It was two years ago today that Don Hunt, my friend, died. Surrounded by friends, he slipped away over the course of a day much like today in Pasadena. Warm and sunny, even a little more so than usual for this time of year.
This New Year’s I had the duty of writing to two of his old acquaintances back in Virginia. Colleagues of his at the Virginian-Pilot, they’d had Christmas cards returned-to-sender for the last two years and were trying to find out what had happened.
They searched the web and found his memorial, here, which led them to me.
And so I wrote them a condensed form of his last days, adding that he often spoke fondly of his old life back in Virginia.
The college football season, something we both enjoyed together, is wrapped up. In the two years since Don’s passing, it’s been a bit hard for his beloved Texas Longhorns.
I wonder what he would have thought of coach Mack Brown’s resignation and the end of era in which Don was at the Rose Bowl to see his team defeat USC for the national championship?
No, I do know what he would have thought: To everything, there is an end.
Today will always be a sad anniversary. But also one on which I and some friends look at a picture and remember the good and loving.
We released part of his ashes near a tidal pool on the beach in Santa Barbara. I can see it clearly still. Today, it was sunny there, too.
It was two years ago — on 9/11 — that my friend Don was given a bad diagnosis.
Together with a friend we met at the Huntington Gardens to walk and talk and try to divine the future. This time of year brings fine weather to Pasadena. Today is just like then, exceptional, and it is a wonderful place to gather. And I will be outside this afternoon, looking at nature’s beauty.
We sat and talked about what was coming, having soft drinks, making contingency plans, imagining that at some point we’d get back to the gardens under better circumstances. But four months later he was dead.
We couldn’t tell there were no more chips to cash in, that time was almost gone. Hope was entertained and it was a good if very bittersweet day. We didn’t know it would never be the same again.
That’s my 9/11 anniversary memory. It has replaced the other one. It has more meaning.
College football season starts this weekend. It always meant special Saturdays in Pasadena with my friend Don. He’d come early, the noon games on the east coast starting at nine, lasting until evening. We liked the same teams. There’s nothing like a group of two guys who have no genuine spite in them, cheering the designated favorites and effortlessly booing foes for a few hours.
In between we’d have a meal, choosing a half-time or a 30 minute spot between broadcasts. We’d go someplace close — the Hat or Wolf Burger. Or I’d make chili dogs or grilled shrimp, anything not particularly healthy.
The start of the 2011 season was the last weekend that would be part of the normal ritual for Don and I. He’d already had an attack of some kind but the doctors did not know the cause. Most of his strength had returned for a week or so — it would start seeping away again soon enough — and we watched the kickoff of the season, not knowing what was coming. There was barely a hint of a storm cloud on the horizon.
Then the cancer diagnosis. There would be no more sitting in the football director’s chair. And in January, a day after the BCS championship game, he died.
And this Labor Day weekend the season will start again.
But I won’t be there, either. The death of a close friend shows you everything you have lost in the skein of life, gradually, unraveling in moments through the natural cycle of one year.
We did not do college football Saturdays because of the sport, really.
Oh, that was certainly a fun part. But not the part. It was just one of many convenient hooks upon which we hung friendship and the enjoyment of life together.
And on Saturday I will miss him dearly, make a another mental memorial, and time will seem to pause, then move on.
Where do you want to be when you’re done? Something you have to consider if you’re making an arrangement for the spreading of the remains of a friend. A cemetery isn’t the place. I never visit them.
Death came upon my friend Don Hunt so quickly many things were never discussed in any detail. Last resting places and dispersal were two of them.
Don was cremated and I’ve been caretaker of the ashes. I thought the matter over with another of his close friends and we decided to release small portions of them in those places he loved.
That meant Santa Barbara, on a beach in the Pacific and in Pasadena, in a yard where he spent so many sunny afternoons and warm evenings.
Southern California gave us two great days in which to do it.
