Dying man shows how to live

Dave Hester sits on the couch in his living room, wrapped in a quilt, coughing every now and then. He's waiting for the phone to ring.

He went to the hospital again Wednesday. There is fluid in his lungs, meaning the pneumonia he contracted a few weeks ago hasn't subsided. Or there is fluid around his heart, meaning the cancer has spread. "I'm praying,'' Dave says, "for pneumonia.''

He's 50 and grateful to be here. The bladder cancer came back last Thanksgiving. It spread to his liver and bones. In February, Dave sat in a hospital bed doubting he'd live out the week.

I talked to him then. Dave was an Everyman caught in the struggle of his life. He coached Special Olympians in three sports. He'd married his high school sweetheart. Dave was just a guy, a good, decent guy, the sort that keeps our delicate social fabric from tearing. We could use more Daves.

We spend much effort honoring the dead. I wanted to honor Dave with some words while he could still read them. Only, Dave didn't die. He stopped chemotherapy, gained some weight and went on vacation. He coached his softball team to its second consecutive Kentucky state title. He hung around to grace the earth.

His doctor still calls him "terminal." To which Dave responds, "We're all terminal."

Until the recent pneumonia, Dave had gained nearly 40 pounds and was back to work 25 hours a week. Now, the coughing is back.

A few days ago, Dave ran out of the antibiotics to treat the pneumonia. He's hoping that's why he's coughing. If it's the cancer, he can handle that, too.

"I'm blessed,'' he says.

Why is it the dying so often show us how to live?

How is it that a frail man who can't walk across his living room without gasping makes me feel better? When I leave Dave Hester on Thursday, I drive home on 275, windows down, singing "California Girls'' along with Brian Wilson, hard as I can.

Perspective shouldn't be the province of the sick, the burden of the weak. Yet a man feeling bad has made me feel better.

"I feel I've been given a second lease on life. Truth is, I'm probably on my third or fourth," Dave says. He's deeply religious, in that soft, strong way. His words sound like peace. God only promises you today, Dave says.

He wakes up in the morning and thanks God "for allowing me another day. Help me live it to the fullest." At night, he says, "Thank you for the day you've just given me. I ask you for one more."

So far, so good.

The phone rings a few times. It's not the doctor.

He went with his wife Debbie to the beach in August. They came back through Gatlinburg and into Cade's Cove, a beautiful valley in the shadow of the ancient hills. The Hesters go to the Smokies three or four times a year. Until the cancer, Dave and Debbie hiked the trails around Gatlinburg. The trail to Abrams Falls was the best, Dave says, an 11-mile loop that led to water.

"I like that one in the spring,'' Dave decides. "The falls are running full, the mountain laurel's in bloom." The dogwoods give it their all then, too, he says. "We always make that Cade's Cove loop."

The phone rings. It's not the doctor.

"There will be some good that comes out of this," Dave says. He's talking about his death. There already has been good. His family, immediate and distant, has drawn closer. The love is real and always there. The vacation was a gift, the softball title a validation of Dave's mission to help special-needs kids.

"They don't understand their limitations. They don't stand in the locker room, look in the mirror and say, I'm mentally retarded and I'm just here for the fun of it. They're competitors."

Dying is easy. Living well is the trick.

The doctor hadn't called Dave Hester before I said goodbye. I wished him well, slid into my car and started singing. If you're going to feel good, it might as well be today. Because you never know when you won't.

"The resolve," Dave said as I walked away, "is to live each day to the fullest."

I called him a few hours after that. Dave had heard from the doctor. The chest X-ray showed a big spot on Dave's left lung: Pneumonia. "It's doubtful you'd have both problems at once" is what the doctor told Dave. No cancer growth.

I exhaled. Dave kept on living.

E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com