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Roundtable: Following Steve Jobs: His enduring lessons

October 12, 2011

I didn't know Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and changer-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, but he's been a presence in our home for years.

Sure, we're Macheads. From our old PowerBook to our iPhone 4s, nary a Microsoft product has darkened our door in a decade. But for us, it was more than that. In 2004, Jobs had a Whipple procedure, which is a funny name for a serious surgery to remove part of his pancreas after a tumor was found there. Three years later when my husband had a Whipple for the same reason, Steve Jobs entered our lives for more than just his cool gadgets.

Jobs became a subtle inhabitant of our house. He was like one of the Mac dashboard icons that you don't use very much, like iMovie, but just knowing it's there is nice, and occasionally you click on it just to check it out. I guess it's because having something wrong with your pancreas is scary, and knowing someone famous and successful who has something wrong with his pancreas is comforting.

Steve Jobs once said he didn't even know what a pancreas was until he found out he had a tumor in his. Well, it's an important organ that sort of runs your digestive system. Pancreatic cancer is pretty rare; 38,000 Americans were diagnosed with it in 2008. But unlike many other cancers, some of which have become more like chronic diseases to be lived with, pancreatic cancer remains a death sentence.

Only about 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are candidates for the Whipple, which is a surgery that takes anywhere from 8 to 16 hours in which part of the pancreas is removed along with a bunch of other stuff that's connected with it - including the gall bladder, part of the bile duct, the duodenum and, sometimes, part of the stomach. A fair percentage make it only a year or so after the Whipple. If you're luckier than that, there's a good chance you have numerous digestive issues and have to cope with periodic medical procedures related to the whole thing. Life post-Whipple can be lonely, its path filled with unknowns.

Lucky for us, Steve Jobs was walking that path in front of us. It was comforting and hopeful. He may have had a Whipple, but there he was, in his black turtleneck, running one of the coolest companies on Earth. How could anything bad happen to him? He was creating the iWorld, making up the rules as he went, telling us all what we wanted before we even knew it and being right.

As Jobs began to look sicker, it was easy for us to chalk it up to the myriad issues you have when you're living with a whacky digestive system (and the continual threat of a recurrent pancreatic tumor). We'd study pictures of him in the paper and online for clues as to his state of health. "He looks skinny," I'd say, tending toward pessimism. "Yeah, but he looks good," my husband, the optimist, would reply, then tally off a litany of things he was probably dealing with at the time.

It's a sign of me not actually knowing Steve Jobs that I figured, when he stepped down from Apple in August, that he'd finally decided to spend more time relaxing, enjoying his family and all that. The idea that he would live only six more weeks never occurred to me.

Appropriately, I learned of Steve Jobs' death on Oct. 5 when my husband tapped me on the shoulder that evening and held up his iPhone. There was the iconic Jobs looking out from a stark white background. "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," was all it said. I caught my breath, then felt my heart sink. I had to sit down. Until that moment, I don't think I realized the importance of Steve Jobs in our lives. He had represented concrete evidence of hope.

In the end, regardless of whether you're one of the most brilliant people in the world, you have to play the cards you're dealt. No one can say Jobs didn't live life to the fullest. One of my favorite quotes is from a commencement speech he gave at Stanford the year after his Whipple.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said. "Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

I read that quote not long after we started down our path, following Steve Jobs. It's good advice because we're all headed to the big apple in the sky eventually, whether sooner or later. Dare to take chances. Dance as if no one is watching. Live in the moment. Be the change. These are some of the things Steve Jobs - and this path - have taught me to strive for.

The loss of Steve Jobs means many things to many people -most importantly, his family, who must miss him terribly. Ultimately, the world spins on, less one of the great men of our time - of all time, perhaps.

As for me and my family, we'll miss Steve Jobs on the path ahead of us. It feels a little more lonely without him there.

Janet Cook has been a staff writer for Hood River News since 2000. Her husband, Pete Hixson, is part-owner of Pistil, a Hood River apparel company.

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