Steve Jobs had outlasted an initial death sentence – three to six months to live, the doctors had said – when he told Stanford graduates that the threat of an early demise was perhaps the most liberating thing that ever happened to him.
I was thinking of Jobs, who died seven years after a diagnosis of deadly pancreatic cancer, while watching the public tutorial of Sen. John McCain going through what may be his final days.
McCain is not just plotting the details of his own funeral, but living it. He’s lucky. Most of us don’t get the chance to tell friends and family members how much we love them, to put things in order – and in return, to hear from those people about what a difference a life made to them.
“Then I’d like to go back to our valley and see the creek run after the rain and hear the cottonwoods whisper in the wind,” said McCain in an excerpt he read from his forthcoming book, “The Restless Wave.” You could hear Hemingway, the senator’s favorite author, in those words.
McCain says he may not live long enough to see the book’s release date, May 22. He has glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, though a recent visitor said he was full of fight and vigor.
My mother died of the same thing. One day, she was planning hikes in national parks in the Southwest and pruning lavender in the garden. Not long after, she was having trouble keeping down a milkshake, or turning over in bed. After we realized that further chemotherapy would just be cosmetic, and add pain to her final days, she chose the McCain route – reflection, planning, settling of personal accounts. She told her life story to my daughter, and wrote each of her seven kids a note, so that her words would outlive her.
For a public person, it’s different. Of course you want your words to be immortal, worthy of being chiseled onto a statue or invoked during heady debate. McCain has a political legacy, much of it good, some of it bad. Among other things, he will be remembered as a rare man of honor at a time when the current president has no honor.
But this is not about that legacy. It’s about a way for people to set things right in the closing days of life. “It is nothing to die,” wrote Victor Hugo. “It is frightful not to live.” You can look at it the other way as well.
Teddy Kennedy spoke of wanting “a good ending for myself.” He slipped away 15 months after a brain cancer diagnosis. In between, he finished a memoir of his life and passions, sailed, spent long hours with those who gave meaning to his life. His funeral was extraordinary. He was the only one of the four fabled Kennedy brothers who would die in old age, and he understood what that meant. “Every day is a gift,” he said in the dying light.
His brother John F. Kennedy, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., never had that luxury. Thomas Jefferson seemed to plan his death to the day, leaving the planet on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence – the same Fourth of July, in 1826, on which another founder, John Adams, died. “Thomas Jefferson survives,” were Adams’ final words, off by a few hours.
Last words can be overrated. “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis,” said Humphrey Bogart. Or maybe not. Other accounts have him calling out to his lovely wife, Lauren Bacall: “Goodbye, kid. Hurry back.”
What matters more are last acts. So McCain has already lined up Barack Obama and George W. Bush for eulogies at his memorial, while excluding President Donald Trump. He’s also making one last moral stand against torture and a CIA nominee who refuses to universally condemn it.
And, like others who’ve seen death’s door creaking open, McCain is trying to separate the petty from the profound, the ephemeral from the lasting.
“The most obvious” response, wrote neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi in “When Breath Becomes Air,” his memoir of a brilliant life cut short, “might be an impulse to frantic activity: to live life to the fullest, to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions.” But cancer limits the energy for compacted living, and a longer view takes hold. “Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest; a chasing after wind, indeed.”
Kalanithi died at the age of 38. McCain is 81. Two ends of the spectrum. But it is an ageless desire to want – and deserve – what both men got as they closed out their lives. Not politics. Not platitudes. Not score-settling. As Joe Biden explained, after his visit to the sylvan slice of heaven that is McCain’s ranch in Sedona, Arizona: “I wanted to let him know how much I love him.”