Living in the moment
Former doctor dabbles in pottery as he deals with his terminal illness
Leonard Cain beams with the pride of a teenage spelling bee champ.
He walks around the exhibit of pottery, pointing to pieces that he shaped with his skilled hands. For more than 20 years, Cain's hands were used to examine patients at his Cortez medical practice.
Cain smiles as he stops at one of his favorite art pieces. “It doesn't look like a real pelican but you can tell it's a pelican,” he says with a huge smile.
His speech is labored. His words come slowly. It's a struggle at times.
The cancer that was diagnosed in November 2010 is now in his brain.
He started working with pottery a year before the cancer attacked. He had plenty of hobbies — fishing, cycling, hiking, dancing — but he needed a creative outlet.
His wife of 40 years, Jeanne, and his son, Ian, are both artists.
Like a shallow lake in the evening, the exhibit at Sky Art Studio and Gallery is full of fish. Leonard's fish. He enjoys crafting fish. All shapes, sizes and colors.
There's a small round one that Leonard said started out as just a ball of clay, then slowly was formed into a rotund fish.
His art, which is part of the exhibit that also includes work from Jeanne and Ian, is a reflection of his personality. There are the fish and other unique pieces inspired by his sense of humor.
“I have no style,” he says with a laugh. “I find new ways of doing things. My wife and son are the real artists. Every time I do something, I get better.”
The cancer has taken most of his sight in his right eye. That frustrates the former doctor.
Leonard loves talking about his art, cycling and fishing. He's also comfortable talking about his life and the inevitable that awaits him.
Leonard, 63, knows his cancer is terminal. He knows he's going to die, probably soon. Jeanne, 62, knows her husband is going to die. Ian knows it too.
Ian, 26, recently returned home from Vietnam, where he taught English and created art, in order to be with his father.
“He wanted to be with his daddy,” Jeanne says.
It's been a rough year and a half for the Cains. Leonard was told six months, maybe a year and he would be gone. But he now has two years in his sights.
Back when he was diagnosed, shock took over.
“They were worried it was blood clots but it wasn't blood clots. It was cancer,” he says.
The cancer went from his lungs, then to his spine and brain.
He was terminal. He is terminal.
“I just said, 'well, I've got a terminal illness, I'll just live life the best I can,'” he says with a grin.
After decades of being the person who provided the diagnosis, it was his turn to receive the bad news.
AN AMAZING DAY
Jeanne, who worked in the medical office with her husband thinks being a doctor helped him cope with the news.
“He talked to people about death, he dealt with it as a doctor,” she says.
The Cain's “Family Differences” exhibit opened back on June 8 with a huge gathering of family, friends and Leonard's former patients.
It was a spectacular day. A sunny day in a sky filled with storm clouds.
Leonard's emotions go sideways as he remembers.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” he says as tears again fill his eyes. “All these great people came, it was very special.”
“It was a real opportunity for people to show their love for him. There was hugging, loving and laughing, celebrating his life,” she says, looking at Leonard. “People deeply appreciated him over the years.”
Leonard chuckles. “I was enjoying it. I was living it up.”
More than 300 people came through the doors of Sky Art Studio and Gallery, including some that Leonard welcomed into the world kicking and screaming in the delivery room.
The circle of life philosophy, from welcoming newborns to now confronting his own death, isn't lost on Leonard.
He smiles, again thinking of June 8.
“That was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”
About two years back, Leonard was out riding his mountain bike. It was a painful, agonizing day. But this was worse than the usual torment of grinding up a tough hill.
“He was busting his ass and busting his ass trying to get up this hill,” she says. “He was like 'why can't I do this?'”
Three months later the devastating answer came via an X-ray of his lungs.
“Then we knew,” she says. “But you did make it up that hill.”
Leonard smiles and nods.
READY FOR THE INEVITABLE
Leonard and Jeanne have dealt with the emotions and set them aside when they can. They are rather low-key about the reality.
Leonard is going to die, maybe soon.
Leonard confesses that he's ready.
“Unless I can get my body back and it starts to act normal again, I'm ready to say goodbye to my body,” he says. “I'd love to get back to doing things I love to do.”
Cycling, fishing, hiking and dancing are no longer possible. And now, because of his eyesight, pottery is a struggle.
But there is a small glimmer of hope for a few more months, maybe longer.
