Ralph Harms steps through the sliding glass doors onto his deck, where two friends sit at a circular glass table. An umbrella shades them from the Santa Rosa morning sun. Others will arrive soon.
It’s July 30, a Friday morning. Twenty minutes before 10 a.m.
Ralph wears cotton cargo shorts, white ankle socks and slippers. A gray T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up twice reveals slivers of a tattoo on each bicep, a heart on his left arm and a pair of boxing gloves on his right, inked long ago.
He’s a back-slapper and a knuckle-bumper who avoids formal handshakes but revels in playing host and being the center of attention. Especially being the center of attention.
He uses words like “kickin’” and “chillin’” and other pet phrases that his friends call “Ralphisms,” and he regularly sprinkles “baby” and “darlin’” — along with more colorful language — into conversations.
A pot of coffee is brewing, and pastries are on the way. “Who needs a cup of coffee?” he asks.
Hearing no takers, he claps his hands together and says, “OK, then,” and for a brief moment looks unsure how to proceed.
It is an uncharacteristic look for a man who has been so sure of everything all of his life.
He has always been a man with a plan, and today is no exception.
Ralph Carsten Harms has chosen this day, this place, this gathering with these friends, and his son and his daughter, to die.
A lump in his chest
For most of his 85 years, Ralph has been a picture of vibrancy and health. A 12-year U.S. Army veteran, he is a dedicated runner who finished 29 marathons, and an amateur boxer who competed in the Golden Gloves and went 45-8 in his career. Though he’s thinner than he was when he boxed across four weight classes, he is still muscular and fit. He can make the nearly 4-mile loop from his home and around Spring Lake at a pace that leaves a much younger person winded.
He does not look or act like a man who turned 85 in October.
He is, in many ways, a picture of vitality.
But his skin gives him away.
Ralph has dealt with, or, more accurately, not dealt with skin cancer for years. He jokes now about the price of his vanity — a lifetime spent getting tan and showing off his physique. His arms, legs and face are a visual history of the cumulative damage. Dozens of scars criss-cross his body where cancerous lesions have been surgically removed. Everywhere his skin is pocked with small scabs.
In January, he felt a lump on his chest, just beneath his right armpit. Two days later, it was bigger. The cancer that had ravaged his skin was now marching through his body.
If you do nothing, it will kill you, the doctors said. But Ralph would come up with a different plan.
It was a plan to beat cancer to the punch, a plan he wants to share with the public in the hope that it may help others who are staring an agonizing death in the face.
As Ralph’s disease progressed, so did the pain. Even worse was the ache of losing his wife, the woman who was his everything, to sudden cardiac arrest three years ago.
He never got to say goodbye.
Everyone agrees he hasn’t been the same since.
In the last weeks of his life, Ralph speaks of her often. It’s part reverence, part heartbreak. He met her when they were students at George Washington High School in San Francisco. Their love story is something he tells often to friends and strangers alike.
An only child whose parents split up when he was 9 or 10, Ralph was rough and tumble. He got into street fights regularly. On Monday mornings at school he often showed up with a bruised face or bloody knuckles. Kathleen, whose locker was across the hall, noticed.