Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tribute to a Friend

For Red, From The C3 Exchange Men’s Group

The strongest man in the world
Is the man who lives with intention;
Who dares ask the universe why he is here,
Then dares to live according to the answer.

The strongest man in the world
Is the man who suffers indignity
At the hands of the world,
Then pays the world back with
Grace and humility.
The strongest man in the world
Is the man who rises to another day of suffering
And decides that it is a good day
To contribute something positive to the world.

He is a marine, yes,
and there are so many strong marines.
But this one had the strength to be a teacher
And the courage to be a poet.

Though this marine looked the Devil in the eye,
In the Devil’s face,
he persevered for five decades
to inspire every life touched.

This marine undertook his final mission:
In contempt of his pain,
He volunteered to love life intensely
And to love the love of his life unabashedly,
And to shower his fellow man with compassion.

He has marched bravely through his End Time,
bearing with dignity an unimaginable burden.
He must still have been the strongest man in the world.
We stand proud to have been called “friend” by Leonard Bird,
And we will always call him “friend.”

End Time

Leonard Bird came to the end of his life journey on October 22, 2010 in Grand Haven, Michigan. He was born on June 3, 1936 in San Diego, California to George Bird and Florence Crockett.

He was a disabled veteran of the U. S. Marine Corps. In 1957 he, with 900 other marines, was ordered to witness the largest above ground detonation of a nuclear weapon in Yucca Flats, Nevada. This exposure to extreme levels of radiation caused the cancer which took his life.

After discharge he went on to receive a PhD from the University of Utah, to teach four years at Concordia College in Morehead, Minnesota and to teach for 31 years as a professor of English at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. His area of expertise was the work of William Shakespeare. Many students and friends fondly called him Red Bird.

He led several student trips abroad to England and Bali, Indonesia and taught for the International Education System in Japan.

He published three books, "River of Lost Souls," a collection of poetry; "Folding Paper Cranes, An Atomic Memoir;" and very recently "The Scorned Ally, A Revisionist Novel of the Spanish, Cuban, American War."

He is survived by his wife, Jane Leonard, who shared his passion for travel to places as far-flung as Nepal and Costa Rica; his son, David (Teri) Bird; his daughter, Maria (Clint) Thorne; his grandchildren, Kiersti and Eric Bird, and Mercedes and Persephone Thorne; a sister, Jan Marini (Reed Anderson); brothers, Jeffrey and Robert (Mary) Bird; cousins in Salt Lake City, Utah; and sisters-in-law, Myrna (Ken) Duthler and Barbara (Ed) Post; brother-in-law, Larry Medendorp, (Nancy Kik); and nine nephews and nieces.

Memorial contributions in his name may be made to the G. Leonard Bird Fund at the Grand Haven Community Foundation, 1 South Harbor, Grand Haven, MI 49417.

A celebration of his life will be held at C3Exchange in Spring Lake, Michigan on November 7, 2010 at 4 p.m.

Please visit to sign Leonard's guestbook or share a memory with his family.

Arrangements are by Klaassen Family Funeral Home.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


A lesson dying patients need to keep re-learning: The vagaries of EndTime do alter plans. That reality does not keep many of us from continuing to make plans. Nor should it.

I apologize for my absence over these past few weeks. After a month of tough sledding, I again feel strong, primed, and wanting to talk. That is to say, I feel strong enough to think. My problem during this particular siege has not been an inability to "do" things--business, publication chores, errands, etc. Rather, the problem has been an inability to think--to observe, to analyze, listen, write, in short to create. Today I give gratitude to all those forces that have, once again, pulled me back from the brink of despair.

Back to "strong, primed, and wanting to talk." The question for the day is, How is Hospice enriching my EndTime? What can Hospice do for you?

My goal is to live free--as long as possible, with as much relish, awe and gratitude as possible. Whether for a week, a month, or one or two last gorgeous seasons, my goal is to inhale this wondrous world, reach out to those whose hunger touches mine, and sing my songs. That, Brothers and Sisters, is freedom. That's heart dancing delight. NOW, today, this soul sings.

When Looking Back

At times we wander through the dreamscapes
Of our lives like lost pilgrims. We stumble down a path
That twists along the cliff before we plunge into the night.
But even now, remember how, as little children
Our delighted senses used to dance and sing?

Even as the pale glories of our youth give way to fears,
And to the lengthening shadows of autumn afternoons,
Strain to taste again the symphony that plays
Between the changing seasons and the well tuned soul.

In the scented air of dawn, when dew sits like hand-strewn
Pearls upon the fading light of sugar maple leaves, inhale.
In the quiet of the pale moon, which casts its spell
Upon the tide, bewitching every creature of the sea,
Look. And in the piercing song of meadowlarks
Singing to an absent mate at sunset, listen.
Even Now, in all these pulsing, sensate wonders
And a thousand, thousand more, Life still sings.

