David celebrated his 80th birthday by taking a 2-mile hike alone in the mountains and then hitched a ride back to his car. He had no trouble finding someone who would give him a lift. When he was in his 70s, he had decided to adopt an attitude of being open to everyone he encountered. It was part of his Buddhist philosophy of believing in his fellow human beings’ basic goodness. When we hiked together, I was always surprised how oncoming hikers would smile broadly at us, because it rarely happened when I hiked alone. But some goodness emanated from David, and people responded in kind.
I met David in his late 70s, when he started a network of meditation study groups here in Boulder. He attended weekly spiritual lectures by well-known teachers but saw the need for more interaction among spiritual practitioners. When I look back at his life, I can see the pattern of wanting to help others and bring people together.
Earlier in his life, when David developed Type 2 diabetes, he wanted to support other diabetics coping with the disease. A journalist all his life, he started writing regular articles and columns for an online health magazine about the latest research, dietary tips and his own struggle.
At some point he decided to experiment on himself: could he control his insulin levels by eating the right foods and losing weight? David became a vegetarian, gave up sugar and exercised regularly. In the process he lost more than a hundred pounds, leaving him almost nothing but skin and bones, but, amazingly, he was able to get off insulin totally.
When he received a cancer diagnosis, at age 83, he took a perverse pleasure in the fact that he wouldn’t be dying of diabetes, that he had been able to control the disease. When he first told me that doctors had found a tumor in his stomach, I visited him in the hospital, and found him talking to the hospitalist about her meditation practice. That was pure David. Instead of dwelling on his own dire predicament he was engaging someone else. He wasn’t just distracting himself but was genuinely interested in another human being and wanted to find their commonality.
When I called him the next morning to ask about the biopsy results, he told me, in his usual understatement, that they weren’t good. He had a rare form of liver cancer and had less than a year to live. He was still waiting to talk to his oncologist about chemotherapy, but he wondered if it was worth prolonging his life for a few months to endure the discomfort.
I was amazed by his calm demeanor, but he had been a meditator for much of his life and was prepared for this moment—or as much as anyone can be. He knew what he needed to do before he died. David quit his medical writing job, put together his will and other final documents, started saying good-bye to friends and got rid of things he would never need. He gave me a bag of jeans to donate, pants that were much too big to fit his now scrawny frame.
Unlike me, he didn’t particularly believe in an afterlife but wanted to maintain an open mind. More than anything, he wanted to approach this last chapter of his life with curiosity—to see what the dying process was like and how he would handle it.
Unfortunately, the year his doctors promised him was overly optimistic, and he died within a few months. In fact, the ending happened so quickly I never had a chance to ask him what he learned about dying. But he taught me a lot about living: how not to hang on to things, how to embrace the world, and how to stay open and curious until the end.
— Kathy Kaiser
I wish I had known David. Thank you for telling this story about him. I use to have dreams that my grandmothers are telling me things I need to know. Now when I’m out and about, in a grocery store, maybe, I make eye contact with other women who, like me, have gray hair and are walking a little slowly. We smile at each other, as if we have a secret. We’re just waiting for someone to ask.
Thanks, Verna. Like you, I know that moment of recognition with a fellow aging comrade.