The pain in his abdomen was getting worse. It had been waking him up every night for the past week, and on this night he wasn’t able to fall back asleep. He knew that he needed to rest, but sometimes walking around relieved the burning sensation that crept up at the base of his esophagus.
Don slowly pulled the covers back and quietly got out of bed, careful not to wake his sleeping wife. Suzanne was still working full-time as a bookkeeper for a small paper company while trying to take care of him. He felt guilty for what he was putting her through, and although he couldn’t contribute financially, the least he could do was not wake her up in the middle of the night.
Making his way down the narrow hallway of their one-bedroom craftsman, he could see the full moon peeking through the open drapes. Their house was at the bottom of the foothills of town, but it was still up high enough that he could see the twinkling lights of Eugene that dotted central Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It had taken them several years to save up for their first house, and it had been a badge of pride for them when they finally moved in.
However, Don couldn’t shake the feeling that one day soon they might need to sell it and resume renting. He had been an engineer for a local semiconductor company since graduating from Oregon State University, but when a multinational had acquired the firm three years ago, it began to systematically “reduce redundancies” one departmentat a time. Unfortunately, Don’s department was nearly decimated on a day eighteen months prior that he referred to as “Black Friday.” He couldn’t find another job in Eugene because his skill set was too specific, and when he got sick, he wasn’t able to move to another city with a larger job market.
In the kitchen, Don caught sight of the microwave clock: 11:11. It was the third time in less than a week that he had casually glanced at a clock when it was that time. He wasn’t superstitious, but the pattern was becoming regular enough to notice.
He began to look through cabinets and drawers for some antacid pills to help his stomach pain. In the back of his mind he knew they probably wouldn’t do any good, but it was a habit and seemed to bring him emotional comfort even if there was no physical relief. When he opened the drawer containing the tarnished silverware that he and his wife only used during the holidays, he noticed a large stack of unopened bills from the hospital and various doctors he’d seen recently.
He had been dreading this day ever since being admitted to the emergency room late one night, when the pain was so unbearable that he could hardly move. And although the hospital had to treat him, he couldn’t forget the knowing look from the admitting nurse when he told her that he didn’t have any insurance.
Don carefully removed the stack of bills from the silverware drawer and sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, fanning the envelopes around him in a semicircle. The envelope windows from the hospital bills revealed a rainbow of colors, starting with white, then progressing to more vibrant shades of yellow, orange, green, blue, and red. After they were sufficiently organized by color and size, he began to open the bills one at a time and glanced at the past-due amounts while placing them in front of him in two stacks—one for the emptied envelopes, and one for their contents.
At first he was calm, but as he opened more and more envelopes, he began to get angry. How could they charge this much for just a couple of days’ worth of visits? And other than a few pain pills, they hadn’t given him anything that helped.
Most of the time was spent with doctors who didn’t even know what was wrong with him, but they all charged full price even though they were absolutely clueless. And when they finally did figure out what was ailing him, they weren’t sure how to deliver the diagnosis: “The good news is, we now know what’s wrong with you . . .”
Being diagnosed with cancer at thirty-nine years old was one thing, but leaving Suzanne to pay off the hospital bills after he was gone hit him hard. The doctors couldn’t agree on exactly how long he would live, but they all said that it wouldn’t be more than six months. And although pancreatic cancer wasn’t curable, the doctors presented many options that could be tried to temporarily improve the quality of life during his last few days.
But judging by the mountain of medical bills that Don had collected in the flurry of hospital and doctor visits during that initial two-week period, there was no way he could imagine spending any more of Suzanne’s money just so he might die with slightly more comfort. The pain was excruciating at times, which was why he had gone to the emergency room that first night, but seeing how much money he had spent just finding out what was wrong temporarily numbed him.
Suzanne stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes. “What’s the matter?” she asked. She looked down and saw the bills surrounding her redheaded soul mate. “Oh, you found those.”
“Why didn’t you tell me these came? Were you hiding them from me?”
“I wasn’t hiding them. I just couldn’t bear to open them. Is it bad?”
