of Brian, hug someone you love. Introduce yourself to a stranger. Tell someone you like their shoes. Tilt your head back and sing with abandon. Love people. Love the earth. Make the world a better place." In this way, Brian will live on through the lessons we've all learned from his life, either directly, or by stories told by others.
With every hug, handshake, bent knee, hand clutching trash from the ground, shovel of dirt patted around a sapling tree, the world will be a little brighter, a little lighter, and a little more like Brian.