I’ll visit these resting places often. They are still part of the streams of our lives, not out of the way, or places for only special visitation in memoriam. My friend and I will know some of Don’s elements are in the sand, trace building blocks in the life of a tidal pool, invisible mineral in the roots of a garden that was always a refuge. The base materials live on, reused and conserved, as it will be with whatever becomes of us. When everyone who remembers is gone, the infinitesimal bits will persist.
And it’s just better than being in a graveyard visited only upon occasion, perhaps glumly or out of a sense of duty, I think.
Yesterday my tribe lost an old friend, Pez, a tuxedo cat, who had been with the family for 14 or fifteen years. Cat AIDS, a disease he survived for four years into a very old age finally won. The pharmacy of antibiotics couldn’t do the job anymore.
All my cats have been strays. In Pasadena they found their way into the backyard, liked what they saw when in trouble, and decided to make a bid for residence. Mostly that meant hanging around, taking the handouts gladly and being always happy to see us.
Pez was an unfixed tom at the end of his string when he showed up. He’d been in a lot of fights on the losing end.
As a result he hurt and had become emaciated. In fact, that’s how he got his name. He’d become so scrawny his head was bigger than what came behind, making him resemble a Pez candy dispenser a little bit.
While he fought other males who wandered into his territory all his lfe, Pez was very gentle from the start. I figured he’d been owned by some old person who’d died in the neighborhood and just been forgotten like so many pets when their masters either pass or fall on hard times.
It took nothing at all to restore him. In a family that had four cats he found a place as defender of the lone female, Lily. He was very tough on rodents (yes, Pasadena has a lot). And, of course, he always felt it was his duty to attack any toms from the neighborhood, attracted into the yard by the sight and smells of other animals.
He’d always get scratched or bitten when defending the perimeter. It would mean a trip to the vet for a shot and a week’s worth of antibiotic syrup. And that’s most probably how he got cat AIDS, from another stray during battle.
I moved out of the house about three years ago and the cats, including Pez, could not be separated from the yard they loved so much. But I wasn’t far away — in walking distance — and I continued to care for them whenever the house was left empty for a few days.
During the time, the cat family took losses — from four to two. Pez made the third casualty.
This year the disease had taken its final toll. Medicine after medicine had been used to their full potential. With each new prescription Pez would rally and then slowly backslide with another harsher infection.
On Easter he had one last fine weekend. He was clear for three days and did his favorite things, all revolving around disappearing into the backyard on a sunny day in Pasadena. He was big on looking for lizards along the stone wall and hiding/sleeping in the tall grass in the very back of the plot.
I went to Ralphs and bought an old favorite — the supermarket’s freshly made fried chicken. One breast for me and one for him. Which, for Pez, was about like eating a quantity of meat 2/3 the mass of his head.
Pez loved having his chin rubbed. If you stopped before he wanted you to, he’d let out a little growl. So there was a lot of chin stroking, given gladly and so appreciated.
It’s the last I saw of him before the call came yesterday.
Like people with a chronic and incurable condition, you can tell how well they’re doing by how they eat. If their appetite is great, they’re feeling pretty good. When they stop eating it’s very bad.
If they are engaged, the disease isn’t rolling them. When they hide in unusual places, death draws near.
And that’s how it went. One or two very bad days, medicine providing no relief from disease’s grip, and it was over.
Fourteen or fifteen years is a long time to have a cat. However, when they’re such good little fellows of gentle soul it seems they’re almost invulnerable, that they’ll be with you forever. But then it comes time to learn again that for everyone there’s a beginning and an end. As well as a long period in between in which fond and happy memories are forged.
Catering to the American love of technology expressed as mountains of computer servers, wires and really big numbers, this CNN story on how Watson — the IBM supercomputer celebrity — could be a game-changer in cancer diagnosis.
In the case of my deceased friend, no number of suggested diagnoses, arranged in a prioritized list, would have made a difference. And so that would be with many, many cancers, often discovered too late to cure. Unfortunately, that’s frequently the nature of it.
The partnership here is between Sloan-Kettering cancer hospital in New York and IBM. The hospital will turn over all its cancer case histories to Watson’s brain.
