Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

On the Welcome End of a Black Year

At the beginning of 2011, all I wanted was a year of single-minded focus on our work at Simple. 2010 was a frenetic year for me, full of change and excitement, risk and commitment. I had made a number of life-altering choices in 2010 that I was eager to see through in 2011, and work was foremost amongst them.

Around this time last year, I remarked tone day that things were going almost too well. I was loving my new home in Portland. I was loving the excitement of getting Simple off the ground alongside the brilliant people I get to work with every day. The other shoe had yet to drop.

Then, just as I was about to leave the office one night in March, I got a call from my mother.

“[Your step-father] is dying”, she sobbed.

And there went 2011.

Memorium

My step-father, Rodney, was a remarkable human being. Born in South Africa, he got his start in the forestry service, engaging in early conservation efforts and planting forests in Mexico as well as his home country. Diplomatic work later took him to New Zealand. Eventually, disgusted by apartheid back in South Africa, he moved his young family to the United States and found work in the decidedly niche field of nuclear transportation. There, he excelled, ultimately co-founding Transport Logistics International, which he ran until its effective sale in early 2010.

Think about this for a moment: like it or not, the world has many nuclear weapons, plus a number of nuclear reactors used for power, medicine, scientific experimentation, and so forth. In the last several decades, most of the world has decided that nuclear weapons are bad, but that nuclear reactors can be quite good and useful when operated correctly. To that end, there are international cooperative efforts, like Megatons to Megawatts, that turn nuclear weapons into fuel for power plants. So, who moves the actual nuclear material from those weapon sites to places where it can be used for good? Who moves nuclear material to and from reactors? Who keeps it safe in the process?

Well, Rod did. Which, whatever your opinions on the safety and efficacy of nuclear power, you have to agree is a phenomenal thing: moving potentially planet-destroying nuclear material around the globe safely and predictably while billions of people simply go about their days.

In many ways, Rod was my model for entrepreneurship. Throughout my teenage years, I watched him start a company, grow that company, cope with its with ups and downs, handle politics both interpersonal and international, and ultimately exit TLI successfully after more than a decade of hard work. His surprisingly small team performed their critical task from a modest office in suburban Maryland. He demonstrated every day that it’s possible to run a company ethically, do good and important and meaningful things, treat employees fairly, and still make a profit. Before knowing Rod, I never would have considered the world of business. Having known him, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else with my life.

Fighting and Dying

With most of my extended family living across the country, death was always a remote event, something that happened “over there”. Our relatively small family hasn’t been free from loss, but we’ve also had fewer funerals in our past than many other clans I’ve known. Upon receiving my mother’s call, then, my immediate reaction was to outright dismiss the distant – in all senses, distant – possibility that what she was saying was true.

My step-father had been diagnosed by his general practitioner with pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer that’s recently seen a lot of press in relation to Steve Jobs’s death. There are several main varieties of pancreatic cancer; some are operable and some are not, but the overall survival rate on a not-particularly-long time scale is not high. If you have your choice of cancers (and you don’t), this is not the one to choose.

Rod had been told by his doctor, bluntly and unkindly but ultimately truthfully, that he wouldn’t live to see Christmas (2011). We, of course, refused to accept that. We searched every available resource, contacted everyone we could who might have some insight or direction, considered every experimental option. Rod was quickly enrolled at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, which we deemed to be both the best and the most practical option for his treatment, as my mother and step-father then lived less than an hour’s drive away.

That was early Spring. Over the next several months of in-person visits and frequent phone calls, things went up and down repeatedly. One week, Rod would be feeling better and numbers on tests would be interpreted as saying good things; you wouldn’t guess from looking at him that he was dying from cancer. The next week, he’d be a wreck, and the numbers were now telling grim stories. Then it would all shift around again. Surgery wasn’t an option in his particular case, so our hopes of spending more time with him rested on drugs and chemotherapy.

It’s hard to say how much time the treatment bought us, and if it was worth the pain and time and expense. As summer drew to a close, I got on a plane yet again. I knew from the grim tone of the doctor I had spoken to that I wouldn’t be coming home until my step-father was dead.

The man I saw when I arrived at the hospital was a faint shadow of the man I had known throughout my adolescence and early adulthood; a pale gray crescent of a person who had always shone brightly with determination and conviction. We talked for as long as he could manage, and after he fell asleep, I wept at his bedside until I could physically produce no more tears.

That seemingly endless week in August was the conclusion of our family’s personal tragedy. Rod had sold his company a little more than a year before his diagnosis. So here, dying in barely-contained agony, was a man who had worked tirelessly his entire life, only to be felled mere months after his retirement. His regret was palpable, never at having worked hard, but for having worked too hard, sometimes putting the wrong things first. It was a final lesson.

After

Reading an article on how doctors choose to die some months later, I found myself nodding sadly along. For as far as we’ve come with medical treatment, diseases like pancreatic cancer still have the best of us. For the future, we need to aggressively fund and remove barriers to research. For today, we need to acknowledge that simply managing pain for as long as you’ve got may well be the best option. I wish Rod had spent less of his final weeks in a hospital being filled with hopeful poisons and more with us, doing whatever he damn well pleased.

I was happy to see 2011 go. The remainder of the year was filled with unpleasant reminders of death as Steve Jobs, John McCarthy, Dennis Ritchie, and Christopher Hitchens – all men I revered – passed away one after the other.

With the my friends, family, and my unbelievably kind and understanding coworkers and board at Simple, I feel ready to make 2012 the focused year that I hoped this past one would be. Life, after all, is for the living. Rod taught me how to live better and work better. That’s what we’re here to do.