Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 29, 2019
A few weeks ago, my sister Nancy called to give me the bad news that my brother-in-law, Justin Aurbach, was diagnosed with an aggressive and deadly cancer known as glioblastoma, or more commonly referred to as GBM. This 77 year old Dallas-based endodontist who I knew as relatively healthy, a believer in vitamins and physically active most of his adult life, was now house-bound receiving 24 hour a day care by home health caregivers, along with his daughters Stephanie and Allison, and his partner Ruth who were now all part of a revolving schedule of care.
I booked a quick trip to Dallas to sit with him and show my support and concern. It had been a few years since I had been there and I wondered what the conversation might entail, knowing that our 53-year old relationship could cover a lot of ground. Justin and my sister were always collectors of art, and I soon found myself sitting at a kitchen table, surrounded by colorfully carved images of watermelons, where he and I reminisced as the time flew by.
Justin reminded me that we first met in 1967 when he came to pick-up my older sister Mickie, taking her to dine at Campisi’s Restaurant, a local pizza hangout. Even though it took place over five decades ago, he clearly remembered first meeting my mother as she greeted him from the couch, sitting with her thick soled shoes propped up on the ottoman, smoking a cigarette and wearing her trademark leopard print blouse. He recalls her holding Tony, the family’s three-legged Toy Poodle.
A year later, Mickie and Justin would recruit my twin brother, Jim and me to be ushers at their wedding in 1968. Through the ebb and flow of their life together, from raising children, grandchildren and building a successful dental practice, he reflected on their 41 year marriage, noting ‘how it flew by’ before Mickie passed in 2008.
Justin reminded me of the sage advice he gave me before I entered my freshman year at the University of Oklahoma. “Drink in moderation and put studies before chugging pitchers of beer,” he said. It is funny the things you tend to remember, I thought.
As our conversation became more focused on his health, Justin thought that the symptoms of the tumor might first have appeared over five years ago, when he became dizzy while taking a bike ride. Last August, the symptoms returned while riding again, and a Cat Scan would ultimately reveal his tumor.
In 2003, I had the opportunity to interview Justin about turning age 60 for my weekly senior commentary in the Pawtucket Times. He shared the following thoughts about being at the peak of his career professionally, while only five years shy of reaching retirement age.
In my commentary, Justin said, “It’s great [moving into your 60s], however, far too much [cultural] negativity has been directed at this chronological age.”
At that time, my brother-in-law was in relatively good physical shape. While he would acknowledge that he could not run a four-minute mile, he joked that he never could anyway. As he approached his sixth decade, he admitted that he played a little golf like many of his friends, walked and jogged, and even took time to lift weights.
Dr. Justin E. Aurbach, DDS, had accomplished much in his career by the age of 60. As the first endodontist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he was the first in the region to perform endodontic microsurgery, when at that time there were only 78 endodontists in the nation performing such surgery. He is past president of the DFW Endodontic Society, The Southwest Society of Endodontics, and the Dallas County Dental Society. He served as general chairman of the Southwest Dental Conference.
Justin believed strongly that he would still be ‘at the top of his professional game, improving with age’, as he proudly boasted. During my interview with him, he said, “not only am I technically better, but my years of life experience have made me wiser in respect to knowing what can and cannot be done in my life.”
The endodontist attributed much of his success to his wife, children and the many supportive family and friends that were part of his large extended family.
By age 60, his philosophy of looking at the “glass half-full rather than half empty” allowed him to cope with life’s difficulties. This life stage was also a time of excitement and learning for him, while he glided into the years he referred to as “best time of your life.”
Getting to the Big “70”
Ten years later, we would speak again about his approaching the age 70 milestone. He reflected on how so much time had passed, which he noted flew by in “the blink of an eye.” During my 2013 interview with him published in my weekly commentary in this paper, he told me that he would “certainly keep forging ahead at a break-neck pace,” promising that new goals would replace those that were accomplished.
He recalled having attended dozens of funerals, said final goodbyes to his wife, father, father-in-law, mother-in-law, along with many close friends and colleagues. Justin noted that “reading the Dallas Morning News obituary page and constantly attending funerals made him aware of the need to accomplish his set goals with the limited time he had left -” but life goes on,” Justin told me. A year after his wife’s death in 2008, the aging widower again found love and began to date Ruth.
Looking ahead into his 70’s, Justin had no plans to retire. Though financially secure, he aspired to maintain a very full practice until his eighty-fifth birthday. He found added fulfillment teaching endodontic residents at Texas AM Baylor School of Dentistry, a job that he hoped would continue into his 70s, while also staying active in the medical group.
Justin has been an avid bike rider for over 30 years, and despite being 70, he would continue to sneak in a ride when possible, even with his busy schedule. He enjoyed the City of Dallas’s fine restaurants, loved to cook for family and friends, and looked forward to a good play or chamber music performance from time to time. His mantra may well be “Live your life to the fullest, don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today.”
Justin says, since the diagnosis of his terminal illness, his house has been flooded with family, friends, referring doctors and even former dental students. “I have made a lot of friends and accept that I have impacted people in a very positive way,” he said, as he cites as an upside of his illness.
As we concluded our talk, he says, “Don’t wait to do things. You never know what the future has in store for you,” adding that he learned this lesson from Ruth.
“Simple things in life are your best bet to living a good life,” Justin tells me, stressing that it doesn’t cost a lot of money to enjoy your life.”
Justin acknowledges that he may live another two to six months with the GBM tumor, but remains optimistic, for there are those who have lived for another 14 years. In his remaining time, he hopes to maintain a “quality of life” that allows him to continue to attend musicals and plays, or perhaps even take short trips.
As you reach your 60s and into your 70s, research tells us that exercise, eating a healthy diet, developing a strong social network of family and friends, and continuing to learn and seek out new knowledge all become important in enhancing the quality of your life and increasing your longevity in your later years. However, in our twilight years life can become of full of tough challenges and we may face difficult times.
Ultimately, like Justin, reflecting on personal and professional accomplishments can give you the inner resources necessary to meet the challenges in the final stages of your life.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.