I first heard Limbaugh in 1988 driving across America. His voice ricocheted across Iowa as if each corn stalk was were a unison of antennas uplifting far-right conservatism from the depths of a relatively unknown chasm. His voice gave marginalized Americans a voice. To some extent, his views paved the way for likes of Fox News, the Tea Party, and Donald Trump. I listened, not because I overtly professed his beliefs or even liked him, more so because I recognized that this form of vitriolic pseudo-hate would likely climb out from American farmlands to impact America. I wanted to understand, but never did. Limbaugh was uncomfortable. He called HIV/AIDs ‘Rock Hudson’s disease,’ asserted ‘environmentalist wackos’ were scientists organized for a political position, women lived longer than men because they had comfortable lives, being liberal was similar to being Nazi, claimed Barack Obama was not born in the US, and argued against the dangers of smoking.
In due time, he became addicted to pain killers, nearly lost his hearing, and battled cancer. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (I remain unclear as to why.) But for all his boisterousness, it was the ‘Big C’ [cancer] that retracted him to that of the commoner. “Stage 4 is, as they say, terminal,” Limbaugh said. He added that after first receiving the cancer diagnosis, “I never thought I would see October 1st. I never thought I would. When October 1st hit on the calendar this year, I reminded myself of that — of that thought.”
I am a month away from the second anniversary of being listed ‘terminal.’ And that’s the experience Limbaugh and I share. as well as nearly every ‘terminal’ patient. We process pain, despair, and disappointment. We burrow deep into the soul and become stoic to ensure nothing defeats us. Upon hearing of the death of someone loved, we try to push it away. We show appropriate social responses, but internally, we brush it aside, and march onward to either life or death. (Or, maybe a little of both.)
What makes Limbaugh and I so vastly different is the ability to demonstrate some form of grace and empathy. If anyone can get me to confirm my diagnosis, I am reasonably matter-of-fact about and research-focused. I am neither conspiratorial nor self-possessed that suggests I am ageless or some ancient sage. Like many ‘terminal’ patients processing their fair of shit, I am full of compassion for my fellow travelers. And while Limbaugh had all that damn money, success, and ego, I asked some profound questions.
At the end of his life, did Limbaugh really understand destiny? Did he think he served to the greater good? I cannot but help believe Limbaugh learned some hard truths. One hard truth is that regardless of wealth, cancer kills. Cancer kills 70-year-old talk radio hosts, 61-year-old COVID statistical researchers [me], four-year-old children, and 30-year-old everyday men and women trying to eke out a living and provide for families. Typical cancer victims are young and mature, brave and bold, beautiful and strong. And most try to find something in our horrible disease that can be used for something good, to make sure no one else is alone, and that everyone has an equal opportunity at quality health care. Intrinsically, I’m unsure Limbaugh lived to such standards.
When The View hosts discussed why Limbaugh was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “He’s completely changed the paradigm of radio,” McCain responded. My follow-up would have been, “Was that ‘change‘ a benefit to the greater good?” Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf noted Limbaugh eventually abandoned any notion of positivity and willingly chose a vulgar communication style similar to Trumpism. Character and budget deficits meant little. At the time of his death, Limbaugh was likely to be remembered more for the worst things than the best things and had an extremely difficult time expressing any healing moment(s) of humility. Limbaugh and Trump were two peas in a pod: they required complete agreement. Dare to disagree and Limbaugh labelled you evil. “Ditto,” dittoheads repeated. “Ditto.” Esquire’s David Holmes was even blunter. “I listened to Rush Limbaugh for a total of ninety seconds in this century, and it taught me so much I couldn’t wait to turn it off.”
And this is where I try to be different. Sure, I did my share of bad things in life, many of which I must account for during my life review. But I hope my last decade has made differences worthy of remembering.