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Death-and-dying teacher now facing his own death

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Guest commentary piece: Art Nanna uses 'teacher voice' to tell columnist to talk about lessons he's learned

"Mikel, it's Art Nanna ... how are you?"

It wasn't exactly a surprise to get a call from the retired high school teacher a week before Valentine's Day. We'd talked a number of times since the mid-1970s, when I first reported on the death-and-dying class he taught Tigard High seniors. There was even a follow-up story in the new millennium, in which he talked about his retirement, snow-bird trips to Arizona, an adventurous travel life, grandkids and more. In fact, he became something of a mentor on my own retirement, a cause for us to get together for coffee when he was actually here in the rainy Northwest.

But it only took a couple sentences of polite chitchat before he got to the point — that he is dying.

"It's my pancreas and kidneys," he said. "They're shutting down."

It all came on suddenly this summer, he explained, and there weren't many symptoms. Then, typical Art Nanna, he threw on his teacher voice and launched into what lessons he's learned from this experience.

There's no small amount of irony here, he acknowledged, "because I taught in this area for so long (a good three decades at Tigard High, then more years at Lewis & Clark College) — "teaching teachers how to go out and teach death and dying.

"I see this as a teachable moment," he said.

Of course he did. And, of course, I had to go talk to him. So we made plans to visit at his home near Sherwood High School.

First of all, you may be wondering, how real is this situation? Nanna, armed with more information about the death-and-dying business than almost anyone, didn't pussyfoot around.

"When you have that background, you push for answers," he said, and you don't allow them to sugar-coat the news. They didn't.

"Then I got a real shock," he said. "They immediately put me on hospice."

He knew that only happens in cases when your time is limited. On hospice, he pointed out, "you give up all your regular physicians," contributing to that feeling of being a bit lost. Still, he added, the hospice care "has been very good."

In his case, hospice people come to the house. It is also common for terminal patients to take up residence in special hospice facilities, but in either case, the organizations are famous for their sensitive and knowledgeable care.

"Because I've worked with other people on hospice care, I was familiar with the organization," he said.

Perhaps the thing about his own case that surprised him the most was how he dealt with the assorted stages of awareness that a dying person normally goes through. It's common to experience denial, anger, even attempts to make a deal with God before arriving at true acceptance.

In his own case, said Nanna, "There was no denial. I just went immediately to acceptance."

Very recently, however, he discovered he might have been congratulating himself a little prematurely and that there was indeed anger, "just below the surface." That was directed at loved ones, he confessed, and he was called on it, a sign of a truly healthy relationship.

"I think I can be grateful for 80 good years," he said, a shadow of a smirk on his face, "or I can whine and cry about what I'm not gonna get to do."

Ironically, it was only during the first 14 years of Nanna's life that he "had a tremendous fear of dying." As a youngster, he was in the house when his grandfather shot himself. Later in life, he was exposed to a hospital ward full of dying people, and he thinks getting comfortable with that experience led to his decision to pursue the idea of death and dying as suitable subject matter for high school students. Early in his teaching career, he pitched then-Principal Dar Shinn on the idea and got his approval.

As a result of the course, he said, "a lot of people made choices and shared it with their families" — a lot of his students went on to become teachers themselves — "and I found out later that they were teaching in this area," he added.

That ripple effect wasn't just contained within the school walls, either. After my 1975 story on the death-and-dying program at Tigard High School in the Tigard Times, my own parents sat my wife and me down to inform us of their specific wishes for how to deal with their deaths.

I'm convinced that a lot of families had those conversations because of Art Nanna.

"It is important that you enjoy the process," he said, reflecting on his years in the classroom. "I remember when I started teaching I walked out into the hall and looked up and I thought, 'I've never had anything that I enjoyed as much as this.'"

Surely he had some inkling about the legacy he will leave behind, you may think. He's not that sure. "I had 400 students a year," he explained. "All the seniors would come through my class ... and you really don't know if you were able to give them anything that would apply in their lives."

Nanna grew up Southern Baptist, and he even went a couple of years to a Baptist college. Later on, however, his spiritual view of the world became more complicated, and it's not something he wears on his sleeve.

"Spirituality sometimes makes death more frightening, because you don't know what's gonna happen (after you die)," he said. "In reality, none of us know. All we can do is speculate. That's all we can do until we step across that threshold."

The fact that he is so near to the end of his life, he said, is "my last great adventure." Word is still getting out among friends, he added.

"Family members are really good. Other people can be awkward."

People do not always know what to say, how honest to be, he acknowledged. Talking about death can be a challenge. "They don't know how the other person's going to receive it."

But his final bit of advice is the same bottom line he's referred to through all those years of teaching.

"The reality of what I'm facing is what we're all going to face," said Nanna. "There's no way out."

Mikel Kelly is a former editor, page designer for the News-Times and writer who retired in 2015 from Pamplin Media Group.