Note: I found a xerox copy of the following document, folded up in the back of John Holt's much loved:
Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story, a book frequently enjoyed by adult music students.
In 1982 Holt discovered a tumorous growth on the inside of his left thigh. He had accumulated a file of material on alternative cancer treatments over the years, as part of his general interest in self-reliance as opposed to institutional dependence. Already very skeptical of the conventional medical establishment, he was reluctant to go to a doctor or surgeon, and decided to treat the tumor with large doses of vitamin C. He continued to take vitamin C and to monitor the growth of the tumor for the next couple of years. By the spring of 1984, however, managing the tumor had become a daily burden, and he was ready to look for a surgeon he could trust. Friends recommended Dr. Bernie Siegel of Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP) in New Haven, Connecticut. Siegel, a supporter of unconventional therapies, has since become widely known for his book Love, Medicine, and Miracles. In September of 1984 Holt went to New Haven to have the tumor removed.
One of the thoughts that kept coming to my mind as I struggled with this cancer was, "Why me?" Traveling on planes in July and August, now and then I would look around and see people smoking, drinking their two cocktails before lunch, and generally eating and living unhealthily, and I would think, not so much in resentment as in simple curiosity, "How come I got this thing and they did not?" Like many, I had believed for some time that cancer is caused by, or at least made much more likely and destructive by tension, stress, unresolved conflicts. But at first this didn't seem to have much to do with me ... It wasn't so much a matter of having a sudden revelation as of very slowly having faint hunches, which became dearer and more certain the more I thought about them and talked about them with others. By a week or two after surgery I felt that I knew what had been the unresolved conflicts in my life, and how I would change my life to resolve them.
The first and most serious conflict that I found was between my work (with children, parents, and the home schooling movement) and my growing love for music and need to make music. For years I had been saying, "Someday, when I get less busy, I want to really work hard on the cello and see how far I can go toward becoming a good player ..." But I never did get less busy, and this "someday" kept disappearing into the future. I decided that this had gone on long enough, and that I had to start turning someday into today ...
The second thing I found out about myself is that I am tired of talking to school people, educators, meetings of teachers, educational conferences, and all that, tired of talking to people who are not really looking for new ideas or ways to improve their work, and who do not take seriously what I say and never did... For some time, to people who have asked me, "Why have you given up on schools?" I have said that I haven't given up on them, that I was as interested as I ever was in making them better, if only I could see a way to do it. I learned from my cancer that even if this was true for a while it is not true any more. I have indeed given up on schools. According to Dr. John Goodlad, Dean of the School of Education at UCLA and author of A Place Called School, schools have not changed in any important respect in close to a hundred years. They certainly haven't changed in the forty years of my adult life ... As I said in Instead of Education, they are bad because they start with an essentially bad idea, not just mistaken and impossible, but bad in the sense of morally wrong, that some people have or ought to have the right to determine what a lot of other people know and think. As long as they start from this bad idea they cannot become better, and I don't want to take part any longer in any public pretense that they can...
The third thing I found out about myself was something that I had perhaps known for some time but had tried to ignore, namely, that I need space in my life, and really dislike the feeling with which I have been living for many years now, that even with twice as many hours in the day I could never manage to do all that I have to do, but would just keep falling further and further behind ... I learned that... I had to define my work in such a way that, without spending every evening and weekend in the office as I had been doing, I could actually get it done ...
With these resolutions Holt did indeed begin to make actual changes in his life. He raised his lecture fee so sharply that he received fewer invitations, which is just what he had hoped would happen, and he began to spend more time on music. But by the spring of 1985 the cancer had returned, and this time he was unable to defeat it. He died at home on September 14, almost exactly a year after the original surgery.
Though he had sought effective alternative treatments after discovering the tumor, a letter written in June of 1984 to Dr. George Wootan, another supporter of unconventional therapies, reveals that Holt had always suspected that he might not be able to cure himself. In the letter he had written:
[I]t is possible that none of these treatments may work—none of these people claim 100% success rates, though their rates are high. In that case, I will die of cancer sometime in the next year or two. I looked that fact squarely in the eye earlier today, and I found out a terrific secret about myself, the knowledge of which is one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever known. I am not afraid of death. Lying in a hospital full of tubes and in worse and worse pain, yes. Death, no. I had hoped this might be so, and have tried to train myself to live in the knowledge of my own death. But it was mostly an unreal exercise; my real idea about myself was that I would live to be 90, or 100, being a healthy person from a long-lived family. But now I confront squarely the fact that I may die, not at 90, but at 62 or 61 (which is what I am now). And the thought that comes to me is, well, if that's the way it is, that's the way it is, all those big projects (learning the piano, etc.) are just going to have to be left undone. Too bad. What I have to do is get things in order here so that this operation [the office] can run without me, and I think within the next year we may be able to do that.
Was Holt ready to die, or would he have loved to be able to live several more years? George Dennison, who died of cancer himself two years after Holt did, wrote in a piece that was read at Holt's memorial service:
In the last weeks of his life John spent eight days with us at our home in Maine. Something happened one day that gave me a glimpse of the very heart of his life. He was so weak he could walk only a few steps at a time and with canes. It was beautiful weather. I took him driving to see the views from certain hills—long views of wooded slopes, fields, streams, our large river, and several ponds. Again and again he said, "How beautiful it is!" He was sitting beside me in the front seat. We drove on and he began to talk about his work. "It could be such a wonderful world," he said, "such a wonderful place." His body began to shake and he dropped his head, crying uncontrollably—but he kept talking through the sobs, his voice strained and thin. "It's not as if we don't know what to do," he said. "We know exactly what do to, and it would work, it would work. They're going to wreck it."
We do all have feelings of this kind, but not many people, at the end of life, would feel this heartbroken passion for the world itself. It seemed to me that the deepest and most sustaining things in John's character had been revealed in that moment. And like so much in his work they were rare and fine.