One of my losses caused significant soul-searching as I considered how a good friend could die, and I didn’t find out about his passing until nine months after his death. What kind of friend had I been? Was I unworthy not to know about his rapid illness and death until almost a year after he died?
Let me explain.
Every holiday season his card arrived, one of the few handwritten cards we received each year. Most people have discontinued holiday cards altogether or instead they mail form letters filled with glad tidings and exuberant news about children. He always wished us health and success for the new year and usually offered a punchline, some ironic twist on life’s typical absurdities. He promised to stop and see us in Denver during one of his epic road trips. His cars were his children, nurtured, maintained, and nudged to greatness.
The first child I met was a taxicab yellow Porsche. Behind the wheel, wearing sunglasses, he looked like a leading man: dashing, cocky, alpha. It’s anyone’s guess how many times that sports car zipped from LA to Colorado and points east, but many. Then he adopted a bright red Miata, providing even less practical luggage space than the Porsche. But he found a creative way to strap his luggage to the Miata’s trunk rack, being well equipped and provisioned for weeks on the road. He brushed off my practical concerns that the contents of his luggage may be ruined in rain or snow.
As the years piled on, he finally became more sensible about his peripatetic nature and proclivity to drive through the mountains of Utah and Colorado. A Jeep Grand Cherokee became his ultimate road-tripping metal-child, and he equipped it with technological luxuries: GPS, CB radio, radar detector, and a great music system. Like its pretentious brothers, the Jeep pressed a lot of pavement, so much so that he even replaced the entire engine in lieu of buying a new car. He found accomplishment in rehabbing and refurbishing rather than replacing. His scrupulous restorations of aging cars always created something better than the originals.
John Christian Miller loved cars in exactly the same way he loved life. He enjoyed the journey as much as any other man I have known, finding reasons to remain positive and excited in spite of occasional setbacks. He was witty, funny, articulate – blessed with a powerful, resonating, room-filling voice. His quickness attested to the decades that he had spent as a leading LA radio news anchor, growing into AM radio during its heyday, always slightly ahead of his time but in step with the zeitgeist. Equally at ease on television as he pitched the miracle of Ginsu knives or the shrewd investment potential of gold coins, casual in the presence of celebrities, earnest about free enterprise, John Darin, as his stage name portrayed, was as smooth and pleasing as Bobby, the 1950’s folk-pop music icon who must have inspired the radio veteran’s pseudonym.
John Darin, or JD as I nicknamed him, was a friend apart, a periodic rush of positive energy who would check in by phone or email just to see how we were doing. He usually had a new post-retirement scheme to make money in areas as divergent as pitching affordable pre-need cremation plans to growing non-GMO soybeans in Brazil. He looked to the future as bright with possibilities.
During the holiday season of 2014, his traditional card did not arrive. I had been mildly concerned, knowing somewhere in the recesses of my mind that he was a predictable friend I’d known for 24 years. He should have been in touch by then. But I had let it go: no flashing warning signs. It had taken me almost a year from his last email to become really concerned.
When walking around a lake near my home, I dispatched a quick email from my iPhone. It bounced instantly. Could JD have changed internet service providers without letting me know? Not fathomable. Then I called his home office number. Disconnected. I tried his cell phone number. Also disconnected. I sped-walked home, wondering what had happened.
Becky was the first to discover the truth as revealed by Google. Dick Heatherton, a famous radio and television personality and brother of Joey Heatherton, a well-known singer and actress from the sixties and seventies, had written a deeply felt lamentation about John’s death.
The digest version goes like this: Severe back pain during the 2013 holiday season had forced JD to seek medical attention, and the diagnosis could not have been more brutal: pancreatic cancer. JD’s journey from diagnosis to death didn’t last more than ten weeks. He died March 9, 2014. The news spread, but not everywhere.
He had died almost nine months before it occurred to me that I should get in touch and find out when he would be coming to visit Becky and me in Denver. Although his substantial LA radio circle of colleagues and friends knew of his illness and death, I was dumbstruck ignorant. JD’s death hit me as a cold slap: the Google query we never want to see.
Could he have called me? Didn’t he know that I would have been there in whatever way I could? Did he think of Becky and me during his final weeks of pain and suffering, dulled by narcotics? Not even an email? Did he reach for his cell phone to call then hesitated as another shooting pain overwhelmed his consciousness, or a morphine drip dulled him to senselessness?
This is a different kind of death than I have ever experienced: a dying process that is disconnected from my awareness. In this networked society, where most news travels around the globe within minutes, is it possible for a friend to get sick and die and a long-term friend not to have a clue until nine months after his death?
All these questions have no answers. The answers have died too. Yet to reconcile this dissonance I can imagine how it might have been had he called.
“Hello … hey, JD, how the heck have you been?”
“Well, under the weather to be truthful.”
“A cold or flu? I hope you’re on the other side of it now.”
“Actually, it’s more severe.” Pregnant pause. “I have pancreatic cancer.”
“That’s horrible news, JD. Have your doctors figured out a treatment plan yet? Newer targeted drugs are showing a lot of promise.”
“The plan is to keep me comfortable. That’s all they can do. The cancer has already taken over most of my internal organs.”
“No surgeries? No chemo?”
“It’s too late for that. So… how’s Becky? How have you been?”
I understand how horrendous conversations like this might be for someone terminally ill. How difficult it must be to nurture others trying to find words and understand their own emotions when death comes knocking. An exuberant man full of life and laughter would not want to close his final days with one downer telephone conversation after another. He was too witty for that. Too ironic and clever.
But I am guilty of complacency about the facts of our temporary time on earth. Maybe that’s a trick of the mind: to close out the possibility that this day may be my last or only two months remain. Perhaps creating a sense of permanence in an impermanent existence helps mortals move through the days without becoming paralyzed by inevitable probabilities: disease, death, and disappearance by a too-distant friend.
I keep 95 percent of the non-spam emails I receive. Fortunately, long ago I labeled an Outlook folder “John Darin.” During the rush of disbelief and grief after discovering Dick Heatherton’s blog tribute to our mutual friend, I returned to that folder to read JDs final email message to me. It came shortly after Thanksgiving in 2013 and just a few weeks before he would receive the shocking news of his imminent death.
He wrote: thinking of you guys at holiday time. long overdue for a Denver visit. maybe early next year. He then shared a brief rundown of his travel plans for the holidays: from LA, to Seattle, to Chicago, busy and frenetic and, as always, connecting with a wide circle of family and friends. His travel destinations were more about people than places. Then he signed off: see you again soon maybe, Yewtaw John Darin. (LA manicured through-and-through, he loved the western aura bestowed by his retirement home in Utah, cowboy boots and all.)
Now I know that “maybe” was significant: hesitation and uncertainty coming from someone always so positive about the future. JD didn’t just skim over the possibilities of his days as if a stone skipping the surface of life; he dove into his plans, becoming immersed with gusto.
Maybe mattered then, and I didn’t understand.