Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Matter of Time

I got the phone call in April of 2009. His name was Ron. He wanted me to write his autobiography. "Like a novel, a real page turner," he said.

I asked him when he wanted to start.

"Tomorrow. Today. As soon as possible."

"What's the rush?" I asked him.

 "I have just been diagnosed with mesathelioma," he said.

 I'd never heard that word before. He filled me in. "It's fatal lung cancer. Caused by exposure to asbestos. They give me, maybe 2, 3 years. See you tomorrow?"

 I was there the next day. For several months I met with him once a week, for 2 or 3 hours, taking notes on my Mac Powerbook. Then I began putting the book into shape, writing in 3rd person, like a novel, keeping with the facts but inventing characters and dialogue to keep the story moving, make it dramatic, involve the reader.

In early 2010 I had a rough draft. 365 pages. And Ron had a bad report from his oncologist. He didn't have 2 or 3 years, he had maybe 8 or 9 months. He read the draft, I made changes, a lawyer got involved. In May of 2010, a little over one year after we had started our journey, I delivered the final draft to him. He held it close, didn't smile, looked at me.

"I got some bad news this morning. They say I won't make it until the 4th of July." He looked tired, sunken, done in by the disease, by chemo and radiation, he was on oxygen now. Still he didn't quit, never complained.

I got the book to a printer. "It's a rush," I said. The printer knew it was coming and moved with lightning speed.

The first bound proof came off the press on a Wednesday. It looked terrific. No problems. I rushed over to Ron's, found him sitting in his den, oxygen tubes in his nose, feet propped up, a smile on his face. "Here it is." I handed him his book. Where the Mountain Takes Me. He turned it over in his hands, showed it to his wife, held it close to his chest.

"Thank you." His voice close to breaking. I could say nothing.

That was on a Wednesday. The following week, on Thursday, June 10, my phone rang. It was his wife. Ron had passed away. His journey was over. So, possibly, was mine. He had shown confidence in me, believed I could write this, even when I doubted myself. He was a keen editor. And his story is now told in his book. An incredible story, actually. From a difficult childhood - not sure who his dad was, a mother who dragged him around the country, depositing him at homes for children, schools, relatives. A graduate of UC/Berkeley, an engineer - where he was exposed to asbestos - for several years, one of the men who worked on the space program. Then an abrupt change in his life. He became a dentist, a pilot, a skier, a traveller. I miss Ron.

If someone hadn't written "Tuesdays with Morrie," I might have written "Thursdays with Ron." It was that kind of journey. The name of the book is Where the Mountain Takes Me. By Ron Gersten. With me. But it's his story. The book is available through Check it out.