long on diagnosis, short on cure: remembering rob with don chaffer

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Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

long on diagnosis, short on cure: remembering rob with don chaffer

time flies when you’re having fun, right? well, what does time do when you’re living in the wake of loss?

truth be told, time has flown and we’re approaching 6 months since we lost rob. i was actually going to wait to write this until august 13—the 6 month anniversary of his death—but this is just one of these things that i need to write. now.

rob’s been on my mind quite a bit lately and i think, more than anything, it was triggered by a don chaffer house show last friday night (which was great). don chaffer—1/2 of folk/worship/nebulous band waterdeep and one of my favorite artists—plays a significant role in my final memories of rob.

not too long after rob’s leukemia diagnosis and the beginning of his lengthy stays in the hospital receiving chemo, i had the brilliant idea to bring rob an album with which i assumed he could connect: don chaffer’s 2003 solo effort, what you don’t know. now, what you need to know about this album—which is probably in my all-time top 10 or 20 albums—is that it was written in between his mother dying of cancer and his father finding out he had cancer. throw 9/11 in the middle of the writing process and you have the makings of a deeply, deeply depressing album of catharsis and despair.

and i brought this to a guy newly diagnosed with leukemia who was confined to a tiny hospital room.


ok, so yes, the album is deeply sad, but to me, the album also contains a certain transcendent hope and beautiful human connection. don chaffer did, in fact, live through this. 🙂

beyond the content, though, after dropping off the album, i checked back in several days later to see what he thought. rob—in rob’s own keep-it-real kind of way—informed that he didn’t like “this hippie dude’s voice, guitar playing or anything about the album.”

album recommendation fail.

dejected, i didn’t bring it up to him anymore.

fast forward 9 months or so. rob’s journey with cancer continued. to borrow a cliché, it was, in fact, the best of times and the worst of times. there were highs and lows, but nevertheless, he was still regularly in the hospital. there was plenty of light, but rob’s dark times were the nights when he couldn’t sleep (which were often). those were the times when hope turned to despair. when the glow of life turned to the prospect of death.

one morning, though, i woke up to an email from rob. it was sent just after 4 a.m. here’s the entirety of the message:

hey man, sorry for blowing off that album you let me borrow. you know me, i’m rob. i decided to listen to it again instead of watching my 7th episode of MASH tonight. i just wanted to say thanks. not what i would do if i made an album, but this was good stuff:

[**the following are lyrics from the song, “long on diagnosis, short on cure.”**]

Now, you can take your chance
Beat your fists on the boards of despair
You end up with splinters in your knuckles
Thinking, “unjust, unfair.”
Or you can fall on the altar of sadness
And call for the knife.
But either way you’re just denying your hearing.
Put your ear to God’s chest, and clearly hear
It’s the pulse of life.

thank you.

the next time i saw rob, there was a palpable change in his attitude and demeanor. no doubt, rob had his rob-like moments, but something changed. we never explicitly talked about it, but i think in the middle of that night, listening to a man bear his soul about the death of his mother and the newfound affliction of his father, rob had some kind of transcendent moment. i’m not sure if it made the dark turn light or if it lifted him from his bed or if he experienced something other-worldly, but something switched.

music is powerful. it connects us and completes us. it brings clarity and lifts us to places we normally can’t go. it seeks out the broken and re-assembles the pieces. it makes the light peek through places that are otherwise covered in dark.

it makes a man on the track to death see life.

the last time i was physically present with rob was a little over a month before he died. he was hooked to machines and when he would manage to speak, it was only in choppy phrases. before leaving after the weekend, we had just a minute alone in the room. i asked rob, “whadda ya think? when’re you gettin’ outta here?”

he took a moment to respond, briefly unable to get up a breath to talk. he finally turned his head toward me and with a hint of a smirk, he said, “long on diagnosis, short on cure.”

rob didn’t want to die, but i think he made some sort of peace. thanks to my musical friend don, i think rob was able to do it through the power and connectivity of music.