by Carol Glassman
A few days ago an old friend, I’ll call him Jeff for now, took me aside to confide that he has stage 4 liver cancer. It has spread to some other major organs, he said, and although he is going to have chemotherapy, “It’s too late for me — I waited too long”, he confessed.
He was going out to purchase a burial plot the next day.
Although I knew Jeff hasn’t been well and had been battling some odd symptoms with home remedies for a while, I had no idea he was this ill, and neither did he or his wife Sally, it seems. Otherwise we would have nagged until he sought medical advice sooner. But you know how it is with leading horses to water even when they are thirsty. His true condition wasn’t apparent until he ended up in the hospital one weekend with what they originally thought was an attack of diverticulitis. After a few scans, he was told the bad news.
What do I say now, I wondered, and what do I do? For a moment I was speechless and I am sure the distress and shock I felt registered on my very readable face.
Being very careful not to say something really insensitive like, “Are you kidding?” or “Are you sure?” or “Did you get several opinions?” my main goal of the moment was that Jeff and Sally, both of whom just celebrated their 90th birthdays, knew I’m not just a fair-weather friend and that they could depend on me through thick and thin. I would do whatever they needed.
I briefly conveyed how stunned and shocked I was, but since it was not about me and how I felt, I quickly asked what I could do. Since both of them are very independent and private people, part of my shock was that they told me at all. As I presumed, they didn’t want me to do anything, just listen, know, and share.
As I heard Jeff describe months of ‘Coulda-woulda-shoulda’, I managed to hold my tongue from saying that recognizing the gravity of his vague symptoms might not have ensured him of a miraculous cure anyway. Who wants to hear that!
I admit, I also wondered why at this stage of his life, he would subject himself to chemo, wondering if I would do the same in his shoes, or would I just try to enjoy what quality of life I had left by hiring a handsome young stud of a nurse, filling myself with pain-killers and going on a gourmet cruise around the world. We all face things differently and as we age we become even more possessive of the gift that is every day, and how we spend it.
After I left them, I began to think of the ‘Coulda-woulda-shoulda’ syndrome, but in another way: pitching it forward and forcing myself to think about a world without Jeff, how desolate it will feel without him, without his acceptance of my less-than-perfect ways, his wisdom and advice to rely on, and if I had ever told him how very important his friendship is to me. I love that man!
Aside from all the obvious reasons that we walk the earth, and without giving ourselves some kind of magical, religious, and esoteric powers, did you ever think that perhaps one of our most basic and simple reasons for existing is to make other people feel good? I know that sounds as if I have just ingested an overdose of candy floss, but don’t judge it until you think about it.
Do you really want to live a life of wondering how things might have turned out ‘if’? I personally am not comfortable living with doubt.
I sat for hours staring into space, alternately smiling over situations I have shared with Jeff and Sally over the years and how we had come to each other’s aid more than once, and weeping to think that Sally will soon share that hated ‘widow-word’ with me. That’s the reality.
Some people have difficulty visiting with the terminally ill, not knowing what to say or do, and some act almost as if they are afraid they will catch the critical disease. Just being there is often more than enough, after all, and keep reminding yourself it’s not about you.
We don’t know how long Jeff’s road ahead is going to be, and all we can do is make it as smooth as possible. I feel much better when I can do something, so I thought for a moment about what might make Jeff happy, even briefly. I sent him some white chocolate dipped strawberries. Tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, I know I’ll think of something else. And I’ll tell him often how I feel about him.