One of those will be my father’s. He was diagnosed early. It didn’t save him although he lasted five years through a succession of agonizingly difficult treatments. He did not actually die at Sloan-Kettering.
His last trip involved a suggestion that he undergo a round of chemotherapy but that the prospects were not good. He left the hospital for a quack cure in the Bahamas and died a few weeks later.
Today I wonder what’s in his file at Sloan-Kettering and how that kind of thing makes much of a difference lost in the ocean of Watson’s data storage media.
Local blues guitar legend Bugs Henderson, the fiery blues-rocker with the wicked six-string sting, died Thursday night from complications of liver cancer. He was 68.
Henderson’s death at his home in Jefferson, Texas comes a mere four days after a huge benefit with a slew of well-known musicians was held at Palladium Ballroom to raise money for his medical expenses. Henderson had no health insurance and the cost of his care was mounting. Henderson did not attend that Palladium benefit because he was at home under hospice care.
Henderson, who was born in Palm Springs , Calif. but grew up in Tyler, Texas and spent a part of his life living in Dallas, was not only beloved in the United States as well as overseas, but he was also respected for his signature blend of blues, rock and funk. He was a sweetheart of a guy, too. I only interviewed him once by phone, but it was a relaxed, joyful and genuine conversation.
Thank heaven for hospice care. It’s the only thing left when the end is certain.
Henderson achieved some recognition, first as the guitarist for Texas garage band, Mouse and The Traps, an act with regional hits.
The songs would grow in stature as a niche audience for Sixties pyschedelia and garage punk grew in the late Eighties. Today they’re all preserved — in the cloud, so to speak, on YouTube.
Mouse and The Traps’ best tunes were Maid of Sugar — Maid of Spice, the electric Bob Dylan rip — A Public Execution, and Lie Beg Borrow and Steal, embedded below.
Dig the hepcat sitar line, mimicked on what sounds like banjo, prior to the fuzzed up riff.
Henderson also wrote material used by Bloodrock, a gritty and somewhat frightening-looking Texas rock band that hit the singles charts once, in 1971 with “DOA,” a song about going through the windshield, distinctively performed over the wailing of an ambulance or police car siren.
After Bloodrock, Henderson became second guitarist for Nitzinger, another Fort Worth act that hit that momentarily hit the big time with a trio of major label records, all of them far too hairy and unpalatable for any real success in the American pop market.
Here’s “God Bless the Pervert” with John Nitzinger and Henderson on guitars, from that band’s One Foot in History. It would appear to be in part inspired by Charles Whitman, the Texas Sniper.
But the meat of Henderson’s career was spent growing old with the blues. You can visibly age, lose your hair, even be pretty ugly, and continue to play it for those toiling and slogging toward the end along with you.
“The Big D Shuffle” is emblematic of Henderson’s music and the Texas brand of player’s blues rock. Everyone has to have an instrumental showcase, perhaps several, and Henderson’s shuffle (his Texas band was called the Shuffle Kings) is true to the tradition.
Anyone who likes ZZ Top’s “Apologies to Pearly” will be immediately satisfied.
If the music you’ve played has the span exhibited in the excerpts, you’ve done a real good job.
That’s how I’ll always remember my friend Don Hunt’s voice. It had a slight Texas lilt to it whether picking up the phone or walking toward his car just before going on one of his guided walks in Pasadena.
In fact, I still find myself squelching the urge to call after reading something I thought he might be reading or seeing on tv only twelve days after his death. He’s gone and it brings a pang. But that was one of the patterns of friendship, the sudden brief chat to laugh and gossip about football or a political figure.
Of course, that’s not all we did.
Don Hunt showed me Pasadena in a way I’d never appreciated. In fifteen years here I’d never walked the neighborhood of the Rose Bowl and its playing fields. Don showed me the route from houses above, down into the ravine and back up as one of his favorite morning things.
There was the stroll of the Caltech campus, too, always ending at the turtle pond, regularly done at those times when the student body could be counted on to be away for the summer or on holiday. Perhaps we’d find a good taco truck, he’d say. We didn’t but that never stopped us from having a proper lunch afterward.
