04/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Reading Obits: Some Reflections

Since being diagnosed with prostate cancer a month ago, I find myself reading newspaper obituaries with greater interest. I'm paying particular attention to the lives of those who died in their prime. People, I guess, much like me.

Robert D. Joffe, a leading New York lawyer and partner at Cravath, Swain & Moore who played a critical role in Time Inc.'s $14 billion merger with Warner Communications, died in Manhattan on Thursday. He was 66. The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his son, David.

Paula Nowakowski, 46, chief of staff for House Minority Leader John Boehner, was found dead Jan. 10 at her home in Alexandria. No official cause of death was available. Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Boehner (R-Ohio), said it appeared that Ms. Nowakowski died of a heart attack.

My own condition is completely treatable. This is not going to kill me. But still, like many others who have received such a diagnosis, I do feel that my own body has betrayed me.

Jerilyn Ross, 63, a psychotherapist who overcame her phobia to help hundreds of other people peacefully meet their fears face to face, died Jan. 7 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She had neuroendocrine cancer in her abdomen.

Nancy Wilson Anderson, 42, an Environmental Protection Agency manager whose work included revising federal rules on mercury, died of esophageal cancer Dec. 30 at Capital Hospice in Arlington County.

I made a deal with my body years ago. I would not smoke, would eat healthily, exercise fanatically, take vitamins, listen to Mozart, play chess, do crossword puzzles, remain monogamous and cultivate positive thoughts. In return, my body and mind would remain healthy.

Judi Chamberlin, whose involuntary confinement in a mental hospital in the 1960s propelled her into a lifelong leading role in the movement to guarantee basic human rights to psychiatric patients, died on Jan. 16 at her home in Arlington, Mass. She was 65. The cause was pulmonary disease, said Martin Federman, her companion since 2006.

So many productive, talented lives cut short. Lives of extraordinary accomplishment and achievement. And so many grieving loved ones left behind.

Kate McGarrigle, 63, a Canadian singer-songwriter who performed with her sister Anna and whose plaintive songs were covered by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur, died of cancer Jan. 18 at her home in Montreal.

Folk artist Stephen Huneck, whose whimsical paintings, sculptures and woodcut prints of dogs celebrated his love of animals and won him a worldwide fan base, committed suicide Jan. 7. He was 60.

I'm reminded of a short story by Guy de Maupassant, "An Old Man." Monsieur Daron, aged 86, comes to live at a spa. He has always feared death and he avoids all pleasure because it may be dangerous. Daron arranges for a doctor to visit him once a week to report on the health of everyone in the region over the age of 80. When he hears that someone has died, he quickly identifies a cause that might have been avoided; the man who died of pleurisy should not have gone out in the cold, and the one who died of dysentery must have eaten the wrong food. Eventually, though, one old man dies for no apparent reason. "He died because he died, that's all," the doctor tells him. Daron asks the man's age. Eighty nine. He laughs in relief. "Whatever it was, it wasn't old age . . . ."

Teddy Pendergrass, 59, the rhythm-and-blues sex symbol whose steamy paeans to romance electrified fans and sold millions of records until a 1982 car crash left him paraplegic, died Jan. 13 of colon cancer at Bryn Mawr Hospital in suburban Philadelphia.

Adam Max Cohen, 38, a scholar who explored the intersection of early modern science and Renaissance drama, died Jan. 2 at his home in Marion, Mass. He had a brain tumor.

Average life expectancy in the United States for males is 75.6; for females it's 80.8. If I moved to Israel where I lived for eight years, I could raise my figure to 78.5. But of course, such statistics mean nothing on an individual level.

Larry "L.A." Johnson, a documentary filmmaker who worked closely with Neil Young for four decades after meeting the Canadian rocker at Woodstock, died Thursday at his home in Redwood City, Calif. He was 62. Johnson died unexpectedly, and the cause of death was not known, according to a spokeswoman for Young.

Dan Fitzgerald, 67, the coach who built Gonzaga University into a national basketball power but resigned before the school began its current run of NCAA tournaments, died Tuesday night after collapsing in a restaurant in suburban Spokane, Wash.

A lot of us, including me, are a little like Monsieur Daron. We want to live for ever -- and on some level we expect to live for ever. The newspaper obits perform the same function for us as the doctor did for him. Every obituary always includes the cause of death, usually in the first or second paragraph. Why is that relevant? Why do we need to know? Why do we want to know?

Gaines Adams, a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears who was an All-American at Clemson, died Sunday at a hospital in Greenwood, S.C., the team announced. He was 26.
Adams had gone into cardiac arrest about an hour earlier at his family's home, said Marcia Kelley-Clark, chief deputy coroner for Greenwood County.

Since my diagnosis, I've been living in a new country - the land of cancer. I don't intend to stay long; it's going to be a short visit. But now I know where it is and how you get there. I no longer expect to live for ever.