“It’s devastating. It’s obscene how much they charge. I counted twelve different doctors I didn’t even see who billed me for things I can’t even pronounce. If they’re going to charge that type of money, they should at least have the decency to stop in and introduce themselves.”
“They’re probably not used to treating people without insurance,” she said sadly. “We probably should’ve been married sooner.” She nearly choked on the words as her eyes began to well up.
Don had proposed marriage to Suzanne more than a decade prior, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to marry him. Not that she wasn’t fully committed, but she didn’t want to let the government dictate what she considered to be a sacred agreement between two individuals. The fact that marriage was a state-sanctioned contract with financial incentives angered Suzanne to her core—love shouldn’t be bought or sold. They had held a private commitment ceremony nearly five years ago, and in the end, even their families hadn’t acknowledged their marriage because they weren’t invited to the ceremony.
As the years progressed, their “statement” didn’t seem to mean anything to anyone but them. Although that had initially been the point, it slowly began to make things more and more complicated, especially when it came to health insurance. The policy provided by Suzanne’s employer didn’t acknowledge domestic partners, so Don had remained uninsured since he’d been out of work.
Following the diagnosis, they finally went to the county courthouse and signed the papers to become officially married. But afterward they discovered that Suzanne’s company’s policy excluded a spouse’s pre-existing conditions, so Don’s cancer and related symptoms wouldn’t be covered.
“In my mind we’ve been married for years,” said Don. “We did it our way, and it was beautiful.”
He, too, was thinking about how much easier things would be if he had insurance, but he blamed himself for losing his job. He never regretted keeping their marriage private, although he couldn’t forgive himself for being laid off. If he would have made himself more valuable, or if he wasn’t so shy, he could have become friends with the new executives and might still have his job.
“But the insurance—” Suzanne couldn’t stop her tears from flowing, and turned away from her husband as she silently cried.
Don crawled over to his wife and softly caressed her long brown hair. Seeing her break down made his heart hurt because of what he was putting her through. “I’m sorry,” he said, the words barely audible as they caught in his throat. “I’m sorry for leaving you.”
Over the next few weeks, Don’s depression deepened. He seldom got out of bed, and he refused to eat more than a couple bites of bread a day. He found that the less he ate, the weaker he became. And the weaker he became, the more he would sleep, which gave him a temporary reprieve from the intensifying pain.
When he did emerge from bed, he would often gravitate toward the kitchen to open the silverware drawer. Every time he did, he would find more and more late notices piling up. They had nearly doubled in volume, and although there were very few entirely new bills, the late fees were quickly compounding, and the paper they were printed on became more vibrant in color. Additionally, the doctors’ assistants began to leave answering machine messages under the guise of concern:
“The doctor would like to schedule a follow-up visit to discuss how you’re feeling, but we need to take care of your outstanding invoice first. Please call as soon as possible, and we can work out a partial-payment plan if that’s more convenient.”
As his pain continued to worsen, Don began to research the costs associated with various treatment options. He knew it was a temporary fix, but the pain was becoming unbearable and he could barely function.
“I think it’s time to go back to the doctor,” Suzanne said one afternoon when she discovered her husband doubled over on the floor of the bathroom.
“There’s nothing they can do,” replied Don.
“They said that they could make you feel better.”
“How? It’s not exactly a curable disease.”
“But they said that different treatments could make you more comfortable. Don’t you think we should try chemo at least once to see if it helps?”
“Once isn’t going to make any difference. Besides, do you know how much it costs? We still haven’t paid a dime to those first doctors who didn’t even know what they were doing. And the most expensive bill is the oncologist, who’s the one we need to go back to for the chemo.”
“We can start paying him a little every month so we can keep the treatments going.”
“So we can go into even more debt? I don’t think so.”
Don had been researching how to pay for the chemotherapy treatments, and he couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. He knew that they would probably let him start the treatments and perhaps allow him to continue until he succumbed to the disease. But the cost, even by the most conservative estimates, would burden Suzanne with financial hardship for many years to come. It was also likely that she would have to sell their house just to keep the collectors off her back for the first few years. And even that wouldn’t be enough to take care of it all. He already knew that he had a life sentence—he wasn’t going to impose another one on his wife, just because she had the unfortunate luck to fall in love with him.
