It only takes a few seconds. I go down the stairs, grab my jacket off the hook and start towards the car. Then I see the little Instagram icon on my phone. A new message. What the heck? I am sure someone sent me another stupid cat video. I open the message. It is short.
Hi Sarah, Frank died this morning.
I stand in the middle of the room and stare at the wall. The window seems about ready to burst and rain into a thousand splinters on the street. Suddenly the wood paneling seems as if it is pulsating, and the floor below me begins to sag.
Frank is a friend from Los Angeles, whom I met in 2017 on my solo trip through the USA for several months. I knew he had cancer. He had made it public in April 2019. It was the reason why I flew to Los Angeles again in the summer of 2019. To visit him. My uncle had died of cancer a few months earlier and I knew how deadly this shit-fucked, dirty disease can be.
As I read the news of Frank's death, I am inundated not only with grief and loss, but also with the warm feeling that I came back to see him again before it was too late.
Folks—you need to go and visit your family, call your friends, do not spend all your time working overtime at your job, but spend it with the people you love or care about, whatever it costs. Here come wondrous memories of a great person—and a thousand reasons why you should never wait!
It is June 4, 2017. I stand in the parking lot of the High Desert Motel on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. I am waiting for Frank. We know each other via Instagram, where we got in touch because of a shared passion for landscape photography. When he hears that I am visiting the USA from Germany, part of which is an extended driving journey along the entire length of the old Route 66 to California, he suggests that we meet. Meet in real life, this is crazy shit.
I have no idea what he even looks like. But I know he is driving for about two hours from Los Angeles just to meet me and show me the most beautiful photo spots in Joshua Tree National Park. Because it is hotter here at noon than sitting on a chicken grill, he comes by around 5 p.m. He has black hair, he is in his early 60s, and he has his entire trunk full of camera equipment. I hop into the car and we zip off.
We drive together to a cactus garden, passing many uniquely shaped Joshua trees. "Just don't step into the sand next to the wooden planks!" he warns in his calm and caring manner, pointing to an ominous warning sign.
“Yes,” I think and then I drop down very briefly in the dirt just off of the planks to take a photo. But only for a few seconds. Then I begin to feel a hundred cactus spines penetrating my foot. Of course, I pretend that nothing has happened as I try to appear reasonably normal while secretly removing the killer plant weapons from my feet.
Frank, I never told you this: I did not fully heed your warning, and I bounced around stupidly all evening to cover up my stupidity. Wherever you are now, you can laugh!
As the evening begins to darken, Frank leads me to a place where nature has carved a stone window into one of the round rocks lying scattered across the landscape like moonstones. A place that is not included on the official map of the National Park. A place I would never have found without him.
He has folding chairs and beer with him, so we sit under the white light of the nearly full moon in this alien landscape until enough stars begin to shine through the rock window for a photograph. It is still well over 70 degrees and we quietly talk about God and the world. The atmosphere is kind of magical and the world before us is so open and free. Around midnight, our photo expedition is complete, and he drives the two hours back to LA. He must work early the next day. He says it does not matter.
Three days later, I am in Los Angeles. Frank and I meet again. He gives me free rein about what I want to see that evening. "Sarah, you choose the sights and then we will go there!" If you find all this strange, I find that Americans are like that. Almost all of them, regardless of their political views, are warm, hospitable, and generous. Really. This has not always been my experience with people back in Germany.
I really want to see the Griffith Observatory. Especially because you have a spectacular view of Los Angeles from there. I will make my experience for that night short: unknown to either of us, there is a big event at the observatory that day. And I unwittingly send poor Frank into an absolute hell of traffic. Much later we descend upon Hollywood Boulevard at the Hard Rock Café, where I order a mountain of tortilla chips with a terribly bad conscience. "Everything's fine," Frank says casually, as he leans back and makes a joke about Jim Morrison's tight leather trousers, which are being exhibited in a display case.
