Dave Wheeler, a lawyer who lives in Moreno Valley, sent me his obituary recently.
He had written it himself, right after he got married and just before he went in for brain surgery. He wanted to leave something behind in case he never woke up. So, he sat in his living room in September with a laptop computer and struggled to put 54 years of life into several paragraphs.
Where to begin?
I might have started with his time as a race car driver in the '90s. Or with his animal rights activism in the '80s. Or with his anti-apartheid and pro-farmworkers crusading in the '70s.
But here's the intro he came up with:
"Former Costa Mesa Councilman and Champaign, Ill., resident Dave Wheeler, 54, has died of lung and brain cancer. He was the son of William and Myrna Wheeler. . . . As a child, he had high scores on standardized tests and in 1966, a team of psychologists from the University of Illinois measured his IQ at 191."
I'm happy to report that two months after writing his obituary and having a brain tumor removed, Wheeler isn't dead yet.
He's sick, yes. Very sick. But alive and scratching.
I get the sense that as he's about to flat-line, whatever month or year that might be, he'll still be fighting an insurance company, knocking back a beer and bargaining for more time.
I drove out to visit Wheeler after we'd corresponded for several weeks by phone and e-mail. It all began when he saw a column about my sister's ovarian cancer spreading to her brain.
"I am getting married next Friday and the following week, I plan to have brain surgery at Hoag," he wrote.
I couldn't help but admire his spirit, and it's not as if a lot of people send me their own obituaries.
What kind of guy could this be?
Allan Roeder, city manager in Costa Mesa, fondly recalled Wheeler as "a bit of a wild man." Roeder said Wheeler was elected to the City Council in 1984 as a chain-smoking, 29-year-old bon vivant and political rebel. He said the councilman routinely knocked heads with local establishment figures, particularly over development issues, and always stood up for civil rights and neighborhood preservation.
"I know he would drive people absolutely nuts, but I really enjoyed him because you could have an intellectual discussion with him even though he would do some wild things," Roeder said.
"I can remember one of our first trips back to D.C. together and he was hitting the bar in the airport before we got on the plane, then he did his best to drink everything they could serve on the plane. And I don't think we were in the hotel more than half an hour when he invited me down for a drink. He was a free thinker and he really enjoyed a good time."
In reading Wheeler's obituary, I came across two lines that made me realize the case was closed; he's an original.
"A longtime vegetarian, Wheeler felt that it was ethically wrong to kill animals for human use and the death of any animal sickened him. During his time in the San Bernardino Mountains, he spent many days riding around the mountains watching the birds and animals and blasting beer cans with an assortment of guns."
When I got to Wheeler's house, his brand-new wife, Teri, greeted me at the door. They met on the Internet 2 1/2 years ago, and Dave said she was so pretty, he figured she must be half blind to keep going out with him.
Wheeler sat at the kitchen table in a USC shirt -- he picked up his law degree there. His e-mail address is "hippylawyer" and he's still a bit shaggy, if no longer plotting to take over the campus administration building.
He seemed pretty affable, in fact, for a guy who was diagnosed with lung cancer last December, then had it spread to his brain and kidney despite bouts of chemotherapy and radiation.
"My oncologist told me, 'You need to go home and get all your affairs in order. If it was me, I would not want to spend the rest of my life in doctors' offices,' " Wheeler recalled.
Clearly the doctor did not know his patient.
"I'm not a passive person. I'd rather get out and attack, attack, attack," Wheeler said, and he had all the more reason to live after meeting Teri, who happens to be a cancer survivor herself.
He adores her three daughters and now he's Grandpa Dave to five grandchildren after spending many years living alone in Big Bear Lake, content to commune with trees, wild animals and two Labradors.
"I'll fight for every day I can get," Wheeler said.
He kicked cigarettes 22 years ago and feels cheated now after "dedicating time and resources trying to improve the state of the world" while life's loafers enjoy long and healthy lives.
You have to wonder if it's that edge, that righteous indignation and militant refusal to compromise, that keeps him alive.
In his law practice, Wheeler learned a few things about healthcare while defending doctors before the California Medical Board. He had a genuine appreciation for healthcare professionals but a disdain for health insurance companies, and his opinions only grew sharper when he got sick.