“Some things are more important than money,” Suzanne said softly. “I can’t stand to see you in so much pain.”
“Maybe I should just leave,” he said. “Maybe my time is over.”
“Don’t even joke about that!”
Although Don had never said it out loud, it was something he had been thinking about for a while. When he first confronted his mortality after being diagnosed with cancer, he had to admit that he was afraid of dying and wanted to put it off as long as possible. He’d also made a promise to himself when he first met Suzanne that he would always take care of her financially, whether he was alive or not. Being able to do so after he was gone was his promise of immortality. And the thought that he would simply cease to exist, without leaving even a little bit of money to her, made him feel like his entire life had been a waste of time.
But the main reason Don didn’t want to die was because he didn’t want to leave Suzanne. His mother had died of cancer when he was only two years old, and his father had died of it when Don was a freshman in college. He had always felt abandoned by his parents, and he vowed that he would never be responsible for leaving anyone he loved, for any reason.
“Can I get you a pain pill?” Suzanne asked.
“They don’t work anymore—keep them for yourself.”
He didn’t know how much longer he could tolerate the pain, but the thought of acquiring more medical bills felt even worse than his physical discomfort. Although the thought of ending his own life had initially repulsed him, it began to make more and more sense as a viable alternative. If he could work out the details to minimize the trauma inflicted on Suzanne, she might eventually forgive him and agree that it was the best solution for everyone.
Later that week, Don had an intensely vivid dream that felt incredibly real. It started in a lightfilled tunnel swirling counterclockwise, with the path he was standing on remaining still. As he walked closer to the light, he saw his deceased father gesturing for him to go away. He was drawn closer in order to speak with him, but his father began to fade as he approached the spot where he’d been standing. Then the entire tunnel dimmed to blackness, and he could hear footsteps walking toward him.
As the ominous sounds grew more intense, he became acutely aware that he was standing completely naked. He felt vulnerable as he tried to cover himself with his hands. After several minutes, the footsteps were silenced and he could hear a figure breathing loudly immediately in front of him. As he tried to calm himself, he couldn’t help but feel that there was something familiar about the sound of the breath.
Slowly, the figure came into focus as the light around them began to brighten. The man standing there was of medium build and dressed entirely in white. Don strained to make out the details of his face and then rubbed his eyes in disbelief. After his focus completely returned, there was no mistaking it—the person who was standing before him looked exactly like Don himself. It was a feeling similar to looking in the mirror, with two major exceptions: there was twice as much energy emanating from the reflection, and the figure’s movements didn’t correspond to his own.
Don’s focus returned to the fact that he was standing there naked, and when he looked down, he was relieved to find that he was now fully clothed. He was wearing exactly the same outfit as the person in front of him, yet his own was completely black. He imagined that there was some significance to the fact that he was clothed in black while the other was in white, but he was just happy he was no longer naked.
There was a long silence while the two stood staring at each other, until Don finally said: “Hi.”
“Hello,” said the other in a voice that was nearly identical to Don’s.
After another uncomfortable silence, Don finally asked the only question he could think of: “Who are you?”
Without pausing, the man answered, “I’m Robert—nice to meet you.”
Robert stretched out his hand in a greeting, but Don just stood there looking at it, dumbfounded. Robert retracted his hand after a few seconds, and Don felt a smirk creep onto his face. The smirk widened into a full smile, and within seconds he began laughing hysterically. He continued to laugh for over a minute and then doubled over at the waist and slapped the ground next to his feet as tears streamed down from laughing so hard.
“Robert!” exclaimed Don in between chuckles. “That’s classic! I finally meet my doppelgänger, and his name is Robert! Of course your name is Robert—why wouldn’t it be?” He didn’t know why the name struck him as funny, but it did. There was something ironic about a supernatural experience having such a common name.
