I met Greg when Internet dating sites became the new social network. I tried it once, just for fun.
When I saw Greg's profile pic, something stopped me after dozens of "I don't think so's." I sent him an email. He sent one back. Then I did something crazier than hitch-hiking Europe for a year by myself. I drove nine hours from the Bay Area to Salt Lake City to meet him, and I didn't know why.
Greg and I sat on the lawn of a shopping center parking lot for twelve straight hours talking. It was like we had finally tracked each other down. We just picked up where we left off.
You hear stories like this, and you always wonder how they play out in people's lives.
Greg was a competitive cyclist and expert skier. So was I. We skied every steep chute Utah had to offer. I liked it there. I bought a condo in Park City. I flew out to Utah dozens of times so we could play together. He took me on the ruthless four day Kokopelli mountain bike trail in Moab with a bunch of his friends and family.
Then the King of Ruthlessness arrived. A cancerous and inoperable tumor went off in his brain and left him on the floor, paralyzed on his left side. He was told he had a three percent chance of surviving and three weeks to live. His doctors began aggressive radiation and infusions of drugs.
For three years, Greg lived through more aggressive treatment than any patient his doctors had seen. He wasn't reluctant either to describe the medical strategy.
"They take you this close to death and hope it kills the cancer first".
Through it all, no one could challenge Greg's fighting spirit. If anyone was foolish enough to try, he was in your face demanding why you would give up on him. He wasn't kind to pessimists.
Greg was given the Miracle Award by his medical community. And his tumor stabilized. He was ready to get his left side working, get back on the bike, and on to life.
Then late in 2009, Greg took another direct hit. He lost his balance, went down, and broke his hip on his left side. And a week before that, his MRI showed the tumor growing again, which probably affected his balance. Now in a wheelchair and unable to walk, he could no longer get on his stationary bike. As any athlete knows, not getting regular workouts make chances at recovery very slim.
I asked Greg what he thought the most important factor was for his miraculous long-term survival. Why did stay alive for three years against tremendous odds? Why . . .
He didn't even let me finish. He told me he had been an athlete for life, and that was at the top of his list. I was not surprised, but I needed to hear it for myself.
My cell goes off. It's Greg's daughter Tosh.
"Annie, you better come."
"I know. An owl came this close to me."
She knows the story my Navajo friend told me about one of the Legends. Owls are messengers telling us a friend is about to transition out of the body to the Other World. For weeks before my Mother and Father died, two months apart, they were visiting me constantly. They even showed up in trees above me at noisy shopping centers. They would come closer and closer, delivering hoots that the time was near. And it was.
"Tosh, on my bike ride yesterday, I stopped to take off my arm warmers. There was an owl right above me in an evergreen tree. It hooted twice. Then it flew away. That's the closest one yet. I'll fly out tomorrow."
I'm on my way to Utah. I know what the owl's message was. Greg has made his decision. He plans to go out, soon.
I arrive at the Salt Lake City Airport, rent a car, and drive to Greg's bedside. We smile at each other.
"I guess you know why I'm here."
"Yeah, I do." he says.
The tumor is affecting his nervous system, and his right side has a mind of it's own. It's been athletic all its life and is fighting, punching, and grabbing at everything. I pull on Greg's right arm so he can do some curls. His muscles are craving it. After about ten minutes, his arm calms down and just lays there.
We have our little talk.
"Ok, here's how it goes down. I did this with my Mother, my Father, and my Dog. I know this is
He listens carefully, as if he too knows the words that are tumbling out of me come from somewhere else, the Great Manager of the Sky, anywhere but me. I run him through the Bardo stages of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an instruction manual for the transition from life to death, and then into All That Is.
"Greg, how do you want to prepare for the rest of the trip?"
He wants more chemo, the nastiest we can find. He wants to fight his invader to the end, and he now knows it will kill him too.
"No, it won't kill YOU. You'll still be here. You'll see."
He knows what I mean.
Tosh and I take a walk, as emotion pours out of her like a broken dam. As soon as we're outside, I hear owls.
"Tosh. They're here too."
"Are you sure that's an owl? I've never heard any around here."
"Absolutely. It's got the same rhythm. Whoo. Who-who-who. The first one is a sentence. Then followed by three more together. Every time."
We walk up the street a few blocks and stand outside the house of Greg's best friend, who's also his accountant. Another owl lands in a tree right across the street, hoots twice, and flies off. Just then Greg's friend drives up to his house. We all greet each other, and then Tosh and I leave. She tells me he's barely coping.
"It won't be much longer Tosh. Greg's ready."
