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Keith Spear

A letter sent to the English Department in early March, 2010. Reprinted by author's permission. —JDK

ear friends and colleagues,

Exactly a month ago today, I received word after a series of tests that a tiny twinge of something not quite right in my abdomen, not pain exactly or even something that could be as innocuously characterized as serious discomfort, was in fact a metastatic tumor that had begun in the biliary tree and gall bladder and had already entirely over-run a number of vital systems and organs with more lesions than could be counted. It is considered a relatively rare form of cancer, highly refractory to treatment and in a word, incurable.

The team of doctors I have seen at Carle have been exemplary in their timely care and especially in their quick sharing of findings, but even they are in some disagreement about the strange distortion in my vision and the accompanying headache that have also manifested. I had some particularly excellent sections this semester and tried for a time to continue working for the sheer pleasure of it, and some of you have asked with concern about the eye patch I have been wearing: it is also the reason I am typing this message in such an absurd size.

One student who, in his writing during the fall semester, shared some very trying and personal experiences wrote to ask me about my situation, and for whatever combination of reasons, I responded pretty candidly in what I intended as a personal correspondence that I believe was then read aloud during a class, and I imagine it has led to some confusion between first hand and second hand information, and I apologize for any awkwardness this might have caused. The truth is, I want you to be clearly and properly informed, it's just that it's not something I enjoy talking about.

It's natural for the kind of caring and creative individuals of which our rich department is composed to wonder what we can do, and I want you to know that you already have. Many times over. Every day in every way. Being a member of our department has been an exhilarating experience for me, one of the highest honors of my life. It has also been so much fun, in large part due to so many of you who have befriended me and encouraged me and helped me find my own style.

I'd like to share a story: When I called my son Huckleberry to first tell him about my diagnosis, I talked about how much I've loved my life and how few regrets I have, save perhaps having never seen the Redwoods of Northern California. His immediate response was, "Would you like to, Dad?" Within hours, he had found us a cabin on the banks of the Smith River, the only undammed river in the region flowing unbroken from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific. Flights were arranged. He and his wife Michelle and their little boy Sam met Karen and me and Karen's daughter Jamie (the park ranger) in San Francisco and we flew north to Crescent City and then by car to the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park area, where we spent a week amidst the world's tallest trees, some towering more than 371 feet. One of Huck's friends sent me a copy of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Redwood Tree."

It's been remarked how artists turn ugliness into beauty, and that's exactly what we did on our trip. I have felt these powerful laser cannons of love directed at me in the persons of my traveling companions and other friends and family members, and as a consequence I have been peaceful, comfortable, and oddly happy. I am sleeping well at night and my appetite is excellent.

I don't mean to suggest that I am not disappointed and deeply shaken by what is happening, and there are times when it washes through me with an unchecked power like the force of the Smith River. In one of the ancient groves, Karen and I were out ahead and were in fact crossing a wooden bridge over a smaller stream, and Huck and the others were stopped further back taking a picture of us as we crossed the bridge. I was fine and in fact loving the hike and raised my hand in a wave with my other arm around Karen, but then the symbolism of the setting registered and a series of pictures Huck took with this amazing lens we all pitched in to buy Michelle this past Christmas captures a descent into something very much like pure pain.

But for the most part, it is a very clear and easy choice to recognize my life as a jackpot rather than an unlucky break. One of my biggest winnings was the day I joined our department. Please believe me, if there is anything specific that Karen and I think of where we could use some help, we will not hesitate to ask. A quiet, peaceful, one-day-at-a-time approach is the course we've charted for the present, along with a nightly chapter or two of Odysseus out loud. I feel like I'm in a race to see who will make it home first.

With great love and respect,

Keith Spear

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