I speak only for myself.
Vernon Garner (1947-2011)
Simply stated, this is not going to work; you see, I had other plans which, needless to say, did not include my demise. All I had wished was to continue the climbing of mountains, but (way back at the beginning, now almost a year past) the first happenstance was that without warning I was taken out of those mountains to be told I might die (there, I've said it!), which, among other things, makes it difficult to maintain an equanimity of spirit; being told about your own possible impending end forces a confrontation with pride (no way to rationalize that away—you lose, every time). It also makes one ponder the lure of living, and what—really—it is that makes that living worth the struggle. But I have sidetracked myself; life on the outside did not stop at the revelation of my possibly sordid destiny, but, amazingly, kept its course (almost, and this is surprising, because certainly I must be more important than that), as though my departure would not disrupt the world.
So I rail and flame loudly—although rather impotently—at the fates, but be that as it may, it began this way....
Those words (and that occurrence), spoken so many months ago, were life altering. And while (honestly, I really do understand this) nowhere near as serious as a civilization going up in flames, or a war destroying everything in its path but hatred, for me that short sentence was—and still is—a world, and easily suffices on the monumental side of nothing will ever be the same again. Time no longer trips gaily through the oncoming years, but has become tenuous, uncertain, at times a darkened way running without warning off a high cliff.
"There is a malignancy." Even though still slightly under the influence of anesthesia, I am not too proud to admit that those words, coming as they did from the doctor doing the diagnostic test, promulgated a dark and icy torrent of needles running from head to toe, became a hunter circling, then having located its prey, settling in for the duration of a long watch, leaving me, terrified, to deal with an enemy overwhelming in its proportions. This was not a fine moment of defiance, but rather one of logical and instinctive questions (or so I tell myself), such as, "Why is this happening?"followed by (of course) the inevitable, loudly proclaimed (at least the shriek in my mind seemed that way), indisputable statement "It's not fair!" I lay quietly amongst the mental mayhem, and not too long afterward a nurse came, saying I could go, and handed me a slip of paper with an appointment written on it. Discovery and diagnosis now in arrears, I guess that is how it actually began. Of course I did not (I do not) really expect the world to stop simply because of the all-encompassing importance of my plight; that sentiment is merely me being afraid and self-centered, and for the first time dealing with emotions too large to fit within my poor, sick body of pain and betrayal. And, truth be told, at that far-off beginning there was not yet the awareness (even if all went well) that I had lost a year of climbing. A year, if I was very fortunate.
Crossing the threshold, then carefully closing the door behind me, the room became a desperate plea for survival, and just like that, I gave myself up to the doctors of oncology and radiation. (I well remember filling out the first of several forms, and at the bottom of the last page was a query, "What do you expect from the Cancer Center?" to which my fervent response was, "For you to save my life." Nothing else seemed appropriate.) And so the beginning was not at all difficult to accomplish, was as easy as one day noticing an abdominal discomfort that would not go away. Now firmly ensconced in a place and time beyond all mountains, the search for the ability to once again find those very peaks began with the simple act of a door shut gently, then turning to face my new companion. (Oncologists seem to me a most diacritic breed of physician; after all, they are among those almost never dealing with any but potentially life-threatening circumstance, thus day after day walking a tightrope to present not only encouragement, yet at the same time neither false hope nor undue hopelessness. Reality is often such a difficult thing to pin down!)
And so began almost a full year of chemo and radiation: Pain and nausea (morphine a blessing for the former; the latter mercifully not so bad as it is for some), and the most awful, penetratingly indescribable weakness imaginable. ("I wonder if I can just lay here, and put off going to the bathroom for another hour.") And shedding weight ("You may be sitting on the couch, but every cell in your body is fighting this cancer, and it's as though you're running a marathon; I don't care if you eat nothing but ice cream, you've got to stop losing weight!"—that stern delivery from my oncologist is how I learned that people will sometimes die of malnutrition, rather than the actual disease), then discovering it was possible to eat four or five small meals a day, to at least maintain. Sometimes, during the worst moments of those wearyingly timeless days and nights, I couldn't remember how to climb a mountain. Or what they looked like. During the most pathetic of it, there were no distant peaks in my mind, no visions of siren sunrises or alpenglow to pull me through, but—rather—a mutable, tenuous clinging to the belief that somehow, at the end, I was better—would be better—than this ignoble disease. Sometimes that is all I had, and even then that conviction was far from certitude. There is, after all, no rapprochement whatsoever with quisling cancer!