It is April 2019 when I learn that Frank has cancer. He has already lost his brother to the shit-fucked, dirty disease and Frank has been taking care of his brother’s family ever since. This is almost the same moment when the doctors in the hospital tell me they can no longer do anything for my uncle. Because of the shit-fucked, dirty disease. I want to scream out loud.
I ask Frank how bad it is. He says, "Stage 4." I look that up and then I want to burn my computer. Stage 4 is the final stage.
Only a few weeks later I fly to the USA to be with my boyfriend. I decide that I should also go back to Los Angeles for a visit while I am in the country. To see Frank. Who knows how long he will last? It is now or never.
In September 2019, I am on a plane from Wyoming in the northern Rocky Mountains of the US, where my boyfriend lives, flying to California in the south.
Frank comes to my Airbnb on the outskirts of Los Angeles to pick me up. Like 2017. He now has a beard. He looks older and more tired. But his attitude is positive. He tells me that the therapy he has been doing for several months seems to help. "I have good days and bad days," he says, and we catch up about the rest of our lives. He takes me on a photo tour with some of his friends. We travel to the beach to photograph the Milky Way over the sea at Malibu. On the way, he treats me to a meal at an Italian restaurant. When we arrive in Malibu, he sets up a tripod for me.
"I was with my son at Morro Rock," he says. I remember that he had told me that the round, huge rock on the Pacific coast is one of his absolute favorite places in the world.
"Awesome," I say honestly. "I'm glad you did it together!"
"We also talked about death," Frank replies. "I think it's important to talk about it. It's no way to deny it.”
Two days later, we take pictures together at the LA International Airport until we are kicked out by a security lady. It is the last time I see Frank.
People – life is just too damn short and there is just too damn much shit out there. Seven years ago, I made a huge mistake and I did not take enough time for my most favorite grandma. Because I thought we still had so much time. Because I thought the university, my photo jobs, and spending evenings watching TV were more important. Then she suddenly died, overnight, from a stroke—a blood clot in her head—and I could have been, should have been, spending so much more time with her.
If you have grandparents: Call them, bake them cakes, drive by to see them, go over family albums with them, let them talk about their youth.
If you have parents: Do something with them, let them know frequently what you are doing and whether you are happy or not. Let them know that they were and are great parents. Even if they were not, consider taking the phone in your hand, even after ten years ofsilence, to try it one last time.
If you have children: Try to understand that your shit profession is not the most important thing! Sure, you need money to live, but your daughters and sons only grow up once. They learn to ride a bike, they are afraid of school, they come home drunk. They are just kids. Don't miss it!
When you have friends: go out with them, do game evenings, go to the sea together, laugh together, drink wine together, sing together with the music in the car, and hug them.
If you have a partner: never take the other for granted, listen to what the other is really saying, do not argue with them about dirty socks, kiss often, and love loudly.
But the most important thing: No matter who means something to you, shout it out! Every day. Do not wait.
There are a thousand ways to die. But there are also a thousand ways to show someone how much they mean to you. Write postcards, send flowers, show up spontaneously at their door, send an occasional emoji on WhatsApp just because. Hold on to the relationship as long as you can. If you do not have time, take it away from something else. If you do not have money, start to save some or borrow some. Stop finding excuses.
And do not wait.
Nobody wants to talk about death. Especially when we are young. But death can affect anyone. Any time. Even right NOW. Tumor, plane crash, household accidents. Death is shitty, no matter how old we are, what we still had in mind, and who we leave behind.
Don't wait. Ever.
I look at the blurry selfie that Frank and I took together on the beach with my less-than-stellar cell phone in 2017. I know we will never cruise down Hollywood Boulevard together again, we will never laugh together about Jim Morrison's pants again, and we will never watch all the stars in the sky together again.
But I also know that I did not wait, and I know that he knows what he meant to me. In addition to the grief and loss, there is this warm feeling. Because I took the time and trouble to see him one last time.
Frank, wherever you are now, we can both laugh a little bit.
If you are looking for further inspiration for your life and a dose of philosophical thoughts with courage to live, take
a look at my post How I lost my Fear of Death.