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Op-Ed: Requiem for a ‘yes’ man: As my friend Andy faced cancer, he taught us to seize the moment

Illustration of two mountain bikers against hills
Soon after the author met Andy, they were mountain biking on the trails behind their childrens’ Massachusetts school.
(Getty Images)

Last Sunday, a family speaker at a long-postponed memorial service began by listing the far-flung places people had traveled from, adding that a few chose to come “Andy style.”

I was one of them, arriving by bike after a 50-mile ride in drenching coastal Maine rain. I use a low-riding hand-powered cycle because my legs are partially paralyzed from cancer. Andy would’ve liked the gesture. Better still, because I was running late, I changed clothes in a blue port-a-potty. He would’ve loved that.

He and I were diagnosed with cancer within weeks of each other in summer 2014. His surprise was Stage 4 lung cancer, mine a rare spine cancer requiring a high-risk surgery.

We met through his wife, Jan, a nurse at our kids’ Massachusetts school and an avid fellow mountain biker. Andy soon joined us on the twisty trails behind the school. He was low-key but sharp-witted, funnier the bleaker things got. After I had surgery to remove my spine tumor, Andy arrived a few days later with his home-prepared coq au vin.

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Early in our recoveries we each struggled, and eventually Andy learned he had a key genetic mutation identified in lung cancer patients who have never smoked. He embarked on several clinical trials, one of which scrubbed his lungs clean and offered a stunning reprieve.

With awe I witnessed what would be his habitual response to each window of health: saying yes to things. This covered a wide range, including book group startups, sailing and skiing trips with old friends, bluegrass gigs in coffee shops around town and on-call babysitting status for his first grandson and first grand dog, a lion-sized golden doodle. An inexperienced carpenter, Andy built a boat with a friend, thinking they would name it Row v. Wade.

Over coffee, Andy and I would update our respective progress, or lack thereof. We shared a bit of gallows humor. We didn’t have to say that we missed the same things.

While I was in remission, Andy’s cancer regrouped each year or two and required second- and third-generation experimental drugs. In between there were punishing interim stopgaps using more traditional chemo regimens. He immersed himself in arcane medical lit, searching for overlooked trials.

When acquaintances asked him about his work, Andy — a former newspaperman and software whiz — would smile and say his job was staying alive. His lung capacity was reduced. His shortness of breath made him stop and start a lot when he biked or skied, ever grateful, he joked, for a sturdy tree to hug. Still, he always climbed the seven flights of stairs to his Boston hospital appointments.

At the summit of Red Rocks overlooking Cape Ann circa 2008.
At a summit overlooking Cape Ann, Mass., circa 2008. From left: Todd Balf, Andy Lindsay and his wife, Jan, and one of her students.
(Courtesy of the Lindsay family)

In 2018, amid one of his best spells, he and his wife were unexpectedly invited by old Canadian friends to climb a Himalayan peak. There wasn’t much time to prepare, and the trek was risky, in a part of the world where a routine medical problem could be life-threatening.

He talked it over with family, with the doctors who had overseen his care. He had expected everyone to say no, but surprisingly they didn’t. At the service, his doctor said Andy had taught them something invaluable: to say yes.

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Late in the expedition Andy offered to quit when altitude sickness stopped Jan a day short of the summit. She urged him to keep going. Somehow, he was getting stronger the higher he went. Andy summited, memorably waving a blue Mass General banner atop 21,247-foot Mera Peak for his doctors back in Boston.

In a pandemic lull, I decided to read my grandfather’s yearly journals, from start to finish. All 42 of them. And I began to connect with him.

His biggest feat was to come. The cancer roared back last year, and this time there were few options left. Nothing to say yes to. Our last time together he looked like the same Andy — handsome, with kind eyes and the casual hair of some ageless outdoor guide. He shared one of his proudest moments: He had stayed alive long enough that his grandson Ben, then 4, would remember him.

As a younger man, Andy had said yes to crewing on a nationally sponsored ocean-sailing voyage from Patagonia to Antarctica. I loved the story, especially because he hadn’t bothered to tell me about it. Jan told me after he was gone. She said they had hanging in their house a proclamation from the Polish government. They long shared a joke about what it might say about him.

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On Oct. 24, Andy died peacefully at his home in Ipswich, Mass. In clearing late afternoon skies last Sunday, friends and family finally got to say a proper goodbye to him at the gathering in Biddeford Pool, Maine, a favorite place of his where a dollop of land is surrounded by untamed ocean.

Andy Lindsay was 64, and though the rest of us were not ready, I am confident he somehow was. He said yes one last time.

Todd Balf is the author of several books, including the memoir “Complications.”


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