This is about an Evergreen friend. A thinker. A philosopher.
He wasn’t formally trained that way. He was trained as a doctor. A lung doctor. Which is what’s so ironic. Three years ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Unjust, for a man who spent most of his life at Lutheran Hospital and saved others from the disease. And never once put tobacco between his own lips. Lung cancer usually comes from smoking, but not always. Not for Dr. Dennis Clifford.
I never smoked cigarettes myself but despite my wife’s warnings that cigars are even more poisonous, occasionally on working trips overseas I smoked them. Until the night I got home from a rough trip to the Middle East. We went out to eat at Tuscany Tavern and just as I was sheepishly saying that my only treats on the trip were Cuban cigars, Denny walked in. When he came over to say hello, my wife told him what I’d just told her. This tall, bearded, cerebral man looked down at me and said seven simple words: “I thought you were smarter than that.” They didn’t come from a book. They came from his heart. I never touched another cigar.
When Denny began to die, he began to write. About life. And about death. He posted dozens of engrossing essays, tens of thousands of words, on a website called CaringBridge.org. It’s a place where people share stories, whether spirited or sad, about their health.
He could always see the bright side. Like this excerpt from last year, after thinking all was lost: “I am so grateful to be able to write to you today. Last summer this certainly would have been a fantasy, but I have been given a second life for some mysterious reason and I plan to ride this wonderful wing of well being as long as it lasts.”
And sometimes he was lighthearted, writing posts in the voice of his black standard poodle named Kayla. “I've been trained to see the signs of pain in Denny’s face and how he holds his body when he says the ‘pain gremlin’ has gotten ahold of him. I don't know what a pain gremlin is; and believe me, I looked very carefully for one to chase him away because that's my job, but I never saw one.”
Denny also wrote in his own voice about that “pain gremlin,” titling one post “The Hateful Friend”: “Always there upon awakening, ready to start gnawing with its sharp weasel teeth, ready to take away your breath with a sudden sharp stab of astonishing intensity.” He recounted one particular procedure: “Imagine filling your chest cavity with gasoline and lighting it on fire. Pain that chases any consciousness from your brain until you are consumed by it.” To endure such pain is one thing. To describe it is another.
In one post profoundly titled “The Thief of Life,” Denny lucidly described his disease: “When it touches close, it smothers anything it possibly can without remorse or hesitation. It lies. It is cunning. Sometimes it knows it is going to win and toys with us dangling hope, only to snatch it away.” This Lutheran Hospital pulmonologist had seen lung cancer beat others. Now it was beating him.
One day, reading some of Denny’s overpowering posts, I was struck by something significant. Many “comments” on the pages were written by people who began with something like, “Dr. Clifford, we’ve never met, but…” The “but” always led to testimonials about how Denny was giving them the capacity to cope with their own staggering challenges, how his strength was strengthening them.
What that told me was, the posts ought to become a book. There already are books out there along these lines, like Mortality, The Last Lecture, When Breath Becomes Air. Each is unique. Denny’s would be too and would evince insights the others don’t.
So with his and his wife’s collaboration, and help from Hearthfire Books’ Kappy Kling, I wrote about it to agents and editors. But I struck out. One wrote back asking, “What does this cover that the other books don’t?” When Denny read that, it was the only time in his incessant illness that I saw some pique: “Just because others have experienced dealing with cancer doesn't mean they have the same lessons any more than each of us experiences the process of dying in the same way.” But alas, there is no book.
Early this month, Denny wrote his final post: “Cancer in the end always wins. Slowly, inexorably, mercilessly.” All treatments having failed, he was entering hospice.
Eighteen days later, his family added one more post: “Dying is hard but in the end there is peace.” Denny Clifford was gone. His death was the world’s loss. His eloquence, and his inspiration, were the world’s win.