From my point of view, the patient's point of view, what are the practical components of such a Vision?

1. Palliative Care

To the greatest degree possible, keep the patient free of pain. Simultaneously, keep him or alert, conscious, in touch with life and loved ones. Alert and free of pain. That is a delicate balance. Palliative care as defined and administered by Hospice continues to enhance my ability to stay "in touch."

What's not to like? Unfortunately, most popular connotations of "hospice" are dark, fear producing rumors, half-truths, taboos, and a world of guilt and denial. As a prime example, "Morphine used to suppress the pain will turn me or my loved one into a semi-conscious, drooling addict." No! What the morphine is more likely to do is suppress pain so that the patient can stay in touch with the world around him, rather than drowning in a morass of physical and often psychological misery.

Moreover, patients, caregivers, even physicians, have concerns about failure and guilt. Guilt, and fear. Though such doubts too often remain un-voiced, they do exist, often to the detriment of both the patient and the family. To surrender, to give up, is a sign of weakness. Failure, guilt and denial chase each other's tail, and insist on soldiering on.

So what have I given up by stepping out from beneath a very leaky umbrella? As I related in an earlier post, I gave up a series of extremely expensive but ineffective drugs designed to treat two different terminal cancers. I also gave up a series of side effects that were rapidly destroying my life.

2. In Home Care

Our greatest single need is to die at home, nested, supported by family and friends, and by our books and art and music and other totems that have enriched our lives.

Hospice alone can not fill that deep need. We need, or soon will need, a devoted caregiver. If we are lucky--and many are not--we get that precious care from our most profoundly appreciated loved one, most often our spouse. To die in the arms of a devoted caregiver is to die well. In my wife, Jane Leonard, I am blessed with such a caregiver. She sacrifices much to keep me going.

Note: A later blog post will focus on Caregivers, what they give, at what cost, and what they need from us.

When we give thought and heart to the countless souls who have neither loved ones nor nest, we can only weep. These displaced humans die as they have lived, the wretched of the earth. In America, at least--and in many other countries and cultures--Hospice does everything it can to meet that last deep need to live, to be--and then eventually to die--at home.

3. Nursing Care
Again, to the greatest degree possible, Hospice is a home-based service. My nurse comes to me. She checks my vital signs, and we discuss symptoms, changes in condition, and my pain and energy levels. We also chat about the state of my mind. She usually stays half an hour or so, though someone remains on call 24/7. Should a social worker be useful, one is available. Hospice has a grief group for the survivors, or those whose loss lurks just over the hill or on the immediate horizon. While I do not pretend to be an expert on Hospice, I am a very interested student. I hope to learn more, and to pass it on through the prism of what I see and feel along the way. In the meantime, check out an excellent site:

4. Prescriptions

Hospice provides and delivers all necessary ingredients to support their sense of my physical and mental needs: Everyone is different. Hospice brings me dexamethazone (one 4MG pill per day); morphine (30 MG twice a day); Zolpidem (20 MG before bed); and, when needed, lorezepam (one .5MG tab, when needed for anxiety.) My favorite drug is oxygen, which I use when sleeping. I have to provide my own "Medical Marijuana." Among the subjects I'll cover in a future post is the what, how and why of these ingredients.

5. The Vision:
Remember, Hospice is not primarily a place. Rather, it is vision of what can be, a vision of how to enhance and enrich the EndTime experience. That vision matches my needs, for which I am profoundly grateful. That same Vision can enhance your needs, or the needs of your loved one.

Recommended Reading

Read "Letting Go" in The August 2, 2010 New Yorker. The author, Atul Gawande, writes a superb article on the question: "What should medicine do when it can't save your life?" The following sentence catches the flavor: "Modern medicine is good at staving off death with aggressive interventions--and bad at knowing when to focus, instead, on improving the days that terminal patients have left." Read it!

Shameless Commercial

One source of my renewed energy is self-delight with the recent publication of The Scorned Ally, my novel set in Cuba and America in 1898. A serious anti-war novel, The Scorned Ally moves a few strong but heartsick friends through the chaos of war, loss and desolation. Finally, in a victory of sorts, the harrowed survivors leave the mountains to pursue old visions fueled by new Hope.The Scorned Ally is available on, along with Folding Paper Cranes, an Atomic Memoir. Both books will soon be available on Kindle and its various competitors. I hope to have copies in local bookstores soon. If offered the chance and time--and energy willing--I'll do a few mini-seminar/ book signings.

- Leonard Bird

Monday, July 12, 2010

At the Crossroad

Note: Since my first post introduces what this blog is all about and why, please start with that post.

