I’ve been processing, since the death of my amazing friend, Heinz Valenta, on May 29, before I could really write anything cogent. I’ve rarely been so impacted by someone in a short year. My attraction to him was a rare soul connection.
His story, and our story, is all tied up with my world-wide cancer research. We came together in a most spectacular, unexpected way due to the power of the Internet.
In Heinz’ last days, although he is adored by a big community of friends in Boulder where he lives, he had no family present. His brother was in Singapore, his college-student son was in Vermont, and his mother was in a care facility in Canada. His housemate and dear friend Ann was maxed, unable to go to work, and not sleeping at night, because of Heinz’ increasing need for care.
Talking to Ann on the phone, I decided to throw a few things in a bag, jump in my car and buy a ticket at the airport–and look for a rental car when I got to Denver. A few hours later I was at Heinz’ bedside, learning how to care for him, administer morphine and the anti-psychotic that morphine necessitates.
I told Ann to go to bed, shut the door, and sleep deeply. She is a saint, and she needed it.
I then proceeded to have possibly the most stressful night of my life, on a mattress on the floor in Heinz’ bedroom. It wasn’t Heinz, so much, although he was agitated and needed to get up about once an hour. Really, part of the stress of that night relates to Bob. Some of Heinz’ friends told me they secretly were weirded out by Bob, a mannequin who stood at the head of Heinz’ bed. They’d asked if they could ditch him, but Heinz had earlier been emphatic: Bob stays!
Somehow, there was no rail on Heinz’ hospital bed installed in his bedroom. So I didn’t sleep, terrified that he would try to get up, and in his weakened state, fall and injure himself. I imagined him crumbling–which seemed a distinct possibility, as Heinz’ bones were now full of cancer.
If I started to doze off, I’d wake in a panic because I’d see Bob standing at the top of Heinz’ bed, and for a split second, I thought it was Heinz trying to stand. I’d gotten only a few hours of sleep the night before I came, so I was nearly delirious for lack of sleep when Heinz was restless, in pain, and often trying to sit up or stand throughout the night.
It didn’t matter how many times I reminded myself, “IT’S JUST A DUMMY!” I’d still be startled, heart pounding, every time I opened my eyes and saw Bob in the night, stock still.
On the evening of Memorial Day, unplanned, about 15 of Heinz’ friends gathered in his bedroom. Heinz was no longer saying much that was coherent. He mostly seemed to be somewhere else, in his hallucinations, or in the next world, the one he was transitioning to. Maybe both.
His friend Beth came, and played her guitar and sang some of the music Heinz was so crazy about. He loved music, talked about it constantly, loved beautiful things, women, friends and community, fast sports cars, words and good books, and life—even as it dwindled due to disease. He makes me remember to live life fully present. Being happy now—not waiting for X or Y to happen before choosing to be joyful.
At one point in our vigil, I told Heinz, not knowing if he could hear me, that there was nothing more to do. He had lived a life he could be proud of. That he was surrounded by a room bursting with adoration for him, by so many. That we were all graced forever by our relationship with him, which is eternal. I told him that where he was going, there was no more suffering there. That there was nothing to fight or resist. That we all wished him Godspeed on his journey and would love him forever and never forget him.
He visibly quieted and was never agitated again in his remaining 2 ½ days. The next morning, he spoke his last words. I woke up and walked over to him and said, “Good morning!” He said, “Good morning!” back and I was stunned. Heinz was heavily sedated, and blood vessels were bursting in his extremities, causing extreme mottling, as his body protected only core functions, neglecting extremities. He was in an advanced stage of multiple organ failure, and lucidity was rare.
Tears welled up in my eyes to hear him respond. He reached out and held my hand. “Hi, baby. Last night…..” he said, looking into my eyes and shaking his head slowly, acknowledging the wonder of a most magical impromptu evening honoring his transition. Then morphine took him away.
“I know,” I said. “It was so magical.” It meant everything to me, to know that while we couldn’t tell whether he was cognizant–he knew. He enjoyed the music, candles, words, and love that we wanted to offer as balm for the journey.
Cancer is a bitch. You suffered mightily. It wasn’t pretty. I heard you say some strong words when pain detonated fireworks in your brain. Who can blame you?
Rest in peace, Heinz. I will never forget you and your love for me, for life, for people. I pray you fly with angels.