There were many trips into the Pasadena arroyo, my favorite being the time we went to a horse paddock for the swells, buried deep in it near the border of South Pasadena. I told him we needed to sneak in some sugar or carrots the next time.
One hot morning early last year Don decided we’d walk the upper-upper class district on Pasadena’s west edge. We somehow lost our bearings a little and wound up in Eagle Rock. At which point I asked if maybe we should take a taxi back so as not to wear him out or get to lunch too late.
Don laughed. A taxi was never a serious consideration although we had to ask for a directions from a lady jogger, one we’d seen an hour and a half earlier, thankfully spied circling back toward us. She laughed and told us what street to go up to get back where we belonged. This was after we’d seen peacocks at somebody’s mansion and been hailed by one of the local noblemen who was driving an old orange Volkswagen Thing.
The Thing-driving fellow had spied Don’s T-shirt, which advertised Brophy Brothers, a restaurant/bar on the Santa Barbara marina and come screeching to a halt. It was a place we’d been many times. Don liked it so much that, in addition to purchasing a T-shirt, he stole one of its menus so he had something to jog fond remembrances of fried clam and beer-boiled shrimp dishes past.
But at first I thought we were about to be questioned on what we were doing in the area. Interlopers! Pretenders! But no, the man only wanted to tell us how great it was to see another guy who loved Brophy Brothers and that he wished he was there that Saturday morning. He had judged the quality of character, and done rather well I might add, in eyeballing the nature of Don Hunt’s T-shirt.
Don Hunt liked food and drink with his friends. It was how you shared the day and fed the social animal. He convinced me I could grill anything and, as a consequence, for years — 9 months each, late afternoons on Monday or Sunday were reserved for cookouts in a backyard a few blocks north of Pasadena City College.
These do’s went on for a few hours with the grilling usually not taking place until just after sunset. Don always stood near the cooking meat. He loved being part of the action, smelling the smoke, and if a floodlamp had burned out and not yet been replaced he’d occasionally hold a flashlight so none of the beef was charred or went onto the ground. Important details!
In those months when cooking out wasn’t the best idea — believe me, it does occasionally get too cool for it in Pasadena — we’d be inside. At which point our friend Beth would take over most of the food preparation in the kitchen. And we’d stand around, in close proximity, just soaking in the bonhomie that comes from making a meal we’d enjoy together.
Don Hunt was born in Austin, TX, in 1944. He was over a decade older than me and apparently knew early on what he wanted in life, which was to be a journalist. He edited the high school newspaper, got an interview out of Carol Burnett through the Austin city newspapermen’s club and went on to the University of Texas.
From there, four years and he was off to West Palm Beach in Florida as a sportswriter. Then to Norfolk and the Virginia-Pilot and, finally, recruited to the Los Angeles Times.
I met Don late in his career. He was the weekend editor for Los Angeles city edition/front sections and was a friend of a friend who worked with him and whom I’d come to southern California with almost twenty years ago.
She invited Don to dinner. I have never made pals quickly or easily but I liked Don at once because of two things. Unlike many, he did not immediately talk too much. And he was never nosy. He was always a gentleman with a subtle and dry wit that flashed more as he got to know you.
Don was a veteran editor at the Los Angeles Times when I came to know him, very highly regarded by his colleagues. This was at the beginning of the newspaper’s long period of slow decline and an ever-changing cast of just bad and/or quixotic publishers from the world of corporate predation. Regular layoffs/mass firings and tricky acquisition ripoffs and divestiture business practices had become the rule.
Eventually, in 2008 he took a buyout and early retirement. It was time to leave the newspaper and get on with better matters. It left him free to enjoy travel and what everyone thought would be a great last long act. It was, almost.
You never really think about losing such a friend in a flash.
However, in August of last year Don had a sudden spell, first attributed to an adrenal insufficiency of some kind. There was testing. We thought the problem would eventually be solved, perhaps by a long regimen of supplemental pills.
