Fuck Cancer

That was my cousin Ezra’s slogan as he blogged about his experience. I won’t say he fought cancer and then surrendered to it, or use some other clichéd metaphor to make it more digestible to the rest of us healthy bastards. To put it plainly, he contracted a disease, the doctors tried to eradicate it, it went away for a while, came back, Ezra decided not to treat it further, and he died in May at age 40. Half a life, yet he lived it twice as full.

I’m wearing one of Ezra’s work shirts right now. While sifting through bags of his clothes headed for donation in NYC this weekend, I picked out the grungiest one I could find. It’s gray, covered in a variety of grease stains, and it seems to have been snagged in a machine or a bike chain at some point. It’s too small for me. But I feel like a superhero wearing it. After all, my cousin was The Bike Maker.

As you know from my post about the ring, I have enough trouble letting go of living people who were important to me. Worse is when they’re taken from me and I can’t let go gradually on my own terms. And so it was that, after leaving NYC and spending ~17 hours with dear friends in Connecticut watching movies about a certain other ring that folks had trouble letting go, I found myself at my alma mater, WPI, saying “Fuck Cancer” yet again.

My thesis advisor, Matt Ward, who also taught my introductory and advanced graphics courses, passed away on October 13 at age 59. For those of you keeping score at home, I’m in my 20th year of a career in… computer graphics. I presented the paper Matt & I published based on my thesis at the IEEE Visualization conference in Phoenix, my first talk in front of a giant audience. And we hiked down into the Grand Canyon together. So let’s just say this guy was pivotal. We had been out of touch for years, but it just so happened when I heard of his passing that I already had plane tickets to attend his memorial.

It was originally going to be a late October celebration of his career, with Matt in attendance to receive awards, so I signed up without hesitation. But after deciding to discontinue treatment, his health failed quickly, and the organizers had to bump up the celebration to the end of September. As chance would have it — remember, I’m an atheist — I was already up in Massachusetts, on campus at WPI no less, for a recruiting event the very day on which the celebration was rescheduled.

Matt was sitting there in Higgins House in a wheelchair, blanket in his lap, occasionally summoning the strength to lift his head briefly to survey what was going on around him. There were many friends and colleagues in attendance, way more than I imagined, taking turns kneeling down to greet Matt. I worked up the courage to approach him, unsure if he would recognize me, moments before his wife wheeled him away forever. I thanked Matt for all the time he spent with me and said good-bye.

So I figured now I’m stuck with a useless October plane ticket, but at least I’ll have an excuse to visit friends and family in Ezra’s Harlem neighborhood and New England. Ha! Matt had the impeccable timing to leave us mere days before my October 20 return, his originally scheduled going away party. It became a New Orleans style musical wake, orchestrated well in advance by Matt who approached several musically inclined friends, “Hey, what are you doing in about 5 weeks? Would you mind playing at my memorial? I have some songs picked out…”

I’m not sure what the parting message is here. Bad things happen to good people? Life is short, so live like you are dying? Blogging about how other people’s cancer affects you is decidedly self-centered? Fuck cancer? How about: We are the pebbles. We migrate. That is all.