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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Cancer called, and a Spokane poet answered with a moving inventory of precious moments

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 27, 2020

The first memory that came to Dennis Held, as he began taking notes for an essay that he would title “What I’ll Miss,” emerged from his youth: Riding shotgun while a friend drove down a highway, reaching out into the slipstream.

“I started with the feeling of holding my hand out of a pickup truck, catching the wind like a hawk,” he said. “Something that small and particular. I thought, ‘I’m going to miss that.’ ”

Into his little black notebook it went.

Then, as Held – a Spokane poet, editor and community organizer who has been living with Stage 4 cancer for a year and a half – continued thinking deeply about his life, he kept adding to the list of what he had loved in his 62 years: Picking huckleberries on Mount Spokane. Shooting a sneaky step-back jumper. Skipping a rock. Finding a fossilized clam shell in Wyoming. Sand bars and caramel sauce.

“Whenever something would arise that struck me as particularly poignant, I would write it down,” he said.

On and on he went, working toward what became an essay that is both a celebration of his life and a reckoning with his death. In it, Held confronts his fate with blunt humor and gravity, humility and wisdom.

“It’s hard not to think about the things I’ll miss,” the essay opens. “I don’t imagine myself sitting on a cloud with my angel wings on and feet dangling, moping about everything I’m missing. No, it’s more of a series of sharply observed moments, bittersweet, but mostly sweet. Things I might not have noticed before the diagnosis. Together, they represent the small gifts that make up a lifetime. My lifetime.”

• • •

When we met for an interview last week, I asked Dennis how he’d been feeling.

“Today,” he said gamely, “about 80 percent.”

He was sitting in the garage of his good friend, the poet and artist Zan Agzigian, along with another good friend, Verne Windham. Windham is the program director at Spokane Public Radio and a musician.

Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

They had helped to host a kind of farewell party for Held more than a year ago in Agzig- ian’s back yard – a farewell organized at a moment when Held’s death seemed more imminent than it turned out to be. His many friends brought side dishes and Dennis grilled chicken, ribs and corn for everyone.

I’ve known Dennis for years and consider him a friend; that farewell potluck was just like him – warm, unassuming, friendly, fun, irreverent, a touch irascible. Whatever traces of sadness there were did not come from him.

Held is a Wisconsin native, the fourth of eight kids and former college instructor who moved to Spokane in 2002. He’s a poet – his most recent book is “Not Me, Exactly” – and freelance editor; he’s organized readings, helped run a literary magazine and been a regular supportive presence for other writers at readings all over town. He’s also been involved in various community campaigns as well, including the effort to rename the former Fort George Wright Drive as Whistalks Way.

Windham calls him “the total package on the literary arts.”

“He’s not only a great poet, but he’s a great writer, a great essayist, a great scholar of other people’s writing, a great supporter of other people’s writing,” he said.

Windham owns the tiny house in Vinegar Flats that Held has been living in, a lovely spot at the bottom of a small cliff beside a creek. Windham said the past year and a half, in which he’s been able to watch Held deal with his illness, to help him and to see others come into his orbit and help him, has been a privilege, a chance to see so many embrace “the full-tilt Dennis, warts and all.”

Agzigian said watching Held deal with this season in his life has been inspirational. It is the work of the poet to look closely at life without flinching, she said, and he’s done that. The illness is less important than how he has answered it.

“The beauty is the journey that takes place,” she said. “I’m inspired by Dennis and that he’s living this journey and that he’s not afraid to talk about life and death.”

In the garage that sunny afternoon, it was clear that Dennis was not feeling great. He’s been afflicted of late with inflammation in the joints and pain all over. His fingers and knees are swollen and he gets tired easily.

“I can’t move very well – I totter around,” he said, holding out his arms to mime tottering.

His characteristic wit and spirit were on full display, though. He regaled us with a hilarious, and largely unprintable, evisceration of our culture’s materialist obsessions, our panicked and continual gathering of stuff, and our related failures to care for the neediest members of society.

“What we need is generosity,” he said. “The further we get from kindness and generosity for each other … I don’t even want to finish that sentence.

“Be generous! Be generous with each other!”

• • •

He realized he was sick in July 2019, when he felt an unbearable pressure in his chest while driving one day. Before long, doctors had traced the problem: He had a melanoma that had spread into his gallbladder, his lymph nodes and his brain.

One of his doctors told him, “Melanoma is an angry cancer,” and his experience confirmed it.

“I had an angry cancer,” he said. “I had seven tumors in my brain.”

