I don’t remember exactly when I met Alston for the first time, but it was probably 2003 or 2004, most likely at La Cabane, where we early-adopter bloggers used to hold our monthly YULBlog gatherings. By then, the YULBlog evenings were drawing a larger crowd (20 to 30 people), so I didn’t get to know Alston very well right away. But over time, through seeing him at YULBlog and other events, and by reading his blogs, I eventually fell into his orbit.
In 2007, just after landing his dream job in the video game industry, he was diagnosed with cancer. In September of that year he underwent a radical surgery that removed a large piece of his stomach and esophagus. A few days after the surgery he was able to receive a group of friends went to visit him in the hospital. We were shocked at the extent of the scarring. It was as if the surgeon had deconstructed him, or had unwrapped him like a tube of Pillsbury turnovers and then wrapped him back up again.
Espophogeal cancer is one of the worst ones to get. Hardly anyone gets over it. Alston’s continuing treatments would show some success and then there would be a setback. Up and down he went in his very open battle. By the end of last year he was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to beat it, that it was a matter of pushing back as long as life seemed livable, and that this likely wouldn’t be very long. Last November he said, in a blog post, that he’d be surprised to see the end of 2011.
He lived as well as he could over the past three years. Perhaps the highlight was participating in a film, Wrong Way to Hope, about young adults with cancer. The project saw him fly out west to hang out with other like-bodied people and to do fun outdoorsy things like whitewater kayaking. The film will be released in November of this year.
This clip contains a few scenes cut from the film. That’s Alston at the beginning, the shirtless guy.
Alston also contributed to a book published earlier this year by the McGill University Health Center and The Cedars Cancer Institute, called Cancer Under the Radar; Young Adults Tell Their Stories. On a more personal and immediate level, he contributed to his friends’ knowledge and understanding of cancer, treatments, setbacks, oncology, and even race issues, through his insightful and sometimes humorous blog posts at AlstonAdams.net/blog.
During Alston’s three year battle with cancer, he bounced between sickness and not-quite-wellness. He went out as much as he could, saw friends, and continued to attend YULBlog when he could. By early 2010, however, it was becoming apparent that he might not live out the year. He was thin and frail and wasn’t eating much. He continued to write on his blog, but he didn’t go out as much as he did before, as the cancer, the treatments, and his low food intake were all making him very tired and weak. But occasionally he’d rally and would show up looking thin but good. In April, Martine and I sat with him at the Mainline Theatre where we saw “The Midlife Crisis of Dionysus.” He was as thin as a stick but in high spirits despite the fact that a tumor was pressing on his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper.
He showed up at my birthday party in June, held at a bar above a tapas restaurant on rue St-Denis. His voice had partially come back, and he looked dapper in a short brimmed Panama-style hat.
The last time I saw Alston was at a pot-luck Sunday dinner held at Michel and Suzanne’s place in August. Alston brought smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s, and to everyone’s surprise he managed to eat one himself. In the early evening, Martine and I drove him home; he was staying with a friend, a doctor who lives on the edge of Old Montreal. There was a flight of stairs to climb, but he refused any help. He thanked us for the ride and said goodbye to us there on the sidewalk. We all knew that we might never see him again, which sounds very dramatic but in reality it was more surreal and a bit awkward. That’s how it is with the terminally ill; you never know when their time will be up and every time you see them you think it might be the last. In that case it was.
Rest in peace, Alston. You will be missed.
Some other tributes to Alston: