What My Cousin's Death Taught Me About Living a Graceful, Passionate Life

Everyone needs a lodestar, someone who keeps them moving on the right path. Author Helen Schulman pays tribute to her own true north, a man who taught her much about how to live life to the fullest—and how to end it with grace.

  • Helen Schulman

Last April, my cousin David died of colon cancer at age 58. That is the most depressing line I am going to write, because there was nothing depressing about David. He was a happy man with a happy life. He knew how to celebrate what was important to him. For this reason, I’d always looked up to him. But never more so than when I watched him prepare to die.

David was six years older than me, a magical age gap when we were kids: He was old enough to always be excitingly ahead, but close enough to relate back. Or perhaps he was just kind enough to relate back. The cousin thing helped. He wasn’t my sibling, so I never fought with him. I didn’t know his faults by heart; I didn’t get to see my own reflected in his rearview mirror.

We were not similar in our interests or our tastes, but we came from the same stock—his mother and my dad were sister and brother, the offspring of Russian Jewish refugees—so we understood each other. More important, we liked each other.

As we grew older, David began to speak a foreign language: math. He earned a Ph.D. and became a leader in software engineering and the chair of his department at the University of Washington, in Seattle. He was a computer geek: tall with a great, Gandalfy beard and a sweet but corny sense of humor.

When he was first diagnosed with cancer, in 2009, David set up a website to communicate to family and friends about his illness and to receive their good wishes. It’s now a time capsule, a narrative that captures the arc of his illness: the shock of diagnosis; David’s characteristic positive-thinking reaction; his eagerness to take treatment head-on so that he could get it safely behind him; and, finally, the way chemo and surgeries wore him down. The scientist in my cousin took some intellectual pleasure in giving the details of his protocols. The mensch in him would issue warnings for the squeamish to skip ahead a few paragraphs.

Over the next few years, David went through more than 24 cycles of chemo and many surgeries, but he did not stop teaching or doing his research or being a caring father and husband and friend. Until the very end, he continued to function vigorously in the present action of his life. As a two-time cancer survivor myself, I admired him for that. I admired the way he shared information on the unrelenting progression of his disease. I admired the way that, even though he prided himself on his optimism almost to the point of defensiveness, he was frank and at times truly open about his despair, realizing at one juncture that “I’m emotionally more down than usually. Maybe it’s because I can, for now, no longer glimpse much of a future without a bunch of medical crap in the middle of it.”