We don’t get many slumber parties as adults. It’s not every day that grownups get to talk openly and honestly about life, just curled up next to a friend, shifting now and then to get a better look at each other’s eyes as we ask or answer probing questions. One reclining and responding easily and thoughtfully, one lying belly-down on a pillow and making almost constant eye contact, pausing occasionally to find the best way to say things. Pause for a sip of soda, pause for a bathroom break. Then talk some more. About dreams, kids, plans.
I did this as a teenager with one of the few people on the planet who understood me and accepted me for who I was. It’s rare that adults take that kind of time to connect, and more rare that we’re willing to.
Maybe it’s because my friend is dying that we spend our time together this way. And I don’t just mean because he doesn’t get out of bed much anymore. Perhaps because we knew it might be the last time we’d talk together that we were more open and honest.
Or, more accurately, maybe because he’s dying we fast forwarded through of every possible conversation. Talk of work covered the short-term and long-term in about two sentences. Discussion of marriages spanned breadth and depth within a minute.
“How are your kids?” moved quickly beyond this week’s antics to directly answer the implied “and how do you think they’ll handle becoming adults without you?”
“How are you?” skipped the annoying niceties of “fine” to a frank, detailed discussion of what meds are working, which aren’t, which tumor hurts, and where the bed sores will likely start when he’s no longer able to get up and down.
All of this is expected, since we’ve never been shy about the ups and downs of our lives. But some of the moments surprised me because they were so casual. No tears, no shyness. Very clear “I’m glad I know you and I’m glad I saw you today” exchanges that were everything soap-opera death-bed moments are not.
On screen, people make every talk with a dying person seem like a dramatic moment fraught with the most intense human emotions. But in real life, when a friend is almost four years past a cancer diagnosis, discussions aren’t heart-wrenching, sob-inducing epic battles for truth and meaning. There is no portentous music when a friend asks you, “Why can’t I just die? I’m ready. I haven’t felt good in years and years, I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve done them well, I’ve learned a ton and found grace and moved beyond this world already, so why can’t I just die?”
And there’s no emotional, poignant swallow or gasp or lighting change.
You just answer.
“I don’t know why you can’t just die. I don’t know. I personally don’t believe that you only get to go if you learn enough, because plenty of people die without learning much at all. And you’ve learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re on hold for something else. I think it just means your body isn’t done yet. Your spirit might be, your mind might be. Your heart might be. But you have no control over what your body does. If you did, this cancer wouldn’t have taken hold. If we could get our bodies to do what we wanted, life would be a whole lot different. So would death. But we get no say. I’m sorry that you don’t.”
There was no fade into another scene after that. No swell of music and dramatic pause for tear-slicked eyelashes. Just mutual shrugs. We talked a bit more about what we believe. Then we talked about our kids again. From the beginning of our relationship, our talk has been about our children, with brief tangents for partners, food, work, and friends. But mostly, children.
His daughter wonders if he’ll live until her birthday. Three weeks.
He hopes not. Because he wants her to grieve and then begin the rest of her life unfettered by his passage out of this world.
I mentioned that her birthday will still be affected by his death, whether it’s recent or impending, so he should do what he needs to do.
His son wonders if he’ll live until the Muppet Movie. A week.
Again, do what you need to do.
I’m a big fan of drama. I want life epic and grand and meaningful. I want something big in every scene. Especially now. My friends have to leave each other: one on this side of the Great Divide and one on the other. I can’t help them bridge that gap, and it can’t get anymore meaningful that it already is. It’s not about me and it’s not about grand gestures. Life at its most important is powerful and moving and deeply meaningful without aphorisms or orchestral music or pithy goodbyes or garments rent and torn.
All that is for the movies. My friend is not dying in the movies. He’s dying with his family, in his house, surrounded by the goodwill of 99.9% of every person he ever met. That’s the real in this. Real is lying on the bed near him tonight, answering and asking. We listened to each other. We smiled. We made plans.
It probably wasn’t our last conversation. But it was as high-school-slumber-party-with-your-dear-friend as final-days conversations go, and I think that’s about as cinematic as life—and death—gets.