Live Like Jay

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.

Lack of Grace

Facing death is challenging regardless of how it comes. Humans, as the only creatures aware of their mortality, deal not at all well with death. Impending death, malingering death, looming death, recent death, distant death. I’m sure that there are anthropological examples to upend my theory, but in general we don’t tend to speak honestly and openly about death. And I wonder if that’s because each death, like each life, deserves something different from us.

Humans don’t seem to appreciate knowing we’re going to die, don’t appear to relish not knowing when, and seem rather frustrated at having a very, VERY clear sense that there is no rhyme or reason to who dies or when. The last fact—good people sometimes die horribly and too early while awful people sometimes die peacefully after inflicting the world with their nastiness for far too long—galls me.

Someone I love has Stage IV cancer. Someone I think I hate has Stage IV cancer. I’m not at all proud at how differently I’m handling their concurrent cancers, and yet we are all different in life, so I feel rather abashedly willing to scale my sorrow for the end of lives that actually add to the Universe’s limited quantity of love, rather than hoarding affection and refusing to share. I celebrate the lives of fair and decent and good people, and I petulantly sneer at the death of grotesque and mean and small people.

Is that something that I can even admit? Is that something that I should feel shame for?

A very close friend was abandoned by his father and grandparents when he was young. Starting in middle school, my friend never got a phone call from his father. Never received a birthday card. His dad was too busy with the second family he’d set up across town to bother with his old life. And my friend lived his entire adult life sure his father didn’t care.

Now, facing the news of his father’s impending death, my friend is wondering if he should call. Or visit. Or somehow try to repair the damage done. Somehow, I think, he hoped all these years that his dad would show up on his doorstep, with a giant teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers, begging forgiveness. “Please. I’m so sorry. I was so wrong. I miss you and I love you and you didn’t deserve to be abandoned.” Because he didn’t deserve to be abandoned. And friends and family tell my friend that he is loved and he is lovable.

But because his father never showed that, I suspect my wonderful friend doesn’t really accept that he’s loved.

Hearing about Stage IV cancer changes the dreams of apologies and reconciliation. That day of spontaneous forgiveness, of weeping together and embracing and swearing that you’ll make up for lost time? Doesn’t happen according to plan. And once my darling friend heard his dad was in hospice and unresponsive? The  healing moment became impossible. Asking, “why did you choose another family over me? Do you know what that did to me? Did you ever love me? Why not?” Not in the cards anymore.

And that’s a whole different kind of grieving. That’s desperately missing someone whom you have already missed for decades. That’s anger and fear and sadness rolled into the pit of your stomach where you think you’re not allowed to swallow. That’s heavy-drinking and rage grief.

And I’m so sorry. For my friend. Not for his jerk of a father.

I feel, at moments, dreadful for not caring that the callous, heartless jerk is dying. Isn’t that terrible to say? In our culture we’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead or dying, are we…we’re not allowed to cast aspersions on those who selfishly hurt our friends and family because somehow Stage IV means unassailable. Saying you hate someone who’s dying is somehow judged as mean or heartless.

That’s not fair. Because some people don’t deserve to be mourned as soulfully as others do. Which is more heartless: abandoning your kids so they forever think they’re unlovable? Or despising someone who abandoned their child? I think in our culture some people think that the rules change when someone has cancer.

I have another friend living with Stage IV cancer. A good and true and kind friend who goes out of his way for others. He makes people feel at home even when they’re relatively unknown to him. This friend who loves deeply and selflessly, who speaks ill only of those who malign him horribly yet quickly forgives if they offer even the slightest apology—his is the cancer I care about. His cancer I hate. His cancer I want to fight. This is where I put my effort, my grief, my love. I refuse to share that effort, grief, or love with the absentee father.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m supporting the friend with the dying, never-there dad. I’m listening and hugging and nodding empathetically. But I’m thinking terrible things, like how the rat doesn’t deserve a son who still actually cares, after decades of neglect and heartbreak. How he already abandoned children, so it doesn’t much matter whether he’s dead or not.

I’m also supporting the wonderful friend who puts his kids first. Who tells them every day that they’re loved; who has fought cancer for three-and-a-half years facing the scary and the toxic and the uplifting and the devastating with his children and his wife clearly in his adoring focus. Who deserves, if we ever had the folly of pretending that humans get what they deserve, a life as long as he would want.

One man, who might have loved his children but never told them or showed them or even called them, left his family years ago. And cancer will end his life.

Another man, who desperately loves his children and makes them know it constantly, will some day leave his family because cancer will end his life.

I mourn for the dying dad and I mourn for the wounded children. All of them. But I will not mourn for someone just because they’re dying. Life is much more nuanced than that.