My friend is dying. The doctors have given up on chemotherapy and switched to “palliative care”. They say she may have six months, but really they don’t know how long it will be.
It has been so hard to know how to talk to her.
Several years ago, when she told me the breast cancer was back and had metastasized to her bones, I didn’t want to be the kind of person who avoids difficult conversations and blocks people from expressing themselves by trying to keep everything nice. So I jumped in with both feet and asked how she felt about dying, and we talked about that a bit, but it turns out there isn’t a lot to say on the subject.
The years passed and she continued to be active in our church and to volunteer for a free clinic serving our community, and she started helping at the local Cancer Center (she still volunteers there). She quit running, but she still walks almost every day. She lost weight (although she’s always been thin, so it wasn’t that obvious) and gained two attractive wigs. (She doesn’t need them any more, but she told me the other day that she quite missed the convenience of using a wig. Her hair is still very thin, and it annoys her to have to get it cut.)
I got used to the fact that she was sick, and although I loved the respite of quiet afternoons drinking tea in her immaculate, dog-free home, I saw her rarely. I checked in every now and then to make sure she was okay, and she was always busy and contented. But I avoided visiting her because it didn’t feel right to talk to her about the anger and frustration I felt as I got more and more engaged in dog rescue … because, after all, she was dying. In the face of that unyielding fact, the chaotic jungle of my life didn’t seem important enough to share.
Then, as my life spiraled further out of control, I simply did not have the capacity to help shoulder her burden. This year I hardly contacted her at all. (I don’t know why I thought shouldering her burden was my job.)
A few weeks ago I called her. She was glad to hear from me, she said, but she was too busy to visit that week. “I’ve just had people in and out non-stop,” she explained. Her sons visiting, with their families. Her sister. A steady stream of friends. Her sons again. And the folk from Hospice.
“Yes, I’m in Hospice care now.”
And suddenly it hit me. This is real. A day is coming, in the very near future, when the sun will come up, and set again, and in between there will be weather and traffic and conversations, but my friend will be gone.
I went to see her after her visitors had left. I took her some eggs, new laid by our hens, and nectarines off our tree. I was so scared – of what she would look like, of how I would hide my reaction if she looked like someone who was dying. I wondered what we would talk about, and reminded myself that I would encourage her to speak freely and openly about what she was going through.
She was sitting in her front garden when I arrived. Free of chemo, her hair has grown back, and there was a glow of color in her face. She was radiant.
I sat down, and asked her how she was doing. The pain is bad sometimes, but she takes meds when she needs to. It’s hard to sleep, but she has an iPad, and she spends the long nights reading emails and Facebook and checking in with friends. She’s given up driving because she doesn’t think it’s safe, with the drugs. She’s sad that she can no longer travel to other parts of the state to watch her grandsons compete in athletic events, because it’s just too hard to spend hours at a stretch in a car. She is getting lots of visitors, and although sometimes they stay too long, she loves having people around.
I told her that if ever she wanted company without having to make conversation, I’d be glad to bring my laptop to her home and simply be there. Her face lit up, and she told me she had just bought a big, comfy easy chair and installed it in her bedroom, for precisely that purpose.
Our conversation lagged into silence. I felt helpless and tongue-tied. It seemed self-indulgent to complain of the bleak wasteland my life had become toward the end of last year, and selfish to chatter about the tender green shoots that are emerging as I enter a new phase of my life. But… there’s only so much you can say about dying.
Then her phone rang. She glanced at it, clicked her tongue, and told me about an annoying problem she was having – calls from companies wanting to sell her “death stuff”. She wondered what contact list of terminally ill people they’d bought or hacked into. That triggered a memory of a telephone scam I had recently evaded – a too-good-to-be-true offer of a free cruise that culminated in a request for my credit card details.
Little by little, our conversation picked up. We agreed that neither of us was much interested in going on a cruise, and I told her about the cruise ships that annoyed me when Himself and I were visiting Alaska. She told me about her trip to Alaska a few years back, and how disappointed she’d been not to see a glacier because the weather was bad the day they were supposed to go. “I’d like to go back,” she said.
“Ja, me too,” I said. And then we were silent for a while, and I thought about what she’d just said. Because, of course, she’s not going anywhere. And then I thought about the glaciers I had seen, and about their pure, perfect blue that is like looking into God’s eye. And I thought about where she would, in fact, be going – and I remembered that there would surely be glaciers there, and every imaginable and unimaginable other kind of beauty, all shining in the direct light of God’s eye.
And that’s when I finally got it. There is no topic I can’t raise with her that we wouldn’t have discussed five years ago. Yes, she will soon be moving on. Yes, it’s scary, especially as the transition is likely to be painful. But she has made her preparations, and is confident of her destination. And right now she is still most emphatically alive.
I will visit her soon and let the conversation meander where it will.