But the testing went on, more scans were ordered. Suspicious-looking anomalies got more suspicious. Finally, one part of the disease — its origin in the esophagus — was photographed and biopsied.
It was a heavy blow. There had been no symptoms and Don was still quite strong.
But that’s how the disease presents. Too late to cure, spread throughout the body, the horses long gone from the barn.
That survival figures for Stage IV esophageal cancer are abominable. The choices one can make are few.
Don asked me to be his advocate, of sorts. I’d hear what the doctors said and ask questions and make requests for more information if he forgot important things to ask. Which happens when you’re getting a steady stream of bad news about your mortality.
I told Don that I figured he’d fight the disease, small battles and steps at a time. And when we got to a year we’d have a chance to reassess how it had gone.
Don didn’t have nearly that long. None of us knew it. Maybe the doctors did but they hadn’t quite plotted the entire slope of the life line in early September.
The important thing was to get into radiation therapy to get some tumors in the brain under control. The battle was joined and it was the only victory, for awhile. Don came through it. No neurological symptoms
showed. The cancer there was arrested leaving opportunity for the rest of it in the system to be hit with chemotherapy.
We still had time to enjoy some restaurants, to get to the Huntington with Beth on a sunny day, to think a little about a future when, maybe, the first rounds were behind him.
However, some cancers don’t respond to chemotherapy. In these cases your healthy bits are not at all spared from the poisons. And this was what happened.
Chemotherapy — platinum compounds, from the start, made Don way too ill. So sick, the coordinating doctor had to stop them after two rounds, the second greatly diminished in dose, just before Thanksgiving.
Well, wait, I’d say. Maybe some of your strength will come back and then they’ll give it another whack.
We could still make jokes.
Don had been losing weight at a constant rate, but not catastrophically, yet. He’d say, “My friends say I look good.” And “I could lose some, anyway.”
To which I replied: “You have my official permission to stop the diet.”
And there was the radiation doctor at the center. She had little or no patient skills. And if one didn’t actually have an appointment to see her she would not acknowledge your existence in the halls.
In fact, she’d quicken her step, perhaps to escape.
Don noticed and we’d smile as she scurried by. The woman was very short, too, and we starting saying, once out of earshot: “Next time we’ll ask ‘how’s the weather down there.'”
But the cancer advanced. Finally, there were no more treatments, no more tests. The bad effect from chemotherapy was a prognostic sign. The loss of five pounds a week, invariantly. The gradual diminution of appetite and always increasing weakness.
They were the mileage signposts, all bleak. There was nothing left to do except palliative care — hospice.
The cruelest thing was the taking of Don’s enjoyment of food.
This is common in cancer patients. Since social gatherings are linked by food and drink, not being able to do either, to be even sickened by it, is very depressing. As the amount of cancer increases the biochemistry of the body becomes deranged. Familiar tastes are suddenly nauseating. The person cannot eat because ill-defined neurochemical messages are giving the sensation of fullness, a deadly feeling which cannot be bypassed or ignored.
Doctors, the entire medical profession, know it happens to everyone. Great effort has been made to elucidate and treat this process, without any success.
Still, Don was very much himself. We could watch college and professional football (Texas beat the hated Aggies for the last time!), old movies and tv. Friends could be enjoyed and conversation had, even as the daily time in which he had strength grew shorter by increments.
This is how it would be, the doctors said.
Quality of the time left was important. There would be a period of slow decline but conditions would be stable. Eventually, though, there would be a dramatic change and the end would come.
And that is how it happened.
Don almost made it to the finish of the college football season. On the day of the Rose Bowl and parade, he was enthusiastic. It was glorious and sunny. Friends came by and we watched games together. He was even able to take in a little more nourishment than usual — awful liquid diet things called Ensures. (The refrigerator at his house in Sierra Madre is still full of them.)
The day after he needed a small refrigerator in the viewing room so he did not have to use the stairs. One was gotten in and set up. A fast fulfillment of a real need, a small win for control in the preservation of equilibrium, it was something that made everyone happy.
