IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived’

The hopes and strivings of an entire generation and find universal meaning one man’s confrontation with his own morality.
/ Source: TODAY

In the prime of his life, happily married and the father of three children, Peter Barton came face to face with the greatest challenge in a life filled with risk taking and direction changing. Diagnosed with cancer, he began a journey that was frightening and appalling, yet also full of wonder and discovery. Here's an excerpt of “Not Fade Away”:

You can tell a lot about a person by his nickname, right?

Mine’s Hawk. I’ve had that moniker for as long as I can remember, and it still tickles me. I just love the word. It conjures images of soaring flight against a cloudless sky. It implies a majestic independence, a raptor’s uncompromising realism...

Except that’s not the kind of hawk I’m named after.

I’m named after the Studebaker Hawk, a market flop of a sport coupe that was manufactured in the middle 1950s. I just loved the name of the thing. It seemed to summarize all that was cool and jaunty.

Besides, it’s really more fitting that I was named after a car. As a kid, I didn’t soar, I rode around. I fantasized about automobiles, but what I rode was bicycles or motorized dinghies that I cobbled together from spare parts. Mine was a down-to-earth, nuts and bolts, tinkering kind of childhood.

Then again, kids are always soaring. For them, there’s no boundary between the down-to-earth and the heavenly. Mud is a miracle. Snow is pure chilled joy. A pile of leaves is a sacred altar. Why do we lose that feeling, that sense of wonder, for so much of our lives?

Anyway, I was born in Washington, D.C., but while I was still an infant the family moved to Painted Post, New York, a tiny upstate town complete with maple trees and dappled cows and a beautiful white steeple. And pregnant women! Pregnant women carrying toddlers; pregnant women pushing strollers. There were a million kids to play with. Nice kids, nasty kids, gentle kids, bullies—all of human nature was represented in our little neighborhood.

Our family, in almost every way, was typical. My mother, in those years, was a housewife. My father worked too hard and wasn’t around as much as I’d have liked. We were neither rich nor poor; I don’t think I knew those categories existed. Everyone was middle class. Life got better for everyone together. One year there was television, the next year there was color television. One year Dad drove a shiny new Dodge, the next year there was a DeSoto with even bigger tail fins.

Kids don’t know from economics, but here’s the lesson I absorbed: Money needed to be worked for but not fretted over. It would appear when required. In the meantime, better to climb trees and build snowmen. In other words, to live.

But I want to tell you about Painted Post’s one claim to fame. It is very near the Corning Glass factory, where my father worked.

In case there’s anyone who doesn’t remember, Corning did not begin with the fiber optics business. In the 1950s, Corning manufactured plates and platters and Pyrex pans. What the company was best known for, though, was casserole dishes. Everybody had them, remember? Their trademark was an abstract blue flower.

Since my dad worked for Corning, my mom had every casserole shape ever made. We had one for stew. We had one for soup. We had one for potatoes. If they’d made one for individual spaghetti strands, we’d have had that one too! I can still see the metal cradles that the dishes sat in at the table . . .

But wait—why am I going on about casseroles? I think it’s because the approach of death has made me realize that there are no unimportant details in life. That childhood sense of wonder is somehow coming back to me. How can I put it? Things, and the meanings that they have, are being reunited in my heart.

Those old casseroles—maybe they’re just chipped and battered pans, but for me they’re connected with incredibly precious things, giant notions like Mother, Kitchen, Family Meals.

So cut me some slack if I get nostalgic now and then over trivialities. The thing is, they don’t seem trivial to me. I’ve come to feel that the big things in life are best understood by way of small things. Ignore the small ones, and the big ones just seem like fancy words, slogans without the truth of something you really know, and really feel.

Who knows how or when a disease is actually born?

Who knows what cancer is like in its appalling infancy, when the first disastrous cell divisions are just starting to occur, before detection is possible?

For all I know, there may be something beautiful in the process. Under a microscope, in time-lapse, it might look like flowers opening, mushrooms burgeoning. Maybe that sounds creepy—but just because something’s bad for us, that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful on its own terms. Nature is full of gorgeous and deadly things.

Whatever my disease’s early history was like, here’s how I first learned of it: My doctor called me on my cell phone.

It is Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1998. I’m forty-seven, and I’ve been supposedly “retired” for a year and a half. But I’m as busy as I’ve ever been. I’ve started foundations. I’ve been teaching a seminar in business school. I sit on boards of various corporations and advise many friends who are still in mid-career. I feel a joyful obligation to help out where I can. And, to tell the truth, I still love the action.

Today I’m in Silicon Valley, at an informal board meeting at Yahoo. They’ve asked me to become a director. This is flattering, but I pass—mainly because their business model scares me. How can they actually make money? That’s what we’re talking about on this particular afternoon: formulating an economic model for a big aggregation of e-commerce businesses. This excites me. What I like is creating things, adding value, shaping the big picture. I’m there to brainstorm, to enjoy the company of some really smart people. And to suggest to them some big ideas—which, I conclude, they’re not ready for.

What I have to say, basically, is that what Yahoo has done so far is just one piece of a puzzle. Everyone knows their name, but where do they exist, what do they do? I’m telling them they need to become a media company. They need broadcasting. They need content. They’ve got two choices: become marginal, or go head-to-head with AOL and Microsoft.

At some point the meeting becomes electric. This happens every now and then in business, and when it does, it’s an adrenaline rush for sure. It happens when Big Stuff is on the table and people know that the brains and resources are there to do it, if only the will can be found...

And that’s when my cell phone rings.

As a matter of policy, I turn my phone off when I go into a meeting. This one time I forgot. And at this crucial moment the damn thing starts buzzing away. I’m slapping at pockets, poking at buttons. I can’t get it to stop. Finally I answer, just to make it shut up.

It’s a doctor of mine in Denver. I barely know him. He barely knows me. I don’t go to doctors very much. Why would I? I’m a healthy guy, a fitness nut. I’d gone to see him because I had a little bellyache.

“Mr. Barton?” he says.

“Speaking.”

“I need you to come to my office to discuss this with me. You have cancer.”

Just like that. That terse; that quick; that casual.

I don’t remember getting up, but suddenly I’m standing. The Yahoo board of directors is staring at me. Maybe they understand that something bad has happened; maybe they’re just wondering what could possibly be more important than going head-to-head with AOL.

I leave the meeting. I’m not dizzy, exactly, but out in the hallway the floor doesn’t seem quite level, the walls meet the ceiling at a peculiar angle. I’ve still got the doctor on the phone, but he refuses to say much. It’s my life, but we’re doing this his way. He insists he needs to see me in his office.

I head for my plane. On the way, I feel my stomach, pat it down as if searching for a loaded weapon. Somewhere in there—somewhere in me—something poisonous is growing.

This is inconceivable and horribly insulting. It was just a little bellyache that lingered. No shooting pain, no fever. Nothing more than a vague feeling of wrongness in my gut.

It couldn’t be cancer. It had to be some grotesque mistake.

Excerpted from “Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived” by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton. Copyright © 2003 by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton. Published by Rodale, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.