by Mel Heller, MD
Dear Rachael, Amy, Tom, Mary, and Dean’s GISTmates:
Many of us whom you never met mourn with you.
I knew him only a short time, but Dean Gordanier was a special friend to me, as he was to all of us. I don’t know why he reached out to me, but I remember how it happened, and when. Maybe something I had posted to our Listserv touched something particularly in him – or perhaps it was a mutual desire to find meaning in close proximity with a kindred spirit, at a time of reciprocal need.
For whatever reasons, for which I shall long be grateful, Dean extended his hand, and wrote to me quite openly about himself, trusting and sensing that we had much more in common than our gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST).
Perhaps in the face of some nagging sense of urgency that cancer sometimes engenders in us to try somehow to “think things through”, Dean wanted to reflect on some thoughts about who he was and where he had come from, and share some things about what and how he felt, and what he cared so much about in the face of GIST. And so we corresponded, and I felt a kind of rapid bonding with this remarkable person.
And then Dean wondered about a possible visit last summer, down here in Maryland, when he and Rachael might be bringing their son, Tom, down this way to look at prospective colleges. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, and then, in the Fall, Dean did a very Dean-like thing.
Knowing I was an older person who wanted so much to meet our cyberfriends face to face, but who might not want to make the trip alone, how would I feel, he wondered, about his driving down from Cambridge, MA to our MD Chesapeake Shore in his yellow Porsche Boxter, to spend the night, and then driving the two of us up to Robert and Tania’s Annual Walk for GIST in Congers, NY, and thereafter, if you please, bringing me back down here – after which he would drive himself back up to Boston?
How would I feel? Amazed, but don’t dare think of it, energetic Dean, with GIST metastases lurking in your liver. Much as I might love to fly along the Turnpike and byways in a yellow Porsche Boxster, absolutely not, Dean. And so he flew down here the day before the Annual GIST walk, and I found in my home the true friend you all know.
And so we looked at each other, and talked eagerly. And then we strolled along this lovely shore, still talking together, and then through our country road to a nearby marina, and then back here in due course where my good wife, Irmgard, had prepared one of her special crab cake dinners (Irmgard makes the best crab cakes ever). And we looked at each other some more, and we ate, and talked on together – and bonded, as kindred spirits sometimes do.
And then, after an early breakfast the next morning, Dean and I climbed into my Jeep on a cold and gray day and I drove us from Maryland into nearby Delaware, then across the bridge into New Jersey, and turned the wheel over to Dean who drove the rest of the way. He drove my ‘98 Jeep with what I might call skillful abandon, but I was never happier, I thought, to be sharing such a day with a newfound friend.
Can you believe, we reminisced as though we had known each other for years – as indeed we had in a kind of way that brought back to each of us parallel memories from our own lives as we discovered, and touched with delight, on numerous things in common that we each had known at different ages and different times, and some of the distances we each had covered in our lives – until finding ourselves on the front seats of a Jeep, hurtling up the highway to meet dear cyberfriends with cancer, GISTmates whose posts had touched us, but whom we had never seen.
We were high together on the discovery of many kindred perceptions about shared experiences we had each known among life’s challenges. We sang college songs together, and a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. And I looked at Dean as he drove, and thought about his Dad, feeling as though this joyful, courageous and rather brilliant person was the worthiest son a man might have.
Dean was born in 1948, the year I graduated from medical school at the age of 26. Proud as I am of my own sons (my oldest is 49), and knowing what a son like Dean might be, I quietly wished, and prayed briefly with all my soul – as the windshield wipers brushed off a brief shower – that my young friend, Dean, might somehow live to see what his daughters, Amy and Mary, and his son, Tom, might bring into his and Rachael’s lives. It was not meant to be, but I remember to this day, the brief but fervent prayer that I mumbled as the windshield wipers seemed to be wiping both rain and tears away.
And then, after that long ride and ongoing visit together, we arrived at Congers NY, and had the grandest time, hugging shy friends we had never seen before, as though they were relatives from another part of the country.
And I watched Dean with his red vest, his small black fedora, his neatly trimmed beard, and broad smile, as our GISTers came up and got to know him on that cold, rainy day by that lake in NY. A cold day? But a warmer day was never known in our hearts.
Dean and I spoke of that, and of all of you, on our way home – and I tell you these things because I want you to know the joy that each of you gave Dean that day up there. And I watched him, later that afternoon, at Robert and Tanya’s lovely home, as Dean talked warmly, and even affectionately with a few special cyberfriends who I knew he had been so eager to see.
I knew then another thing, something else about Dean, and how loving a person his Rachael was. Dean and I had phoned each other a few times, and once when I called him Rachael told me he was at choir rehearsal, and so she and I talked for a bit, and she wished that I could somehow get him to slow down, and to stop trying to do so much for so many people.
He was her Dean, you know. Where do you think this busy lawyer, whose work with clients and with key committees of the national Bar Association took him flying from coast to coast, and whose ongoing postoperative fight against cancer required so much follow-up examination time, and waiting, and scheduling of doctor’s appointments – where do you think he found the time to write to you and me, and post to our Listmates?
Yes, Dean was up all hours of the night, reading and responding to our posts. Brilliant as he was, many of the things that Dean researched and studied about, and wrote so generously about to us, are things that are not that easily whipped off in 5 or 20 minutes. Dean was spontaneous, but conscientious and thoughtful in his posts, and never glib, I thought.
Rachael worried about all of this activity, and Dean’s late hours at the monitor and keyboard, and what all of it might be taking out of him. I tried speaking to Dean about getting enough sleep. Yes, he knew. But, he drove himself like he drove his Porsche.
Of course you also must know, without my telling you, that the vast amounts of time, and the substantial degrees of emotional energy, that Dean invested in connecting with us, were time and energy that he took from Rachael, and from their kids. How much time and emotional energy that this very good and busy man spent with us was less time left for Rachael and their teenagers?
There never seems to be enough time for the needs of teenagers – and when there it seems there might be an hour, they then are often busy with their own friends, or something else it seems. And so, parental guilt is inevitable.
And also inevitable, I find, is our guilt as children of any age when a parent dies. Even today, as a grandfather many times over, I regret that I never did hardly as much as I could have and should have for my own parents, dead these thirty or more years.
Amy, Tom, and Mary, these things take time. Your Dad and I wrote to each other, and I have recounted here for you only a few memories we shared during a single day and an overnight together. You have shared much more than I, or any of us, with your Dad – and as you grow, so will your love, understanding, and appreciation of him grow. I still am learning to appreciate my own father, and understand what his life was really like, as my own life unfolds.
Your Dad was a hard act to follow, but no one says you have to follow unless you want to follow. He must have told you that. He knew that Rachael would help you each to find your own way. We spoke of such things too, as we drove those additional five hours together on our way back down from Congers NY, talking and wending our way to The Philadelphia Airport to catch his plane to Boston.
Dean knew the odds, and faced them bravely, wisely, actively, and very shrewdly, with as much judgment and tactical skill as any general might have in fighting a battle. I know that Rachael, your Mom, and each of you have Dean’s courage and love to hold you through the years
In the end, your father had everything a man might want:
a loving wife and family, a distinguished and successful career, a good name, bright and beautiful children, even a yellow Porsche, and more, much more – everything in the end that a man might want, except luck. He ran out of that, and that, my Dears, it seems to me, is what it was, and sometimes can come down to for each of us, in this brave world or human endeavor. Help your Mom too in sharing your young, bright, and enduring future together. Your Dad envisioned it. You are not alone.
With much love,
Dr. Melvin Heller
15 Tower Road
Chesapeake City, MD21915
February 27, 2004