For many of us who have made the hard choice and abandoned all curative medicine, there comes first a hard clarity, a soul bending epiphany: The cancer is getting worse, and the medicine is killing me. What once worked, works no longer. Though radiation, surgery and chemotherapy may once have done some good, these treatments have become useless. No, worse than useless. They are destroying what little life and energy still remain.

The heart bending epiphany? It is past time to change directions, past time to choose and follow a different path. Otherwise . . . in the process of trying to extend the amount of time, the quantity, we have left, we end up damaging any remaining chance for Quality. Through a grinding combination of starvation, fatigue, unexplained symptoms and acute depression, we pull away from and cease to value the beauties that still surround us, and which still possess the magic power to bless us.

Here's how the Crossroad experience can happen: While in Mexico this March, I experienced all but total collapse. After four months on a virulent anti-kidney cancer drug, I couldn't eat, lost fifteen pounds, couldn't manage stairs or walk more than a block or so, and withdrew from social life. By the time we left Mexico, my hemoglobin count had dropped to 7.0. When I got home I needed an immediate transfusion of two plasma units. I also needed a new direction.

A week after returning home, my wife and son and oncologist leaned in close so they could hear my faint but firm voice. "No more medicine. It is killing me. Not one more step in that direction. No more!"

My doctor patted me on the knee and nodded. There were tears in her eyes. "We need to talk about Hospice. Their business is to enhance your End Life, to enhance your quest for quality in your final months.

Hospice does. It already has. I no longer worry much about how long I'm going to be here, though like most of you, I cherish projects that will never bloom. I try to take charge. I give thought and energy to the old value-quality questions: How do I spend my remaining time? Where and how do I find solace, beauty, love and small bursts of joy? It helps me to to paraphrase Ghandi: Be the change you want to see in your Self.

Here, now, in these few but potentially rich months that precede our last breath, we can continue to live. Our strength will wane and our bodies will gradually succumb. No question. In the meantime, however, let us realize the potential fullness of Now. Let us be more present in the moment. And when we want to visit the past for a while, let us be fully present in the fabrics and textures of that journey too.

Many of us suffering from the terminal stage of terminal illness have made the hard choice. We are making this last walk all but naked, though still in possession of a few tools, which I'll discuss in coming blogs. In my next post, for example, I'll focus on Hospice. What precisely is it? What does it have to offer us? What are the rumors, half-truths and taboos that surround Hospice? And why should we investigate such care before we arrive at the crossroad and are forced to make crucial choices? In the meantime, lie back in the grass and enjoy this last summer.


When remorse afflicts my soul for ignoring entropy,
My science laughs and whispers: "Relax old man.
The time the wind took to hone one red stone
is no more than one beat of a raven's wing
Carved on the carousel of a galaxy."
Then I lie back in the grass and smile
at drifting clouds, as they slowly change
from warring giants to meandering dreams.

Leonard Bird

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hiking through End Time

I speak to those of us moving through final stages. This random series sheds light--and heart--on End Time, or End Life, our last great challenge, and our last opportunity to shine.

Along the way I will have much to say about the effective beauties of Hospice.  My readers are those already on the Hospice path, those weighing the option, and the often poorly informed relatives and caregivers who need to know what Hospice
is all about. How can their arduous and often lonely tasks be eased and supported by the Hospice Way, the way of loving, palliative care?

I am interested in two questions: First, how, without “curative” support,  can we continue to resist the cannibalism that consumes our bodies? What can we do to strengthen and encourage ourselves? What tools can help us along?

Second, how do we most effectively, even joyously, make use of these few extra weeks or months? The The first question deals with rest, exercise, palliative medications, appetite, oxygen, etc. This question is secondary because it deals with means rather than end.
Whether we have a few uncertain weeks left, or a year or more, the important, the all-important question is, How do we live our lives? In the present? In the Now? Where do we turn for richness, humor, value? How do we continue to find Quality in our own hearts, in those who surround us, in flowers, music and light? How can we know joy?
Blog entries will most often include poetry, teachings, heart based tales, relevant memories from my own eight year struggle with two fatal cancers, and ways to delight the senses. Two relevant mantras: As in all aspects of our passage through life, “Make the most of it!”  And, with as much awe and gratitude and affirmation as we can muster, “Viva la Vida!”
Enough for an introduction. I’ll end today with a poem I wrote almost eight years ago, shortly after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. May these words touch your heart.
Slow down, old friend. Come home.
Listen to the trilling meadowlarks.
Celebrate the magic song of life
Shining in this field at late light.
Succumb to the mood of the pale moon,
Who casts her spell upon the tides,
Bewitching every creature of the sea.
Inhale the pinon-scented breeze of dawn,
When dew sits like hand-strewn pearls
Upon the fading light of autumn leaves.
Relax, my friend.  In all these wonders
And a thousand more, life still sings.

Leonard Bird