Not too long after the completion of radiation, the world gradually became a better place, and I would sometimes leave the conscripting confines of illness-induced solitude to walk around the small village in which treatment was taking place. The easiest way led down a slight slope, but that path came to an abrupt end on the banks of a large river whose dark waters appeared abruptly, almost magically, through a distant mist, moving silently, strongly, seemingly coming from nowhere, growing quickly to dominate the view close at hand, then moving inexorably to a fine point before disappearing in the far distance. All too easily, imagination projected the disconcerting impression that before me was a watery barrier with neither beginning nor end, but something that in its greatness encircled the world; here were possibilities, not all of them for the best, and the feeling was strong that were the far side of that mighty river to be obtained, an ultimate line would have been crossed.
A nearby ferry proclaimed easy egress, but upon speaking with its boatman this person stated emphatically that the crossing, while not particularly difficult, was one way only, that return would not be possible. On these first, still feeble, perambulating days of slight exploration I now felt enough improved that it became possible to once again (at least vaguely) imagine a life with mountains—but not this way! Hell lived across that bleak river in the form of a fog-infested, non-ending plain, a hell that slid beneath waves of uncertain light to a very monotonous, and quite distant, horizon. Abruptly turning my back on the boatman and the offer of safe passage I returned to the medical building, crawled into bed, then spent the next hours restlessly tossing and turning, fighting depression, trying feverishly to imagineto remember!the wonder of life among the peaks, and ultimately wishing this infernal night would just come to an end. I never went near the river Lethe, with its awful planate perspective on life, again.
Days passed, then weeks, and occasionally I found it relaxing to take a break from my normal walks to sit on the porch, taking advantage of the afternoon sun. What a nice respite those times were from the closed-in perspective of that dismal cancer ward! I would sit, arms spread, eyes closed, full force of the sun directed at my abdomen, and imagine that heat being a beam of purest radiance, easily penetrating to the sordid mess lurking beneath my skin. A gentle cleansing thing, that light, come from the sky to wrap around the sickness, extracting its horrible essence to the winds, leaving in its wake only health, and the ability to partake of life. Ah...if only hope and wishes were reality!
Then one day the sun, the winds encircling that afternoon porch, brought a gift. Sitting as always, half asleep in the palliative light, something touched my mind. A whisper, maybe from the sky, possibly from the depths of memory or desire, but coming as it did in the form of two simple, gently spoken words, I heard what was at that time more than enough to attract the attention of a desperate need. Long Knife...come out of a lost past to sate my mind, those two short wordsbespeaking, after all, of nothing more than a singular mountainbecame the greatest speech imaginable! Again and again came the echo...Long Knife...Long Knife...repeating until the waves of longing faded, became nothingeasily enough to bring this slumber to an end. Struggling towards full alertness, apprehensive that imagination might be yet another trick of this accursed affliction, I sat upright, trying desperately to pull those words again into my mind. While in this emotionally vulnerable state, the very center of my being gave rise to another susurration: Cleveland...Wilbur.... And with a dawning awareness came tears, and finally, in that golden afternoon radiance borne on winds from the four corners, the dam shattered, and mountains poured back into my life. They were legion, and it was the most wonderful thing imaginable! Little Chief, Vigil, Gable, Longfellow, Despair, Natoas, Amphitheater...the names mattered not a whit, what was so terribly important was that they were mountains, no longer lost, but present and marching in a most dizzying array of presentation. So in the afternoon heat I sat on that porch beneath a turning world, happily tossed by winds from the summits, and listened, and with the words heard cancer receding into the distance...Medicine Grizzly, Pinchot, Battlement, Chief, Guardhouse, Stoney Indian, Wahcheechee, Heavens, Yellow, St. Nicholas, Going-to-the-Sun.... On and on they came, and how happy to have my senses so overwhelmed! Geography slipped, and with it a small bit of the world expanded, loomed unforgettably...Gray Wolf, Granite, Ibex, Crazy, Swan, Snowshoe, North Trapper, Warren, Sphinx, Calowahcan, Daughter-of-the-Sun...the sound of cancer in remission, chased by the great peaks within my head! (And at long last, the end of chemo, with only a final diagnostic test standing between confirmation of the finish to this living nightmare and a never-ending summer of once again dancing on the shoulders of high places!)
