For a few minutes I desperately tried to figure out who the voice belonged to. It was getting dark. I couldn't see him very well. Then I realized it was my former colleague. We exchanged a few words. Nothing super-important.
It was getting chilly outside. "How about coffee?" he said. I looked around. There was a Barnes and Noble across the parking lot. "Sure" I replied. We went into the cafe inside the bookstore, both shivering from the chill outside. I ordered a hot tea, he ordered a coffee and we sat down across from each other.
It had been quite a few years since I had seen him. He looked different. He was skinnier, more wrinkled, more fragile. I told him what I had been up to, realizing that there wasn't a whole lot to tell since I saw him, despite the years that had passed. Sure, there were some publications, a book, a research fellowship. But nothing mind shattering, nothing you can just throw in the face of a stranger.
Then it was his turn. He said that he was working hard. He had two major projects he wanted to finish and really needed to finish. He said it with a desperate look in his eyes. I sensed a kind of urge and desperation in his voice. "Hmmm, sound like great projects" I said. "But I suppose there is no rush to finish them?" The guy looked at me with narrow eyes. "There is" he said. I was waiting for him to continue. But he looked down, as if he was contemplating whether he should tell me what he was about to. "The thing is," he continued. "I have cancer." I felt my muscles tense up. "Cancer?," I mumbled. "Again?" He had survived cancer ten years ago, back when we were still working together. They caught it in time. He went under the knife. Then radiation and chemo. He was lucky that it hadn't spread.
As he was sitting there in front of me, he looked awfully weak and small. "Yeah, the cancer returned," he said with tears in his eyes. I felt a need to comfort him. "They will catch it again. They are so much better now. They will get it. Don't worry," I said. I immediately realized how stupid I sounded. I didn't even know him. I once did. But I didn't know him now. I didn't know what he had been up to or what he was normally doing in his spare time. He looked up at me. "This time it spread." he said. "My doctor says I have between six and twelve month left." I didn't know what to say. I felt dumb and stupid. We were quiet for a while. I wanted to say something but I couldn't. My former colleague broke the silence. "So that's why I really want to finish the two projects. This really means a lot to me." I was about to ask why in the world he was working on finishing book projects if he was going to die anyway. Would you give a damn about philosophy if you were going to die in a few months? The guy interrupted my stream of thought. "I just love to write," he said. "I love philosophy, and for the first time ever I can just do that.... for a while anyway".
I didn't know what to say. I was wondering if I would feel the same way if I knew I had only 6 to 12 months left of my life. I never really thought about it. I write whenever I can. I love to write. But would I spend the last year of my life working on philosophy projects? Wouldn't I want to travel the world? Or get in touch with old acquaintances one last time? Or would I just do whatever I am doing now. I slowly realized that I probably would continue doing exactly what I am doing now. I can't explain it. I certainly don't expect my work to be read 100 years from now (though it would be nice). It's not about being read, it's not about the end result, it's about the process. I enjoy that process.