“Been to the best doctors around, and they mostly agree,” he said.
We met every year for golf—sixteen of us, sometimes more, chasing fulfillment of a sort. The date was chosen with precision—crisp fall days and chilly nights, leaves of every color on a canvas of evergreen, a Renoir on every mountainside, good Kentucky bourbon or maybe just a light beer on the deck, cooking burgers, as crickets and whip-o-wills began their music.
Doug was always, “Chef”, the “Burger King”—originally appointed because no one else wanted the job, but he turned it into a five-star experience. We might be inside watching football or arguing over a rule of golf, but Doug never left his post at the fire, treating each morsel with great respect.
He knew the name and history of every man there—knew the right questions to ask, the best old stories to tell again, and, in some amazing way, he was aware of every conversation in the room. If a remark seemed a bit too strident or a friendly insult crossed the line, Doug asked an “off the wall” question or brought up a current event to divert the talk. This was the signal to settle down, and we knew it. It might take a newcomer several gaffes before he learned the rules. It paid to be a quick study.
In quiet conversation, he was riveting. When he mentioned Hemingway or Dos Passos or maybe Justice Holmes, it was always to nail down a point—never to name-drop. He could laugh uproariously, but most times wore a wry smile even when attempting, once again the subjugation of a fickle, seductive game. It was a bond we all shared—chasing the dream, the mastery of an illusive art-skill.
Slowly, we learned humility. Over the years, the jokes were more self-deprecating. We never learned surrender, though. It would have amounted to dishonor. And though we often talked of quitting, we knew it was a bluff. It was part of the bond—curse your fate, but never give up.
Which is why the look in Doug's eyes was so haunting during that last weekend in October in the North Carolina mountains.
“I have to make a decision, boys,” was the off-handed way he put it, but his eyes were different and couldn't bluff. “It's chemo and radiation and all that crap and no promises, either. This may be my last round for a while, so I'm just going to savor it and probably make a decision when I get back home.”
It was bad—worse, even, than he let on. Surrender was not in his vocabulary, we knew. You honor the game, no matter where your ball lands. But, those eyes!
The burgers were unimaginably wonderful. The bourbon tasted of charred Kentucky oak. And on that last night, we drifted one by one out to the deck to just stand together around a fire that Doug built.