“So, Robert”—he tried unsuccessfully to suppress his laughter—“what brings you here?”
“I’m here to help you.” Robert was getting noticeably annoyed.
“Help me? Help me with what?”
“With your transition. Anything you don’t understand or anything you could use some extra help with.”
“My transition?” Don’s laughter stopped instantly.
“Your transition to the next dimension—the next stage of your journey.”
Don took a few moments to reflect on these words. “Are you the grim reaper or something?”
“Not exactly.” It was now Robert’s turn to laugh. “I’m more of an advocate. I’m here to help you transition in whichever way you choose.”
“You mean you’re here to help me die?”
“That’s oversimplifying it a bit, but I guess you could say that.”
Don felt a chill on the back of his neck. “Are you the angel of death?”
“I wouldn’t say the angel of death, but I’m certainly one of them.”
“You mean there are more than one?”
“Of course there are. Do you know how many people die every day? There wouldn’t be time to do anything meaningful if there was only one of us.”
“I have a question,” said Don thoughtfully. “Why me? And—why now?”
“Everyone ultimately takes the same journey, and now is your time to be on Summer’s Path:
Spring flowers wither
Honey Moon condenses light
Summer’s Path begins.”
Robert smiled after reciting the haiku, and patiently awaited Don’s response.
“Um, okay. I guess I’ve never really understood poetry,” said Don. “What do you mean by ‘Honey Moon condenses light’?”
“The Honey Moon is the first moon of summer —the moon that celebrates the summer solstice.”
“Okay . . . but how does that condense light?”
“After the first day of summer, the days begin to shorten. Leading up to summer, the days grow longer, so it’s easy to take light for granted. But as they get shorter, every second of light must be cherished.”
“Is light a metaphor for something?”
“Light is our life force—the energy we need to exist. Whether you call it a metaphor is up to you,” Robert laughed.
Don let Robert’s curious words sink in before continuing. “It’s ironic that it’s called a honeymoon,like after a wedding. Don’t you agree?”
“Not at all,” replied Robert. “Actually, I can’t think of a better word to mark the beginning of a life together.”
Don sat down on the narrow path and put his head into his hands as he remembered his honeymoon with Suzanne at Crater Lake. He knew life was short, yet he couldn’t help but feel he had been careless with his time with his wife. It saddened him to realize that he had taken his years with Suzanne for granted. And now it seemed as if he had once again come to a major crossroads. He needed to decide if he should let the cancer take its course or if he was prepared to shorten the process.
At that moment, the sound of a hundred voices began echoing inside his head. But the voice he kept hearing the loudest was Suzanne’s: “Don’t even joke about that . . .”
After the voices faded, Don slowly stood back up and looked deep into Robert’s eyes, trying to decide if he could trust him, and if he actually could help with the transition. “Okay, you have my attention—what can you do to help?”
“I can start by giving you advice about how to make your transition easier.”
“The first thing you need to do is get your affairs in order. You don’t want to unnecessarily burden your loved ones once you pass on.”
“But I don’t have any money.”
“Yes, but you do have obligations, and that’s even more important to figure out. I recommend you visit a lawyer immediately.”
“A lawyer?” Don questioned. “Why do I need a lawyer? What should I ask?”
Robert had already turned and was walking away. He waved without looking back, and before fading into the distance, he said, “I’m an advocate, not a babysitter. Just go see a lawyer, and come back to me after you have the answer you need.”
The #1 best-selling e-book is now available as an expanded-edition hardcover. Now with two additional chapters, this first printed edition of Summer’s Path by DailyOM co-founder Scott Blum presents the remarkable story of Don Newport, an engineer who comes face-to-face with his personal destiny under extraordinary circumstances. After losing his job and his health insurance, Don learns that he has a terminal disease, with only a few months left to live. On his deathbed, he meets Robert, a brazen angel of death who promises to help him with a graceful exit. As Don prepares to say his last goodbyes to his loving wife, Robert attempts to change Don’s perspective about his mortality and proposes an exceptionally unique option. Summer’s Path is the prequel to the best-selling book Waiting for Autumn.
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