3 May

Lunch With Ed Gulley. A Beginning, An End. The Symbols Of Life

by Jon Katz
The Symbols Of Life. A writer’s hands, a farmer’s hands: Photo By Maria Wulf

Maria and I took Ed Gulley out to lunch today at the Round House Cafe.

I will be honest, there are few experiences in life more stimulating or rewarding or disturbing than talking with an honest and open friend who might just be facing the end of his life, and knows it.

Ed and I have the most pure kind of  relationship, it is something a miracle for older men.

Neither of us knew  how to make many close friends, or keep them. We are happy to have found each other.

We are open and honest, we listen and hear. We are strong-willed but fairly beat up, we have both seen a lot. We don’t care to be told what to do, but will sometimes tell each other what to do.

We want to be better and do better, and we both fall on our knees in gratitude over our common truth – we have gotten second chances at life, we know the power of new beginnings.

We do not take life too seriously, we understand we are not in control of it,  our time is filled with laughter, and then, with truth. Neither of us is shocked by death or challenge, suffering is a part of life.

The first  thing I noticed at lunch today was how much bigger and dirtier and more powerful Ed’s hands are than mine.

If you ever want to capture the difference between a farmer’s work and a writer’s work, have one press hands against the other. I told Ed he was a monster, his thumb was twice as big as mine, the skin dark with the kind of imprinted dirt that never comes out.

He laughed and laughed.

We talked about a lot of things, we both see that our friendship is deepening, we are getting closer. The great adjustment is underway.

Another unusual thing is that Maria and Ed are close friends to, another unusual thing for men. Creativity is our powerful shared experience, that and the fact that we both see the brilliance in  Ed, in his mind and in his work. I think he was waiting almost all of his life to hear that, and until recently, never did.

Ed is just a few  days away from learning that he has inoperable brain cancer.

Without much hesitation, or any at all, he declined any further medical treatment. Almost everyone who has been through that kind of brain surgery told him he has made the right decision. Apart from some loss of peripheral vision and some balance problems, Ed feels find and looks his usual healthy, strong and vibrant self. He knows what may lie ahead.

Lunch With Ed

Ed is planning a cross-country trip with his beloved Carol – they have been married for 45 years –  to Montana and other places, and he is planning to write his way across America and share every word he writes. He is deeply into the symbolism of life.

I told Ed I had some frank things I wanted to tell him, and Ed thanked me for being honest in advance.

He always wants to hear what I have to say, and he always listens, and he always makes up his own mind, which is the way it should be.

He told me he wanted me to make sure to come to him with problems or troubles, he didn’t want the next step – “looking forward” is how he put it – to be out of balance, to be all about him. I said I was pretty happy right now, but I heard him and appreciated it.

I told Ed I didn’t like him recording a video while lying on a sofa, which he did the other day,  I know he didn’t think a thing about it. But it seemed disrespectful to me to the people watching.

He nodded and said he only did that because he didn’t want to disturb the cats on the bottom of the bed. I laughed and said next time, disturb the cats. You have to show respect for the people reading and watching you, he said. They deserve it. Would he like it if he came to one of our Open  Houses and I was speaking while lying on a couch? He got that.

I said I had been a hospice volunteer and therapy worker for some time, and I was concerned that he hadn’t taken the time to really listen to himself and adjust to this very shocking and upending news. I knew he had cried several times, but mostly, he was sending messages to other people, reading their messages and speaking to the outer world, worrying about everyone but himself.

In his hero journey, I said, he needed to go inward, not outward, at first, and find his center. I said he needed to come to an understanding of what had happened to him so suddenly, and without warning. Take it in, chew on it.

You mustn’t skip past that and worry only about other people and answer their many questions and try to be strong for everyone else and pass on your wisdom. Find your sacred space and learn to love it.

I said that Ed had some grieving to do, and some meditating, and some talking to nature. He needed to let his own emotions come to the surface, he needed to show them to the people he loves and trusts.

I don’t know what will happen to you, I said, how it will all turn out, I’m not a seer. No one has the right to tell you how to grieve for what has happened to you.

I would love to see you spend some private time with yourself before you share this new chapter with the world so intensely. And I am someone who loves sharing things with the world on my blog. But I don’t have what you have, and I am not you.

