Dr. Robert Buckman died on Sunday, October 9. He died in his sleep on a flight from the UK to Toronto. He was 63 and was a friend. Rob (as he liked to be called) was a friend to many as he was a well-known oncologist, an author of many books and had a fascinating history which included doing comedy with John Cleese for many years. I got to know him through his work at Princess Margaret Hospital where he continued to practice while doing seminars for patients and doctors. He was particularly good at talking to doctors about how to communicate with cancer patients. Over the past few years, he became an advisor and mentor to me as I expanded my own volunteer work within the health care community and through my previous blog (talkingaboutcancer.com). He read a final draft of my book and provided a cover recommendation. He once said that we were kindred spirits which was one of the biggest compliments I could receive. I wish him well on this next phase of his journey, whatever and wherever that may be. Actually, as a Humanist, he believed that we all just cease to exist when we die. I hope he is pleasantly surprised!
I mean this as a brief tribute to a man who has helped many people and as a nod to a lost friend. But I also want to make a point. I used to visit with Rob often when I was downtown at the hospital, but had not seen him for many months and had meant to drop by soon. Since I haven't been going to the hospital as often, "soon" stretched into "next time" and then into "too late". While he didn't have a terminal disease that I knew of, I wasn't expecting him to die but, of course, you never know. I am saddened by his passing but even more so because I left it too long and didn't get to see him again. I wanted to talk to him about some of my decisions and get his thoughts from his various viewpoints as a doctor, a Humanist, a comedian and a friend. And I just wanted to give him a hug.
A similar thing happened to me last year. I had met a very interesting man, Irwin Barker, who was a well-known Canadian comic with an unusual cancer who had already out-lived his estimated "time remaining". He attributed his extra time to his sense of humor, while undergoing treatments and suffering through severe physical problems. We met because he was interested in writing a book about cancer, humor and dying and had heard about my book. While we never really had time to become friends, I saw in him another kindred spirit and thought that we could become close. Unfortunately, with both of us going through treatments and his traveling to see family, we just never got together again. Even though he was clearly on borrowed time, his attitude and perhaps my naivete didn't allow for any sense of urgency and so next week turned into a couple of weeks and then into too late. I mourned the loss of something that could have been and I was hit hard at a time when I was suspecting that my own time was about to become more limited.
These are just two stories out of so many, many more but they highlight an important lesson for us all. Don't wait, particularly when there are time frames involved. It's easy to put off meeting that old friend who you just heard is dying of cancer or who just survived a serious heart attack. In fact, for many, the fear of facing death makes it seem even easier to be too busy and to put things off. If you wait too long, you may just run out of time and miss the opportunity to see someone for what could be the last time. Our interactions with family and friends are key to the meaning of life and are at the root of what is (or should be) truly important.
I miss Rob and will never get that last hug. I miss Irwin who I never got a chance to know. And now, with my own clock counting down, I don't want to miss any opportunities to spend time with the people who are dear to me. I don't want any of them to wait to see me, but it is a two-way lesson. I can't allow myself to wait to reach out as well.
Life is too short. Believe me. Don't wait.