Last November 4, less than a month after his fifteenth birthday, my neighbor Gabriel Catalfo died following a nearly eight-year odyssey with leukemia. I’ve known both his parents since we were all in junior high school, and, for more than a dozen years, we’ve co-owned the property on which our two families live. I watched Gabe grow up (much faster than any child should have to), and I also watched him die. Through my intimate involvement with this young man and his family during the last months of his life, I’ve come to learn a lot more about what the Buddha was trying to teach us about dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence) and anatta (egolessness). Our teachers show up in mysterious and not always asked-for ways, and I will forever be grateful that Gabe was part of my life.
I am far from alone in that gratitude. Throughout his journey, and particularly during his last months, Gabe’s determination and spirit touched thousands of people. One of those people was writer and editor Rick Fields, who has played a significant role in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. Rick and Gabe became friends during Gabe’s final months, and Rick’s poem “Sky-Diving” was included in the printed program at Gabe’s memorial service.
Alan Novidor, Publisher
I don’t know who it was who told the lama about Gabe’s fight with cancer or how it was that Gabe started wearing the thin blue, knotted protection cord the lama sent him. But it surely seems to have been—for Gabe and certainly for me—an example of what Tibetan Buddhists call “auspicious coincidence.”
Before I met Gabe, I had heard about him from his father, Phil. Gabe was approaching his fifteenth birthday and had been fighting leukemia for more than seven years. I asked Phil if he thought Gabe might like a picture of the lapis lazuli Medicine Buddha who was a part of my own practice in living with cancer. I was hesitant about pushing it on Gabe or his parents, but I gave it to Phil anyway. He passed it on to Gabe, who immediately tacked it on the wall above his bed.
One day Gabe told Phil he’d like to learn to meditate. Phil and I talked about how we could arrange this since Gabe was in and out of treatment and leading a full and active life. While considering the options and difficulties in scheduling, I suddenly realized that I could teach him myself. Gabe was open to this idea, and one afternoon he came by the magazine office where Phil and I both worked. Gabe and I went into an empty room and sat down facing each other knee to knee on the floor. First we did breathing meditation. Then Gabe said he wanted to learn the Medicine Buddha practice. It involves visualizing a Medicine Buddha in front of you and the healing power of the Medicine Buddha coming to you as blessings. So we did that. Somehow he seemed to grasp both practices immediately.
A few weeks later, doctors told his parents, and his parents told him, that the cancer had come back. All they could offer was more chemotherapy, which would at best buy him a few more months, but might also do more harm than good. Gabe took this in and replied, “It’s OK, I’m at peace with it. I’m ready.”
Where did such wisdom and equanimity come from? Throughout the long years of chemotherapy and radiation, Gabe had continued living his life to the fullest—to the max, he might have said. For years, he refused to have a “port-a-cath” implanted in his chest; it would have made treatment much easier to bear, but made it more difficult for him to play soccer and be a part of the wrestling team. He refused to give up—or give in—to the disease that had invaded his young body. He continued to attend school and hang out with his friends, wearing baggy, with-it clothes and his signature fisherman’s hat.
When it came time to return to the hospital for more chemo, he said he didn’t want to go. But he did want to do three things before he died. He wanted to attend one more session at Camp Okizu, a summer camp for kids with cancer that he had attended for a number of years; he wanted to go jet-skiing; and he wanted to sky-dive. When he was told that to do these three things he would have to undergo more chemotherapy, he decided to do it.
Gabe’s last two wishes in particular caused his doctors and parents much consternation. Jet-skiing and ski-diving were not exactly recommended activities for someone as fragile as Gabe was at that point. On the other hand, what sense did it make to deny him these experiences, given that he may not have had long to live and was now at the age where he had his own ideas and the will—and right—to make his own decisions? In the end, Gabe was able to fulfill each of his three wishes. “The coolest part of the sky-diving,” he told me, “was free-falling for fifteen hundred feet before the parachute opened.”
Later, Gabe submitted to yet another round of chemotherapy, hoping to earn another remission and buy enough time to graduate from high school. But doctors found a fungal infection under a tiny scrape on his knee and could not control it despite heavy doses of antibiotics. So he went home. When I visited him, he was resting in the bed his family had set up in the living room. The fungus was visible as a round, gray growth on his forehead. He was taking a narcotic for pain and wearing the lapis lazuli-colored Medicine Buddha T-shirt I had given him for his fifteenth birthday, a few weeks before.
We watched a tape of his sky-diving. Bound to his partner, he spread his arms wide like wings and fell through the open sky. As I left, I said, “You’re doing great, man.”
He high-fived me. “So are you,” he said to me. “So are you.”
The lama who had given Gabe the blessing protection cords came to visit, too. He recited the Medicine Buddha chant in Tibetan as Gabe passed in and out of sleep. Afterwards, Gabe told his mom that he had been able to understand what the lama was saying—that the lama had “psychically told me the words and what they mean, and I’ve been saying them since then.”
One morning, Gabe told his mother and father that he was dying—“not today, but soon.” Phil asked him if he was ready. “I don’t want to leave you guys,” he replied. As he had shown throughout his last few months, his main concern was how his passing would affect others. He asked his parents to promise they’d stay together as a family. They pledged to him they would, and with that reassurance he seemed to begin to let go. He died two days later, a few minutes before midnight, with his father holding his hand.
His memorial eleven days later was attended by over a thousand people. There were the kids from Berkeley High he had grown up with, kids from his cancer camp, and many others whose lives he had not only touched but changed by the generosity of his spirit and life, by the compassion he showed them. There was a shrine to Gabe in one corner of the reception room. On the shrine was a large picture of Gabe sky-diving, his floppy fisherman’s hat, and at its center, the lapis lazuli radiance of the Medicine Buddha that had accompanied him on his journey.