She tells me more news.
"I'm pregnant Annie. It's my boyfriend's."
"Are you going to keep it?"
"Yes. He's so happy."
"How does everyone else feel about this?"
"I'm not sure my sisters are happy, but my Mom is."
"Did you tell Greg?"
"No. I don't know if I will."
"Let's go back" I tell her. "The three of us need to be with Greg."
Greg's new Hospice caregiver arrives. The regular one broke his finger and she's the replacement. I'm hoping Greg is comfortable with a woman changing his disposable brief and giving him a bed bath.
"Hey Greg. This one's a woman. Can you handle that?"
"The more the merrier", he tells me as I crack up.
She's fully present as she comes in, we smile at each other, and I get that usual best-of-friends warmth coming back at me I'm familiar with here in Utah. Must be something in the water . . .
I ask her if I can help, knowing she's in charge. I explain Greg can't move anything on the left, but he's got a mean right punch. Greg grins.
"Take his right arm and pull him over to the other side of the bed. We'll roll him on his side."
Greg grabs on to me, I bear hug him, and pull with all I've got. He's still an armful and strong as hell. He bear hugs me. It's the first time we've hugged in a long time. He's down to his skin, ready for his bath. We're now locked into each other as his caregiver conducts her business.
"Hey you, you're still hot!" I whisper in his ear, kissing his neck. He kisses back, but can't get to my face, so the sounds of his kisses just fill the air.
"How many times do we have to do this in front of other people?"
We both laugh at the irony of it all. His caregiver never takes her eyes off her towel as she cracks a discreet smile. The room is just filled with the love and care of three people, completely comfortable being part of human compassion. The harsh business of being in a struggling body just goes away.
Greg knows I finally got my moment with him, and he knows it will be the last time he hugs and loves anyone like this again. Not a bad way to complete one's life.
I feel the time to leave is Friday, I tell Greg I'm flying out, but we won't be apart.
"Talk to me anytime. I'll hear you, and I will see you."
I think of the line in Avatar as I say this and visualize Greg leaping out of his wheelchair and running his favorite trail with his dog Joey, who died last year, and is waiting for him on Pandora. I kiss him as I hold his face, hang on to my emotions, smile, and walk out the door. We've said goodbye. It's April 30th.
I get another call from Tosh. It's Thursday, May 13th.
"Annie, he's gone. We were all in the room with him. My brother flew in too. When my Dad saw him, he took three last breaths, and then he died."
I tell her I went to the same place I go to on Tuesdays, where the owls have been hanging out for a month. This time an owl was in the tree above me the minute I got out of my car.
"What time was that Annie?"
"About 2:15, maybe 2:25 pm. It was the closest yet."
"Greg died at about 3:10 pm on Tuesday."
I tell her on Mountain Standard Time, Greg's last breath was about five or ten minutes before I got out of my car.
"This time Tosh, it was strange. Instead of feeling sadness, I was almost, peaceful. The owl was just . . . there."
I ask Tosh for the details that will follow. She tells me Greg was accepted into Harvard Medical School. They will harvest his brain and study it so they can save other lives. They've rarely seen a human live through all this for 3 years. He's still a miracle they still don't understand.
"I was hoping for something like that." I tell her.
"Annie, his Mom died Wednesday, a day later. She just fell down and died."
I don't know what to say.
"We're having a Memorial for him and his Mom May 23rd. Will you come?"
"Yeah. Of course I'll be there."
While I was with Greg for the last time, I made a decision to move into my place in Park City. It's the only home I've got left. I had to liquidate my other one in California, and I haven't had any architectural work for two years. I thought it would also give me some time with him before he died, but inside me I knew that wouldn't happen.
"Tosh, how's your baby?"
"I went to my doctor. He told me we're all Spiritual Warriors. He thinks my Dad and his Mom are preparing my baby for me."
"Are you kidding? A doctor said that?"
"Yeah Annie. He did."
Greg's body will be cremated, and his ashes returned to his home at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains that rise up unexpectedly to the sky. His family will take them to Greg's favorite place, San Francisco, where both our hearts will be left too. I will have moved to where Greg was and he will have moved to where I was. We'll trade places.
As I write, KDFC in San Francisco is playing Antonin Dvorak's "Going Home", from the Symphony of The New World. My tears are messing up my MacBook, so I stop typing.
It's Monday, May 17th. It's 10 am. KDFC plays the theme from "The Piano", The Heart Asks Pleasure First, as I finish the final draft of my story.
Greg pulled it off. He killed the tumor. The enemy is dead.
And Greg lives on and on . . .