When Death Sends You a Message About Life

Life has a way of tapping you on the shoulder to ask if you are making the most of what time you have.

And then there are times life punches you really, really hard to ask if it’s got your attention.

A friend and former colleague dying one week after he learned he had cancer qualifies as one of those moments.

George Spohr, who had been a business editor at The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., found out he had cancer on his 37th birthday.

This is his clear-eyed text message five days before he died:

“For the past few weeks, I’ve been pushing past a lot of abdominal pain. The pain got so bad that I was hospitalized in Syracuse the past four days (I was home visiting family for the weekend). They found a mass on my liver, and spots on my pancreas and lungs that might be related. They did a biopsy and I got the results on Thursday evening. I have cancer. I don’t know much more than that; it’ll take a few days to learn what options for treatment I may have or how advanced it is. But I wanted you to know. The prognosis isn’t good (yesterday might have been my last birthday), so please keep up your prayers.”

I wish I could be a scold and say, “See boys and girls? This is the reason you should be sure to go to the doctor regularly.”

But that would not only be insensitive but untruthful.

George, according to a mutual friend, had been diligent about seeing the doctor regularly. Tests leading up to the discovery of his cancer turned up nothing abnormal.

He was a bear of a man, with a booming laugh and a toothy smile. He was an unabashed fan of White Castle and would make a point of posting photos of ones he visited as he crisscrossed the country.

He would punctuate gossipy conversations with “Are you serious?!”

George claimed to be a Republican and fan of Trump’s. With him, you could never be quite sure if he was pulling your leg.

That led to this text exchange with him after he told me the news:

Me: “But yes prayers bigly! Yuge! Hope you cracked a smile. Sending prayer and heartfelt wishes for strength and healing.”

Him: “Thank you, sir. Yes. #maga. Always!”

In the beginning, I had a combative relationship with George over turf issues in the newsroom.

Over time, we grew to mutually respect one another and the talents we each had and from that, our friendship grew.

I watched as he advanced in his career, moving from one newsroom leadership position to another in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and finally Indiana.

The way he died seems so desperately unfair, implausible and frightening.

I would be lying if I said that it did not have me badly rattled.

I am one of those people who have 1 percent of their mind occupied with anticipating the random worst things that can happen to myself or loved ones: a crash, terrorist attack, illness, derailment, etc.

I like to think that partly based on past personal experience (the unexpected death of my fiancée) and a longtime career in news, I’m braced for those out-of-the-blue moments.

But maybe not.

George’s death reminds me about a philosophy my wife and I share about gift-giving: Rather than getting a CD, we might consider tickets to a concert or a play instead.

Behind that premise is the notion that time spent with friends and loved ones — and the memories and stories they create — will last longer than any material object.

Another friend called it creating “scrapbook moments.”

My scrapbook with George is perhaps thinner than I’d like but I thought there would be time to add more memories.

Life reminds you though: Not always.

Rest in peace, George.