There were still a few more days of games. “You know, I’m really going to miss football,” Don told his friend, Carlos.
Technically, Don did make it to the end of the season.
He died on Tuesday, the tenth. The Alabama-LSU game had been Monday night. But he was so sick he missed it. It was lousy, anyway.
When it ended a few were there to bear witness and extend the heart, as much as each could in the final minutes. And it was OK.
Don Hunt didn’t beat the merciless statistics but he met them with courage. During the battles there was depression, great sorrow and lots of tears. But even through it there were times of joy and small happinesses. There were no regrets, no apparent anguish over a life not properly lived, of business left unfinished, of words left unsaid. Only the dismay that there wasn’t more time.
On Saturday, a memorial for Don was held at a friend’s house in South Pasadena. It had been raining in the morning but by the time I arrived the sun was shining brightly. At least fifty were there — brother and cousin in from Texas, close friends, career-long colleagues and neighbors. It was wonderful if frequently bittersweet.
We will all miss him so.
SoCal sunny days. Don Hunt, 1944-2012. Photo: Carlos Lozano
“If you ever worry about the future of America, there is no need: it is in good hands,” reads the lede of a piece from CBS News yesterday.
It’s the beginning of a particularly excessive and aggrandizing feel good “cancer cured” story.
These have always been a feature of the US newsmedia and the care and feeding of our culture of lickspittle. Evidence to the contrary, cancer definitely not being cured in tech-mighty western civilization, is not an antidote or harsh cold shower.
As a result, the sum of the journalistic work is simultaneously heartless, cruel and intelligence-insulting. And it always comes wrapped in shiny packaging, asking you to clap in awe and admire the wonder of something — in this case, the precocious child enrolled at an upper class school in Cupertino, CA. (Its presence in the story serves to underline only how stunning opportunities, spoil and resources are mostly only in those places now in the high end of our economic ecosystem.)
Born to Chinese immigrants, 17-year-old Angela Zhang of Cupertino, California is a typical American teenager. She’s really into shoes and is just learning how to drive.
But there is one thing that separates her from every other student at Monta Vista High School, something she first shared with her chemistry teacher, Kavita Gupta.
It’s a research paper Angela wrote in her spare time — and it is advanced, to say the least. Gupta says all she knows is its recipe — for curing cancer.
“Cure for cancer — a high school student,” said Gupta. “It’s just so mind-boggling. I just cannot even begin to comprehend how she even thought about it or did this.”
News of cancer cured, delivered in five to six hundred words, courtesy of the wealth and genius of the human DNA in the Silicon Valley.
Where humble or circumspect are not words found in the dictionary.
Of course, the young girl is cute as a button. There simply would be no other way to present it.
And it is certainly newsworthy that she has won a remarkable prize of $100,000 from the Siemens corporation for her science project.
“Angela’s idea was to mix cancer medicine in a polymer that would attach to nanoparticles — nanoparticles that would then attach to cancer cells and show up on an MRI so doctors could see exactly where the tumors are,” the piece informs.
“Then she thought shat if you aimed an infrared light at the tumors to melt the polymer and release the medicine, thus killing the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells completely unharmed.”
Attaching dyes, poisons and other reagents to malignant cells has been a vigorously pursued avenue of research since … I graduated from Lehigh University in the mid-Eighties.
However, while conceptually simple, the complexities of the genesis and biochemistry of cancer cells and how they spread in the human system remains unconquered.
Infrared light? And how does one get that and the chemotherapeutic agents into a place where there are multiple sites of malignancy, like deep inside the skull?
Or what if the particular cancer being treated just doesn’t care much if bathed in even the most toxic agents because, somehow, it’s aggressively self-repairing?
Well, one could write a book about such things and cancer would still not be finished. In fact, I recall walls of bookshelves upon walls of bookshelves on the matter in the library at the Penn State School of Medicine many years ago.
“It’ll take years to know if it works in humans — but in mice — the tumors almost completely disappeared,” adds the CBS newsman.