After months of radiation and traditional cancer-fighting methods, Leonard was given the drug Tarceva. It's helped.
“I'm feeling better now than I was three months ago, so I think the medicine is working,” Leonard says.
Before that, hospice was recommended. Another circle of life chapter surfaces. Leonard was the hospice director for more than 20 years.
Both Leonard and Jeanne say the ups and downs are difficult, but to be expected.
Hope and despair come and go. But Leonard tries to keep smiling.
“There were a few days when I was in shock. Then I went through the radiation and I was real destitute. I could hardly stay awake,” he says.
“There were a lot of times when I thought I was dying.”
Jeanne nods in agreement.
FEELING A LITTLE BETTER
Now, with the new drug, he feels better.
“I do what I can. I'm alive now, a year longer than they said I would be,” he says.
He's lost about 20 pounds but he's keeping his weight around 140 now. He tries to help out in the garden but his energy tank goes dry quickly.
When they talk, there's an unquestionable inevitability in their voices. They know death is coming.
“I'm doing well right now, Leonard says. “I think I'm on a little bit of an extended rim of existence right now.”
“Right now, he's pretty much living in the moment,” Jeanne says bluntly.
Seeing her once active, vibrant husband nearing death is tormenting.
“I expected it to be up and down and that has happened,” she says. “There are little losses I have to deal with.
“Nothing's at bay, everything is out there.”
Relish the good days, is the key, she admits.
Leonard says laughter and humor is the key.
“I like to laugh about things,” he says, then sighs. “Certainly there are days when I can't do that.”
A LIFE TOGETHER
The Cain's 40-year wedding anniversary is coming up on November 22, or is it the 24th?
Jeanne laughs, trying to remember. Leonard says it's the 22nd.
The former “hippies” met in Galveston, Texas and moved to Cuba, N.M. where they opened a medical practice. Like many there, Jeanne says they built a solar adobe and enjoyed life in a diverse community brimming with different cultures.
“We grew up together,” she says.
When talking about faith and spiritual things, Leonard smiles. “I have a wife who does all my spiritual work for me.”
Jeanne erupts with laughter. “Isn't that always the case, let the wife do the work.”
Jeanne has tried to prepare herself for the harsh reality that is ahead. They have their affairs in order — all the paperwork, the will, the things that need to be done.
The good days are what they focus on now. Like the June 8 reception when people hugged and laughed and shared stories with both Jeanne and Leonard. And there were tears too.
“They have such a strong feeling of him caring for them over their life. People came up to me and said, 'this is a caring and compassionate man, you need to know that,'” she says and laughs.
“And I was like “I know, I know.'”
They grew up together, worked together and played together.
Jeanne indeed knows.
ONE MORE RECEPTION
They are ready, but they are looking forward to another good day — a great day — as the exhibit comes to a close. On Friday, there will be a closing reception where people can again stop by and visit with Leonard, Jeanne and Ian. There's a basket where people can drop off “Love notes.”
It will be one more opportunity to say goodbye.
Seeing a once energetic and active man ravaged by cancer is distressing but Jeanne knows when cancer calls, anyone can be claimed.
The suddenness of the diagnosis and the speed of the illness is still haunting.
“In one day's time, it was gone,” she says. “Mother Nature does not take sides. She takes us all.”
For now, Jeanne plays the role of care-provider, cook and companion.
“I love food,” Leonard says smiling. “I love to eat.”
Even as a vegetarian, Jeanne says making those fish and meat dishes is no problem.
“I still know how to make his favorites — he loves salmon.”
Taking another stroll around the gallery, Leonard again beams with pride.
“I'm glad I came up with these creations,” he says.
He points to another fun product of his handiwork — a family of armadillos. He laughs. “I just wanted to have fun with it.”
He turns serious and says he misses being a doctor.
“I enjoyed people and helping them get well. I miss that.”
He needs to return to the sofa; his energy is gone again.
Now, he's the patient and there's not much left to do. Patience as he waits for the end.
Leonard Cain is living in the moment, the “right here and right now.”
A dinner of salmon, time with his wife and son, a hug from an old friend, a grin as he admires his family of pottery armadillos … Leonard Cain is living out his final days a contented man.
“The thing is, everyone goes,” he says.
There is no grin this time, just a nod. Then a smile as he walks past the pelican that looks slightly like a real pelican.