Joe Neyer has been on the periphery of my awareness for decades. About the same age, we had mutual friends in high school and college, but never knew each other beyond recognition. His last name is one any Cincinnatian would recognize and in the early 2000s, I took a writing class with one of his relatives. She mentioned that he had three young sons and that his wife died of breast cancer.
Sad, I thought, but breast cancer was still an abstraction to me.
Until 2008, when my own beastly diagnosis showed up. In figuring out my own path, I sought out people who’d been there too. I thought about the Neyers, but didn’t know Joe nearly well enough to approach him. As everyone on Facebook knows, the company is always trying to help you find people you know, and Joe’s name kept popping up. Offhandedly, I read some of his posts and gleaned that he too had cancer.
My Facebook stalking began in earnest.
Actually, I contacted him and he accepted my friend request, so he made it pretty easy. I don’t have the details and I don’t need them. He has a brain tumor and, as they say, a poor prognosis. He followed a standard treatment plan until it was no longer the best course for him.
In his own words, “the decision to stop western treatment did not give me quality of life, this is how I have lived long before the cancer came along…that only amplified the urgency to speak and relate to others about this that we all share, the power of thought to create our own suffering or to see that we are creating it and no longer blindly follow it along.”
His writing is honest, fearless, and grounded in the reality of the present moment. He strikes me as a person with an unshakable sense of peace. Whenever I read his posts, I think of this passage from A New Earth, where Tolle speaks of a dying woman he knew. “In the last few weeks of her life as her body became weaker, she became more and more radiant, as if light were shining through her.” (A New Earth, p 41)
To back up here: when I approached Joe, asking his permission to write this, he warned me not to assume anything. I don’t, especially about his (or anyone’s) future. The parallel with this passage is the idea of radiance, not of dying. He writes words that shine.
Joe has given me permission to share this piece of writing from June 21, 2013. He offers a crucial message about having important conversations that we often avoid out of discomfort and fear.
It touched me because moments before my mastectomy in 2009, I told my husband that I changed my mind about my living will. I asked him not to pull the plug. Totally unfair comment to make and fortunately nothing unexpected happened in my surgery leaving him to sort that out.
These conversations need to happen outside the confines of panic.
In the opening of this piece, Joe is speaking of a trip his family is taking to California. Lots of gratitude to Joe for his passion for making a difference and his willingness to share. Of course, best wishes for a fantastic summer vacation.
I planned this trip a couple months ago to ensure we would all have some time together this summer, as the kids are growing, which naturally means they are also growing apart in distances.
The headaches for me have been increasing over the last few weeks as well as general pain and soreness neurologically. I do not say this for sympathy but to speak about the facts of disease and mortality. It is such a taboo subject for many, to consider their own mortality but as a parent if I do not have these conversations with my kids and wife about what is being felt in the body it would only be a selfish act and leave them unprepared emotionally. Communication is a bridge humans have in the toolbox that can be used to separate us or to bring us together and chat around a campfire.
I am opting to communicate about this, to them and to you all as well, because to me it is much more important that the subject of death is brought into the open more than it normally is. I have been on both sides, watching Becky go through a four year battle with cancer and now as one with terminal cancer. In an hour or so a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer will be here with his cameraman to continue the weekly interviews we have been having for the last few months…he is a good guy, I like him, and once I interviewed him a bit I trusted his intention to not be agenda driven as much as wanting to talk about this subject most of us hide from.
I am also involved with something called “The Conversation Project“, which is a national organization started by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Ellen Goodman dedicated to promoting the conversations many do not have with their loved ones concerning their wishes to die at home, funeral arrangements, “Do not resuscitate” forms and things like this. My sister knows someone in the organization and asked me to write a story for them shortly after my surgery. The reporter from the Enquirer (John Faherty) was alerted to that story and so contacted me in January to see about writing a story. We have met several times since and will continue to do so weekly.
So, that said, talk to your loved ones soon about your or their wishes upon death–have a plan, don’t be selfish and afraid to speak about this when communication is the bridge we have that breaks fear apart and leaves two people relating to each other in an honest and open way rather than burying their head in the sand and hoping it will all go away somehow. Death does not go away, but fear and anxiety around death can.