For me, a man who hates advice, that was a lot of advice. I felt drained, but content. And still closer to Ed.

We sat at a rear table in the Round House, I saw a number of people looking sympathetically over to Ed, and I’m sure he saw it too. He does not wish to be pitied, and I do not have an ion of pity for him.

We were both glad Maria decided to come to lunch, Ed and she are very close, and he credits her with opening him up to his creativity and art. It changed his life, he said again today. We felt so easy with one another, sometimes I forget how extraordinary and rare our friendship is.

I had things on my mind, an agenda.

I felt morally obliged to share what I have learned in my hospice and assisted care therapy work. I felt I needed to challenge Ed, I felt that if our friendship was real, we had to be able to really talk to each other over these next days and months, our friendship will “freshen,” just like a cow..

I thought Ed was floating in space a bit, I told him so, and who could blame him?

I told him the saddest I see him is when he talks of the things he lost in life, not when he talks about his tumor. He seems to be accepting that, even as he reviews his life and finds some things to regret, and ponders some lost time. Farms are like that. They are bastions of acceptance.

First, I said, you need to figure out who you are now, and what you want “looking forward.”

We talked at some length about Ed’s affinity for Native-American symbolism and culture, his life has always reminded me of the Native-American interest in symbolism and connection to nature and the animal world. He would have made a first-rate Native-American warrior.

There is already some strong and mystical elements in Ed’s life. He is working closely with his grandson Jordan to finish some of his art work,  and he is teaching him welding and machinery.

Ed wants to pass along his knowledge of farming to Jordan and the rest of his family. He speaks into a new digital voice recorder as he moves through the day. He is always telling his story.

This reminded me, I said, of the Indian chiefs who passed along their wisdom to their children when they got old and before they passed away. There is great symbolism in your life here, I said, you don’t have to go to Montana to find that.

And you don’t always have to appear so cheerful and strong in your writing and videos. You can show your vulnerability, for your sake and everyone else’s.

We went back and forth, it was easy, honest and loving.

The affection we have for one another and the trust was evident and easy. it was assumed. Ed talked about having spent his entire life in the grip and grind of the small farm, it was all he knew, it was narrowing. He was so grateful, he said, to find rebirth now,to be free,  he felt, as if he was walking through a big and open door.

We did a lot of laughing and joking, and even some hugging. I pressed my hand against his and it was dwarfed by his giant fingers and calloused hands.

We went to the Battenkill Bookstore, I wanted to give Ed some books on Native American culture.

I had called ahead.

Connie and Eve had left out a pile of books for us to look through, and I bought three for Ed. One was called Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, by Sherri Mitchell, and it was just about the perfect book for Ed to look at right about now.

I felt especially close to Ed, as we browsed through the pile of books Connie had chosen for us.  I flipped through Sacred Instructions, and I came across Chapter 5, “Grief, Trauma, and Intimacy.”

“We are all carrying grief,”  wrote Mitchell, “a deep, unimaginable grief that impacts how we receive and connect with one another. It is a cumulative emotional and spiritual wound that results from the history  that we all share. This creates a barrier that prevents us from being able to truly see one another, meet one another, and connect with one another.”

Wise words for men everywhere.

I bought a copy for myself. Reading it, I see the glorious work ahead of Ed, and I see the glorious work ahead of me. A beginning, and an end.

Ed already knows that sickness, even death, is sad but not only sad. He is very smart and perceptive and he knows that doors will open now in his life as well as close. He is excited about that, he feels he has a great deal to look forward to.

For me, I will have to practice what i preach and admit to my own pain and vulnerability thinking this good man and dear friend might stumble and fall. I will  have to go on my own journey and show my emotions too, and open up as well.

I will have to look into the center of my heart also.

I will need to find myself once more, for my friend’s sake, for my sake.

I think we both will be glad to have the company.


  1. Beautiful piece on a deep and authentic friendship…..and such good advice to take time for himself. Thank you for sharing your personal journey with Ed.

  2. Having taken a 10 year life and death journey with a friend (including brain tumors) I love hearing it all again. It’s been difficult for me to explain to others how deep and rich the experience was……and continues to be. We still commune through Spirit having made that agreement while she was still here in her body. Good thoughts for me for today.

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