Sam Mascitti Is No Longer: His Passing is a Reminder That the Six Horsemen of Death Await Us All.
That's Sam Mascitti, left above, a little over a year ago when five tennis buddies, at the invitation of Rich Pyle, above second from right, got together for lunch. At 81, Sam was, as you can see, the picture of health. Marty Griff was at far right. Second from left, with just a little bit of his head showing, was Jim Kane. The character standing and waving his arms and, as usual, doing his best to attract attention to himself was, of course, yours truly.
A year later, on Aug. 12, 2016, Sam died of cancer at 82. That's over a month now and thoughts of Sam leaving us keep gnawing at me. Sam, a longtime friend both on and off the court, was in fantastic shape. He was trim with not an ounce of fat. A year ago, he was flying around the court chasing down tennis balls and hitting winners.
And talk about competitive! He played in 60 and over senior tournaments and at one time was ranked 22nd in New England. In 2009, he won a USTA sanctioned 70 and over tournament, defeating the top seed in the final. In 2014, he won a gold medal at the Maine Senior Games.
Then, suddenly out of nowhere, came the cancer. Like the cruelly ravenous demon that it is, the cancer quickly spread throughout Sam's athletic body. He dropped out of our tennis group. For many weeks, I didn't see or hear from him.
When Sam knew that his passing was coming soon, he made a list of people he wanted to say goodbye to. I was on that list. That was a first for me. I never had a dying friend ask to see me to say goodbye.
Trouble was I and my wife Barbara were across the country in Edmonds, Washington, visiting our daughter and four grandkids. We were committed for a month. Leaving would be too disruptive of complicated plans, such as our daughter and her husband getting away while we watched the kids.
Then I read a major, deeply researched report in The New York Times about immunology and how it is successfully helping cancer patients defeat cancer. Basically, the body's immune cells are used to attack and kill cancer cells. It is a major breakthrough in overcoming cancer!
I had to tell Sam. I picked up the phone and called him.
"Hello," said a weak, barely audible voice.
"Sam? George Pollock."
"Sorry, my voice has changed," he said so softly I could barely hear him.
"Don't worry about it, Sam. I didn't call to chat. There's a report in today's New York Times that you have to read. It's about immunology and how it is curing people of cancer."
"Oh, wow," he said with a sudden infusion of life. He asked me to hold while he got a pencil and paper. When he came back, I gave him the info. "Wow," he said in a voice that seemed to have come alive. "I'll read it. Thank you, George."
"I'm going to go now so you can get the paper and read it. We'll talk later."
Sam did read the NYT report on immunology, but he was too late. He died a few days later. After we got back from the west coast, Barbara and I went to Sam's wake in his hometown of Leominster, Mass.
Kneeling at his casket and looking into his motionless face, I was going to say something about looking forward to meeting up with him in hell. Instead, deciding to behave, I silently thought these words, "Goodby buddy. Meet you in the next life. See you then!"
As death took Sam, it is going to take us all sooner or later. Ten years ago, I wrote about death. Looking over that story, I found it as true today as it was then. Maybe it's because I haven't learned anything. Or maybe what I wrote then was right on and still is.
You decide. Here it is:
One way or another, we must all come to terms with death. We must reach beyond the abstract death of the philosophical tome; the religious death of the church; the grieving death within families and among friends; the technological death of the hospital, the hushed-up death of the funeral parlor; the mass-denial death of society; and, especially, the oppressive death of fear and horror.
We must contemplate, understand, and embrace our own end. Death is natural, necessary, and a normal part of our cycle of life. Instead of keeping the poor despised and feared ghoul in the shadows, who, after all, only has a thankless job to do, we can bring him out into the open and get to know him better. There are many ways that this can be done, all of them human and life-affirming.
This is not to say that death is our friend. After all, it is the end of earthly life and for a living, breathing, moving creature, it is catastrophic finality. It may or may not be the end of consciousness, whatever that is. Consciousness is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. It certainly will take us away from earthly family, friends, love, large and little pleasures ....
And, as much as we don't want to believe it or think about it, death is often painful, horrific, and tragic. In his fine book, “How We Die,” Sherwin Nuland, who has witnessed thousands of deaths as a physician, writes that the process is frequently drawn out, painful, ugly, and terrifying to the dying person.
Nuland, who prefers not to use “Dr.” as a writer, shows us that it is physically not easy to die. The body's immune system fiercely resists the process of death. When the first line of defense is breached, a second line is thrown into the battle.
When the second line fails, a third line rushes to the front, and then a fourth and a fifth, until the body has no troops left. Death frequently is a long, desperate fight to the last immunological soldier and for most of us the final struggle takes place in a hospital or nursing home.
According to Nuland, about 85% of people are finally overrun by what he calls the Six Horsemen of Death: atherosclerosis, hypertension, type II diabetes, obesity, dementia, and cancer. All weaken resistance to infection, opening the way for hordes of bacteria and all manner of microbes.
As for my boast that I'm going to live to 120, in the same story 10 years ago I quoted Donald Tipper, a longtime professor at Umass Memorial Medical School in Worcester and fellow tennis player. I quoted him as follows:
"The neurons in our brain have to last our entire lives. Unlike the cells of the gut, which turn over in a week, the brain cells we have at maturity do not reproduce themselves. They have to last 60 years and longer. What happens is that over time proteins in brain cells become more and more likely to misfold and accumulate in a form that the garbage system can't help.
"We lose .2% of our brain cells every year. In a 100 years, we lose 20% of our brain cells. We can do without 20% of our brain cells. But the accumulation of damage to brain cells accelerates the decline of brain function. This is the same mechanism that takes place in Alzheimers. Before that, you lose critical aspects of your personality.
"I don't want to live to be 120. My brain will wear out long before then. And Alzheimers is the way it is likely to wear out. We are not selected for longterm. What makes a person a person is what dies off even if the rest of the body is alive and functioning. My father-in-law is 90 and he is really sharp. I enjoy talking to him. How long he will stay that way I don't know. I only know that his brain is the same one he's had for 70 years and it will wear out."
So much for my living to age 120 and still being me. Nothing like a good reality sandwich to bring a dreamer down to earth. Donald told me that exercise and diet and common sense can take me a long way, but not to age 120 with a normally running brain.
I just had my annual physical and there were no signs of any of the Six Horsemen of death. But I am now 78, regularly older than half of the people in the obits. As with Sam, you never know. So my aging friends, I suggest that we all live every single day to the fullest!
We miss you, Sam. Rest in peace.
To read the full story of 10 years ago, Feb. 5, 2006, click this link.
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