There had been an all too brief (but oh how wonderful!) span of genuine optimism, a time when "the gift" ran freely through my mind, and I had even been able to wean off morphine (what a significant positive step: No pain medication needed but over-the-counter product!). Taken in conjunction with encouraging words from the medical staff, could it be possible, was I one of those actually destined to beat this thing? But then, with summer's finale the world turned, from lush, to collages of bright colors, to foreboding brown, to bared limbs of more pain. This damned affliction...if only hope and wishes were reality! There had been warning that even in the best of scenarios, "pain-free" did not exist in my immediate future, and if it became too much, to not hesitate, but phone in my discomfort. Said circumstance of which did indeed occur: Ache becamefirstdiscomfort, then concern, then real distress turned to a rehabilitation of morphine, and that at a time when nothing remained but final consultation verifying that all was wellor, at any rate, as well as perfidious cancer allows. Initially, the recurring torment was not too bad, but it took only a month or so of steady deterioration until no choice remained but for another oncological meeting of the minds (that is, my companion spoke, and I sat quietly, sinking further and further into the depression accompanying the end of good things).
Now, as I move through this dark forest of plague, a query begins lighting my mind, until with a single-mindedness of purpose it reaches back all those many years to the beginning, asking of this fickle night's gradually emerging effulgence, What is important? And so it is that with those three words a capricious dawn innervates these trees of night, cancer's fine edge drawing it all forward until I find myself engulfed in a summation of what has gone before, yet defined by that still to come. The question cannot be ignored, is everything, and survival without answer is nothing. Those all-too-familiar old acquaintances of pain, and an as yet indeterminate possibility of continued life, have become enjoined by new thoughts with which to fuel more endless nights of cancer-spawned sleeplessness: What is it that is important? If, perchance, answers to this question are in the offing, I can make of cancer a gift to take through life, making of it something meaningful, or—if it unfolds this way—death will be made all the more poignant for the interruption of a late-arriving bloom.
Thus it is that perspectives change. Also priorities. Values. The all-too-real possibility of a finitely defined (small) number of remaining months or years makes it so. "What is it, is important?" becomes more than a mere idle thought of torment, becomes a definition of the very quality of life. And while sometimes during the exuberant rush of climbing-self-delusion I wish it were otherwise, the valleys slumbering far below, the peaks above, are not the entire sum of existence; there are other offerings than the geological giants of the earth.
Humanity itself has much to offer, and what a pity is the absence in life of the most transcendent of jewels, that of thought, and by that I mean the eloquent expression of the greatest minds saying what they believe through the act of literature, music, science, philosophy. Somehow, dying without my having taken in the enhancing values of War and Peace, The Divine Comedy, The Trial, or Hamlet, or Oedipus, cheapens that of which I am—and have been—capable. Opera reigns supreme in my hierarchy, and must begin (but most certainly not end) with The Ring of the Nibelungen. Closely followed by (but not ending withthere is no end to this!) Les Troyens, The Marriage of Figaro, The Bartered Bride; listen (and think, and feel), as greatness continues with Carmen, Boris Godunov, Falstaff, Pelleas et Melisande, and the eponymous Prokofiev opera based on Tolstoy's above-named great novel. Or the stupendous thing Janacek did near the end of his life with another Russian literary work, Dostoyevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead. And how foolish to believe it possible to name them all—like those mountains appearing in my head, they cannot all fit, but how wonderful it is attempting to force the issue!