Stage 4. As he often says, there is no Stage 5. And Held’s angry cancer is a particularly rare and pernicious kind. He’s told he is the 13th case of a melanoma settling into the gallbladder.

His initial thought upon his grim diagnosis: “You know what? I am not going to get treatment. I’ve seen what happens to people who get chemo and other treatments.”

Another doctor implored him to reconsider. If you don’t, he said, you’ll be dead by Christmas. He urged Held to consider gamma-knife technology, which finely focuses a single high-powered dose of radiation on tumors without damaging the surrounding tissues.

“He said, ‘Try everything,’ ” Held said.

• • •

As Held put things into his notebook, thinking about the small and important pleasures of his life, he began to see the strange connections, the tether between the seemingly unrelated materials of his life.

An editor he worked with urged him toward those contrasts – toward shining a light on the places where it might have seemed that things did not fit. Toward the juxtapositions and contradictions.

In his essay, he enthuses poetically about the ocean – and ice cream sandwiches.

About his love of fossils – and old bottles found in dumps.

About finding arrowheads – and pennies in parking lots.

He intersperses these appreciations with the bare, clinical details of his cancer and his treatment. About the tonnage of the gamma-knife machine, and his hours in the infusion chair as he receives immunotherapy meds.

“What has become clear to me is that when it comes to our end times, everything becomes dear. Becomes worthy of note,” he wrote. “And what we encounter as individuals turns out to be contained within something that is much larger, much more like a plasma, or a gel, that simply encompasses and encapsulates it all. All the hard parts, the pointy bits, the tragedy and the melancholy, sit comfortably alongside the ecstasy and the joy at the miracle of simple human existence.”

• • •

Held agreed to try everything. To undergo the gamma-knife treatments. Over the course of four sessions, the tumors in his brain were shrunk by the radiation.

“It has not recurred,” he said. “That part of it has not recurred.”

He is still dealing with cancer, of course, but those treatments helped to extend his life. Instead of dying before last Christmas, he was here for this one.

He wrote his essay in the earlier days of his illness, more than a year ago. KPBX aired a reading of it a couple of times. This year, the online journal Terrain.org – which has published some of Held’s poetry – posted “What I’ll Miss” on Thanksgiving Day.

It was shared almost 1,800 times on Facebook, according to the site’s editor-in-chief, Simmons Buntin, and became the site’s most-read post. It has brought Held reactions from people in his past he hadn’t heard from in years.

“I heard from students I had taught in the late 1980s,” he said. “I heard from teachers I had as an undergrad.”

It reached the eyes of luminaries such as Ted Kooser, the former U.S. poet laureate and among the most well-known of all American poets, and Andrea Cohen, a prize-winning poet who runs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As a result, earlier this month, Cohen hosted Held for a virtual reading of his poetry for the Blacksmith House. The first poem he read – so characteristic of Held’s irreverent humor, his blunt gaze at the human experience, his willingness to unsettle and his ability to discover poignancy in the surprising places – was his “Ode to My Scrotum.”

As someone who has been a writer for decades, and who knows the fickle ways that readers do and do not make their way to your work, the recent acclaim has been gratifying.

“It just keeps having this reach,” Held said, sounding happily surprised.

In the end, the image that started it all – his hand out the window of a speeding pickup, catching the wind like a hawk – didn’t make it into the essay. As all writers know, the initial impulse may bear faint resemblance to the final work, and in a life of full of precious moments, there will be far too many to mention.

• • •

The grim, blunt question that looms, always, around a cancer diagnosis is: How long?

“Nobody will say how long, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “But I’d be thrilled to make it to spring. I’m thrilled to have made it to another Christmas.”

He has his eye on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, when he plans to have his first sip of alcohol in almost 25 years – a drink of champagne to celebrate the presidential transition. He asked his doctor if it would be OK, and she said yes.

Then he asked her if it was OK if he has two. Quintessential Held – a thin lining of darkness, tracing back to his own nature, built into the joke.

“She said, ‘No, you can’t have two,’ ” he said with a gruff laugh.

When the end comes, he will have had the experience of having seen it coming for a long time. It’s lousy, what this cancer has done to him, but it’s brilliant what he’s done with this cancer.

Does that make for a good death? Is there such a thing?

“If there’s a choice between being hit by a truck and having almost two years to gaze upon my own mortality,” he said, “I know which one I’d pick.”

When the end comes, he will have left us the gift that came from that gaze.

“… I don’t imagine myself sitting on a cloud with my angel wings on and feet dangling, moping about everything I’m missing. No it’s more of a series of sharply observed moments, bittersweet, mostly sweet.” Dennis Held In his essay “What I’ll Miss”

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