A memorial service for Walter Baugh will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at the United Church Parish House, 1920 G St. NW.
More than a month ago a reader phoned The Washington Post and told us about a man who had cancer. The caller said that despite being physically incapacitated by the disease, 34-year-old Walter Baugh of Falls Church had a sanguine approach to life -- and death -- that was quite an inspiration.
During the past month, Washington Post reporter Elsa Walsh visited him several times. On Saturday, July 11, Walter Baugh died.
The following are Baugh's thoughts as shared on Father's Day.
Night's gauzy curtain fell gently around the brick and clapboard home, lightly silhouetting the children scrambling from lawn to asphalt and back again.
Inside, a young boy knelt on his father's bed among the scattered Father's Day presents and said: "I remember fishing with my daddy and how much fun it was even though we didn't catch any fish. Thank you, God, for my daddy. Amen."
Walter Baugh, the boy's father, had bone and lung cancer. A bloody lesion on his upper gum showed cancer had hit there, too. His left leg and hip had been amputated. He had undergone chemotherapy and radiation. In December, doctors opened his chest to remove the lung tumors, but closed him up, concluding there were too many, scattered like marbles, to leave any lung tissue after the nodules were removed. And in May, Baugh, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the District, began receiving injections of interferon, an experimental drug in its first stages of human testing by the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda.
The drug, his doctors said, was a last chance at survival.
Still, the 34-year-old Baugh, down from 210 pounds to 150, propped up his head and smiled fondly at the family clustered around the bed he seldom left -- at 6-year-old Philip and 5-year-old Michael dressed in last year's Halloween costumes; at Martha, his wife of 16 years. Their baby, 15-month-old Sharon, was in her crib.
"I have not given up the hope of a possible cure at least long-term remission of some sort, and yet, I realize that there is a far greater possibility that I will not live past the end of the year," Baugh said, his words barely audible as his lungs struggled to grasp the air.
"When we first heard that I probably had a malignant tumor, Sharon was in a stroller in the doctor's office. She was about 3 months old. I remember thinking, 'How old will I see her get? Will I see her mature?'
I don't know if I will see my own 35th birthday in December."
Before Baugh's death last weekend, his doctors at the Bethesda-based institute said he probably would not live until his next birthday. A resident of Falls Church, Baugh said he knew this. But those last few months were more than a swan's dying dance.
In carefully choreographed arabesques, Baugh found a balance between his desire to affirm and share a celebrated life and the need to accept death. During the last couple of months Baugh was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke to church groups about cancer and its effects, kept up on his EEOC reading and made a pilgrimage to the gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
"I guess I felt a little like Jeremiah buying a piece of land before the Syrians invaded," Baugh said of the afternoon he was rolled into the nation's highest court. Earlier that morning, Baugh was running a high fever and his wife said they did not know whether they would be heading toward First Steet NE or the hospital. "But I wanted to do it," said Baugh. "I guess it was an expression of faith in the future, an affirmation that I had not given up living, despite my illness.
"Of course, it has to cross your mind, but the prospect of dying doesn't really bother me that much. Although relatively young, I feel I have lived quite a full and happy life -- possibly a great deal wider than many people. I've had two careers (as a physicist and a lawyer). I've studied in diverse areas. I've had the experience of marriage and parenthood.
"There's not much that I haven't done at all -- no major life phases that I haven't experienced.
"If I had my druthers, I'd certainly like to keep going. I feel like I'm finally getting in a position to do something about my perceived life's position: promoting social justice, trying to help others. . . .
"But if this is what has to happen, I accept it. If you have learned not to fear life, why fear death?"
Baugh first discovered his cancer Aug. 15 after a routine checkup showed abnormalities in the blood. That afternoon, with his wife Martha at his side, Baugh checked into the National Cancer Institute where a biopsy soon revealed that he had osteogenic sarcoma of the hip -- a form of bone cancer usually found in young children and teen-agers. Since the first operation 11 months ago, Baugh had undergone virtually every form of cancer treatment available. But nothing, his doctors said, could slow the virulent growth of cancer in the young man's body.
"I guess when they call you a patient, they really mean you have to be patient," Baugh joked in one of many light moments.
Baugh teased about making it just in time to be one of the first in the experimental interferon program.
He laughingly compared Jean Paul Sartre's irreverent parody on Descartes -- "I am nauseated, therefore I exist" -- to chemotherapy.
He beamed devilishly when he talked about his first date with his wife when he couldn't get a cab and sprinted a couple of miles to meet her at the corner.
And, he added as if presented with a bonus, the cancer had given him an opportunity to use the science training he left to one side five years ago when he switched from being a physicist with the Federal Drug Administration to being a lawyer.
Life, he said, after adding up all the positive and negatives, "is still good."
Between the jokes, Baugh talked frequently about his religious faith. A native of southern Virginia and a Methodist, Baugh said he always had been a devout man. It was, he said, this belief in "that which is greater than I" that sustained him through what might otherwise be a fear-wracked illness.
His was not a faith of heavens and souls living on after the body decomposes, however. He characterized that type of belief as Grecian and belonging in a three-story world. Instead, he said, he had demythologised his Christian faith to a point of pure trust, nothing more.
"It would be much more reassuring if I could confirm with all sincerity a three-story universe and presume going to heaven and living an eternal life," said Baugh.
"But I have difficulty finding images that I can affirm now as part of my Christain faith. . . . All I can affirm now is that whatever happens will be all right, because I know that whatever happends I am loved and sustained by that which is greater than i.
"I'm not saying my faith has completely overcome the terror of the unknown, but really that it is an affirmation in spite of it."
Baugh didn't like to talk a lot about the pain that sometimes raced like a razor-edged train through his body. So a visitor tried not to notice the contorted grimaces and moments of silence, interrupted by a rattling of the chest, when a breath seemed not to be there.
Yes, there were nights, he said, when he grappled for the narcotics at his bedside and, yes, sometimes a "phantom pain" shot through the area where once his leg rested. But, he said, he was grateful. He thought it would be much worse.
"I certainly don't enjoy itr, but there is no reason why I should be immune to human suffering. There are so many people who suffer so much more than I do. I could have been blown apart by the war.
"While I don't want to be a martyr and suffer any more than I have to, I had a sense right after my surgery, when it looked like they had got it all, that somehow, it had been too easy and I had not gone through what 'difficult cancer patients' suffer. I felt funny calling myself a cancer patient.
"I guess there's some comfort in knowning that I have not gotten off too easily. I have a better understanding of what suffering is."
His one regret, Baugh said, was that he would not be able to continue his work as an advocate for the victims of injustice or employment discrimination. He began working for EEOC three years ago.
"All my life I felt it was my mission in life to do something in the social justice or civil rights area. But now, I'm faced with the prospect that I may never get to do anything like that.
"When I went to Martin Luther King's gravesite, I remembered how I had wanted to carry on his work and then wondering if I would now ever get much farther with it. But I hope that maybe in the time that I have had with the EEOC and the other opportunities I have had to express concern for social justice that somehow, somebody will be moved to carry on."
It is this legacy, he said, he wanted to leave the world.
"I would like to be remembered as one who tried to help others. One who really tried to see human need wherever it existed -- hunger, oppression, injustice -- and did whatever I could to alleviate it."