Only a month earlier, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Jobs never expected to live past his forties. He had more than a passing interest in Buddhism, which teaches that death is not necessarily final - that souls can be reincarnated. Still, for a father with four children, the diagnosis was a brutal blow.
Most people who get pancreatic cancer are dead within a few months. But Jobs got lucky, as he often did. His cancer, a rare neuroendocrine tumor, was slower-growing than most, giving him more time to seek treatment. Instead of fearing death, Jobs embraced it as a tool to clarify his thinking. "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said in his commencement address at Stanford University. "Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."
As always, Jobs sought his ultimate solace in his work. Two of Apple's most innovative and successful products - the iPhone and the iPad – were both launched after he was diagnosed with cancer. Both were risky ventures that could easily have flopped, but Jobs retained his perfectionist discipline. Vic Gondotra, head of mobile applications at Google, was attending religious services one Sunday morning when he got a call from Jobs. "I've been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone, and I'm not happy with the icon," Jobs told him. "The second 'o' in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient. It's just wrong and I'm going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that OK with you?" Gondotra calls it a lesson he'll neverforget. "CEOs should care about details," he says. "Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday."
As his illness worsened, Jobs found his life narrowing even further. He didn't go out at night, never accepted awards, gave no speeches, attended no parties. Instead, he holed up in his home in Palo Alto, where he hung out with his family and learned everything he could about cancer – and how he might beat it. "He knew more about it than any oncologist," says his old friend Larry Brilliant, who is an M.D. His body grew thinner and thinner, and he took a six-month leave from Apple to have a liver transplant.
Late last year, Jobs called me out of the blue to ask about doing another magazine story together. I was struck by how different his voice sounded on the phone. It was not just softer and weaker. It was also more curious. For the first time, he asked me about my kids. I have no idea how he even knew that I have kids – we'd never discussed it. Others noticed the same change in his manner. He no longer seemed as arrogant, and had lots of time and compassion for the suffering of others. When Brilliant's 24-year-old son developed what turned out to be a fatal cancer, Jobs became his "cancer buddy," Brilliant says. Jobs made spreadsheets detailing the pros and cons of various doctors to help him decide whom to see. He called every week, talking Brilliant's son through the chemo, saying, "If I can make it through this, so can you." "Whenever he was down, Steve would call and give him a pep talk to buoy his spirits," recalls Brilliant.
At the iPad launch in January 2010, Jobs was accompanied by his family, including his wife, Laurene, and his sister, Mona. Onstage, he worked through his presentation, looking thin and frail, but courageous. His body was rail-thin, his cheeks gaunt. After the talk, Jobs pulled on a black hoodie and went into the demo area to talk to the media. When I stopped to say hello, he looked at me with glazed eyes – the faraway, unfocused eyes of an old man – and said, "What do you think of the iPad?" I wasn't sure if he recognized me, and it was clear he was having a hard time carrying on a conversation. Apple's PR people quickly whisked him away, and I never spoke to him again.
For Jobs, the slide continued. Brilliant stopped by his house frequently. On good days, they would walk downtown to get a smoothie, the only food Jobs could eat. "We laughed a lot," Brilliant says. "Sometimes we would talk about God, or about the afterlife – which Steve was intensely curious about. He was very frank about what was going on. He was not in any kind of denial." Jobs often had IVs strapped to his arms. "I'd joke with him that from the neck up, he looked great," says Brilliant. "But his legs looked like Bam-bi's." Sometimes, when the talk got heavy, Brilliant – who is not a small man – would crawl onto the bed beside Jobs and hold him. "He was not worried about Apple's future – he knew that would be fine," Brilliant says. "He was thinking about his kids. He said to me, 'I just want to live long enough to see my kids graduate from high school.'"
According to Brilliant, Jobs had come very close to death twice over the summer: "He had gathered his family around him to say goodbye." Somehow, he rallied both times, but the trajectory was clear. Only a few people were allowed to see him in his final days – beyond his immediate family, the list included Dr. Dean Ornish, a close friend, and John Doerr, the venture capitalist. Brilliant last saw him two weeks before he died. In his room, Jobs had two pictures of the guru he never got to meet, Neem Karoli Baba, as well as a book of Baba's teachings, Miracle of Love. Although he was frightfully thin, Brilliant says, Jobs was "mutedly optimistic" that he would make it, that the new cancer treatment he was taking might buy him more time. "When I left," Brilliant says, "it did not feel like goodbye."
Jobs died at home on Wednesday, October 5th, surrounded by his family. He was 56 years old. He had always known he would never live to be an old man, but he came closer than he ever imagined he would. He used the extra years - "borrowed time," he called it – to complete the spiritual journey he had begun as a kid in the apricot orchards of Silicon Valley. "There were those two sides to him," says Bono, who spoke to Jobs not long before he died. "There was the warrior, and then there was the very tender and soft-spoken side. I already miss him." Jobs may be remembered as the man who brought the human touch to our digital devices. But perhaps his greatest – and hardest-won – accomplishment was bringing the human touch to Steve Jobs.
This story is from the October 27th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
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