Over the past few months, I’ve written some blog posts about Mainers who have passed away. Some were people I had met a few times but did not know that well, while others were people who I never met but, while not famous, were well regarded in their professions.
This one is a little different.
Bogart Salzberg, who I worked with for nearly two years at the now-defunct Lincoln County Weekly in Damariscotta, died last week of brain cancer at the age of 40. He was diagnosed with the disease in May 2011, 12 years after leaving the LCW to take a job at the daily Eagle Tribune newspaper in North Andover, Mass. He moved back to Maine in the early 2000s with his then-wife, settling in Portland, where he took up carpentry, web development, wind surfing and ocean kayaking. They had a son, Sam.
Bogart was a 1996 graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, overlapping there with several friends of mine who also attended COA. When I started working at LCW in December 1997, he already held the paper’s other staff reporter position. It was my first-ever newspaper job. Bogart’s desk was four feet from mine. He was the veteran, having been there for about a year, and I was the rookie.
I was new to the Midcoast area and knew no one there. We worked with an editor (Joan Grant) and an assistant editor (Kris Ferrazza) but Bogart, at the time a young bachelor like myself, arguably showed me the ropes as much as anyone. I overheard his phone interviews, exchanged news writing and amateur photography pointers with him, and through multiple daily conversations learned who the movers and shakers in the area were.
We hung out socially, too, though less than we did at work. King Eider’s Pub was a frequent meeting place, for us and other reporters in the area, and at times we gathered at Bogart’s Main Street apartment to watch the Red Sox.
Bogart and I lost touch after he moved to Lawrence, Mass., to live with Ava, whom he later would marry. I visited them once in Lawrence, as part of a trip to attend a Red Sox game.
A few years ago, in an attempt to find out where he was, I Googled Bogart (how many could there be?). That’s when I discovered My Brain Cancer Diary, his blog about living with the disease. I was stunned. It did not make sense. Bogart was in his 30’s, active, conscientious about his health. How could this happen?
I had known people, all of them much older than me, who grew sick from cancer and died. I had a good friend from college die in his 30s from alcoholism. But this had no explanation and ran counter to the narrative most of us set for ourselves — that we grow up, find work, strive for a career, grow old, retire and then die at an advanced age surrounded by family and/or friends.
But Bogart was sick, not dead. I spent portions of the next several days reading his blog, catching up on his life and prognosis. I wanted to reach out. Bogart was not on Facebook, but Ava was. I contacted her, and she gave me his info.
The next, and last, time I saw Bogart was in 2012. My wife had a work meeting in Portland and I tagged along, bringing our infant daughter with us. Bogart knew I was coming. We met up, me carrying my sleeping child, in Tommy’s Park, where we sat on a bench and talked.
About what, I don’t much remember. Parenthood probably, newspapers definitely, maybe a little sports and maybe a little cancer. I remember thinking he looked healthy and seemed to be in good spirits, if slightly reserved and low-key. After about an hour, he had to go. We parted, wishing each other well. I thought I might see him again someday.
I didn’t. But I did keep up with his writing, whether it was through his blog or in a series of articles (derived from his blog) that he wrote for Working Waterfront about a risky 2012 windsurfer and kayak voyage from Portland and Bar Harbor. Despite the harsh changes wrought in his life by his cancer and some highly personal, distressing experiences he describes in detail, I found Bogart’s writing oddly reassuring. It made plain that much about his personality had not changed and, in some ways, had grown even stronger.
Bogart was not physically intimidating, but his intellect was fierce. He had boyish looks that, without his beard, made him appear much younger than he actually was — a trait that roughed up his pride at least once when, while on a weekly reporting assignment at a high school, he was mistaken for a student. A silent glare from Bogart was not easy to brush off.
His prose often was equally sharp. His pride in the face of his illness is evident in his writing, as is his persistence, his humility, and his sense of humor (“Shoes by Nike. Mood by GlaxoSmithKline”). The measured determination that enabled Bogart to sand a piece of wood for a carpentry project by hand for half an hour while watching a Red Sox game (I saw him do this) is reflected in sometimes painful recollections of his efforts to strike a balance between living and dying.
It appears in passages about his caregivers and medications, the mundane task of applying for Social Security benefits, his bouts with depression, and his (mis)adventures on the water. It’s in posts about celebrating his birthday, having seizures, pursuing physical exercise, and willfully dismantling his web-hosting business.
Throughout his blog, Bogart lays out a constantly shifting jumble of hope, realism, struggle, courage and acceptance. For me, it reveals a standard for how to take stock of your life and make the most of what opportunities you have left.
Clearly, grappling with such grim realities and trying to wield some control over your life’s new priorities makes for a bumpy, emotional and sometimes terrifying ride. If I ever find myself in a similar position of knowing how and when I am most likely to die, I hope I can muster the same mix of dignity, openness, humor, confession and questions that Bogart wrote down for us to remember him by.
There are five years’ worth of posts on Bogart’s blog. This passage, from January 2014, is one of my favorites:
Has a day gone by, of those thousand [days], in which I did not consider my prognosis? That this cancer is supposed to kill me? That it was supposed to have killed me already?
No. But close. Many days, surely, include an idle pondering of fates: those avoided and those endured, those to reach for and those that reach for me. Most days touch the subject second-hand, in the way that uncertainty blurs my vision of the future. And yet, therein the gift: wondrous, miraculous uncertainty.
They are reminders to live today today. Touch it, taste it, let it free. Sometimes I want to go back and capture the novelty and innocence of the old days, surely to savor with hard-won wisdom. But ain’t there a boy there lookin’ at me funny, frightened by the stain of urgency on my face?
Ain’t I the boy again today, son of tomorrow? Yes. Isn’t it time to pardon all your yesterdays? Yes. Isn’t it time to forgive yourself for living? Yes. You’ve got to love your life, your one and only life. Love even the failures, the trauma, the embarrassments. Cherish these, your own and only days.
Wouldn’t you, in your final moments, for the prize of being new again, at the price of being naive, want to live it all over again? Is there any difference between that reckoning and the life each one of us lives today? Is this, in fact, that memory, that second chance, that thousandth chance to love your life?