Since the average distance between the sidebar’s ten “Recent Posts” links has dropped from months to days, I feel cautiously optimistic that my Plerd-powered return to blogging might actually stick for a while, this time around. Thinking on this, I realized I had an opportunity to say something nice about someone you probably never knew (nor did I, really), so I will.
I want to dedicate this year of my writing on the jmac.org blog to the work and the memory of Derek K. Miller. A multitalented dude, a musician and a tech writer, but best known to me as the owner of the blog Penmachine, which I discovered in 2010 while researching blogging platforms. (A perennial distraction for me, this, until the day I finally gave up and wrote my own software.) Google had handed me this thoughtful post about Movable Type as reading material. I liked it, and I liked the posts on either side of it too, so popped the blog’s feed into my RSS stream and went on with my life.
In receiving new posts from Derek this way, I soon discovered that I had joined his conversation in the midst of his battle with cancer. He had been diagnosed with it more than two years prior, and had been writing about it extensively and publicly ever since. At the time, his posts expressed cautious optimism, without letting go of reality. This would last only a few months. I will always remember the cold shock I felt when he published “The endgame”, breaking the news that he and his family had decided, after his withstanding years of punishing chemotherapy to no significant gain, to switch from curative to palliative treatment.
After that point, he still posted about technology and food and photography, but much of his writing served as a frank chronicle of his own decline. Calling these few months of posts “entertaining” feels obviously wrong, as does “gripping” or anything suggesting only the fascination of morbidity, so let’s settle on calling them comfortably readable — all the more remarkable given the very painful subject. He wrote not just about his rapidly ebbing health, but of all the ways he and his family strived to give his life a controlled landing. He tied up all his affairs, helped his family plan out the now-inevitable future without him, and threw a “living wake”, one last party he could attend while he still had the energy for it. He wrote in detail about all these, and shared the photographs from the party.
His final post, and the one that remains on the blog’s front page, is the announcement of his own death, written by himself in advance, posted by his family when the day came. I also remember how I felt when this showed up in my RSS reader. It is a short, sweet love-letter to his wife, his daughters, and the world. It expresses sadness that he had so little time, and cognizance that, all things considered, he still came out pretty lucky. I see from the Twitter link at the bottom that it still inspires people; as I write this, two others linked to it this past week, amazed. From their language I doubt they personally knew Derek either.
I feel sorry that I mostly think of Derek K. Miller as a technology guy who wrote engagingly and then died chattily. I’d like to say I will browse his other work — I did, a little bit, preparing to write this — but I don’t know for sure that I will any further. But I do feel certain in retrospect that reading Derek’s final year of blog entries changed my own attitude about death and dying, something that had to have helped me during my tribulations with my parents’ situation in 2013.
I don’t think I consciously recalled Derek’s blog during that time, nor at all until quite recently. Today I see connections between the end of Penmachine, my subsequent family experiences, and this revived blog of my own, each connected by two-year leaps. Derek was 41 when he died, the same age that I am now. From what little I know of his life, I feel positive the world is poorer for losing him. I am glad that, knowing he had to leave, he chose to make his exit in the way that he did. He left behind a gift to more people than he knew.