There was an unforgettable six years' residence in San Francisco, mostly school, but also a couple years just "hanging around the neighborhood," taking in the many offerings of the great city. Night after night exploring the (to me) mind-altering wonders of foreign film, days of wandering the many art galleries, filling my mind full to overflowing with the efforts of like-interested individuals. During that time I was fortunate enough to spend a semester overseas, and those memories return as a tidal wave now: Once, in Amsterdam, I remember sitting alone for an hour in front of Rembrandt's Night Watch. Then, a week or so later a couple of the more memorable days of my life were spent in Oslo, walking amongst the mind-blowing creations in the (Gustav) Vigelund Sculpture Park. Is that the greatest, most original, park on the planet? Perhaps yes, possibly not; I believe "Yes," and don't care to dispute the point. It is what it is: To me it is supreme. Yes, the creation of our myriad works of thought, the appreciation of, the understanding, all takes effort, but humanity has so very much to offer! It is enough to give a cancer-riddled body reason-enough to look in the mirror, and live.
A year has passed, and once again the door swings shut; honesty and competence meet my gaze, and the room is alive with yearning for Christmas's future (please, please, please!). For dancing on the wonders of Long Knife, for THE VIEW that seemingly encompasses most of the world. I look into the face of oncology as things that matter play through my brain, gaze into the knowledge of my future, and wait for the impartation. Images from a Bergman film flit by; Bach, Schubert, and Mahler vie for their place in the pantheon of what really, really matters. Cleveland and Granite and Gannett change with the entrapping seasons, otherwise do nothing but provide wonderful opposition to those plains on the far side of the river Lethe; I hold Faust in my hands, and as the pages turn, the perils of what may be sacrificed in the myopic striving for too much of a good thing become an all too real act of hubris; cranking up the volume on Quadrophenia reveals the kind of protest actually having something to say besides just yelling. And as I wait for doctor's words I wonder, will my family, my friends, share in my dying? (And how very much I hope not...words don't cover those exigencies.) Then, after a year of pain and mental anguish, exhaustion and sleepless nights, and morphine...the silence is broken.
"The CT-scan is inconclusive, and we'll do another one in two months, which should reveal what we need to see." There it was. Never, Never, NEVER any guarantees. Further conversation revealed why, that scar tissue, a cyst, were blocking the scan, but also some encouragement in that, "I think everything is okay, that the increased pain you've been experiencing is not cancer, but inflammation from radiation—which can last as long as a year, and be quite intense...." There was, of course, further discussion, but the only certainty forthcoming was that of waiting, and more pain killer needed. Waiting, for "whatever" to move or develop enough to make its intentions known. In the meantime...
...words spoken, not unkindly, but more than a little sobering in their impact. "Even though doing very (even unusually) well, you still have quite a few long odds to beat. This is the time dreaded by all cancer patients: Will it come back? With pancreatic cancer the odds are against you; it usually recurs" (then, this spoken softly, emphatically), "BUT NOT ALWAYS. All you can do is take it a day, a week, a month, at a time." Then came the final summation, again hushed, against a background of kismet: "If you get through two years without recurrence, it will be possible, and not unreasonable, to become cautiously optimistic." Well okay, so it is two years to "cautiously" optimistic.... After getting through the upcoming "two-month" CT-scan, that is. THEN on to the longer period of uncertainty. Which leads (this was also explained as part of my viable time line) to the hoped-for "standard" cancer-free period of five years. I do not mean to be unduly grim and hopeless, but have long since reached the point where a mighty truth dominates my small corner of the cosmos: Cancer's a bitch. And there is absolutely nothing risible buried within that statement.
To this day I do not know whether "You must come with me," is a message come from a healer as a comforting statement leading to survival, or is a savage utterance of terrible purpose delivered by malignant cells of insanity.
For over a year Vernon fought a losing battle with pancreatic cancer. Before passing from our plane of existence (March 1, 2011), he wrote this piece, his last for Summitpost. Always the perfectionist, he wasn’t quite satisfied with the result. However, as the end of his conflict neared, he no longer had the strength to continue making changes.
Vernon sometimes requested formatting assistance before “officially” posting a page. This was one of those times. He always put off formatting until he was finished writing. Unfortunately his ever-increasing weakness prevented him from making changes after January 15th of this year.
After consultation with some of the elves, Vernon’s text—although he considered it unfinished, its current state surpasses anything most mortals can achieve—was formatted for posting. The (above) text is as he left it. Interspersed with the text are pictures (mostly his), continuing Vernon’s way of doing things.
Pictures of Vernon, many including some of his climbing partners, follow. They convey, however inadequately, how we remember Vernon.
You were our friend and we yours.
Vernon's Unpublished Last Words