Earlier this year my friend Ed was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For several months he looked good, stayed active, took the chemo without losing his hair, his appetite, his good humor or, it turns out, his cancer. We talked frequently and got to play golf one more time (though we had hoped it would be more). About four weeks ago he was told the chemo wasn’t working and that he was looking at only another three months or so to live.
Faced with the impending demise of a friend or loved one it is not unusual to engage in denial, to offer an unrelentingly upbeat and, ultimately unrealistic, appraisal of their chances for recovery. We find ourselves in denial, we avoid discussing it, we even avoid them. It’s hard to face the fact that they are dying, to be confronted with the fact that we also will die, and to talk about how we feel about it.
Not to make more of it than it is, but my friendship with Ed did not come easily. He started out as one of my biggest antagonists a number of years ago, a real pain in the ass. But he listened to me and I listened to him. We talked a lot, often disagreeing, but coming to a place of mutual respect. We worked closely together on a couple of big projects and got to trust each other. And we got to be friends.
Now Ed is dying. I saw him today for what was probably the last time. He still has his hair – the chemo couldn’t even rid him of that! – but he’s lost a lot of weight. In the last week he’s developed blood clots in one leg and suffered a minor stroke. We stood in the parking lot where I work, leaning on my car, enjoying the autumn sunshine, talking. And crying.
During his illness Ed and I have spoken frankly about his treatment, about his chances, and about the nature of friendship. Today, among other things, we talked about the pros and cons of dying unexpectedly (as my father did five and a half years ago) or being able to see it coming. We agreed that seeing it coming, and having people watch you die, was probably harder.
As hard as it was to see Ed today, to thank him for his friendship (and for keeping me honest, even if he was being a pain in the ass), and to say goodbye, I am grateful for the chance to have done it. We agreed that doing these hard things was part of what makes life worthwhile, and that we spend far too much time on things that don’t matter, things that distance us from other people.
In a few days Ed will leave to be with his family when he dies. In a few weeks I will get a phone call from Ed’s family letting me know that he’s gone. There will be more tears, but also the satisfaction that we chose to do the hard things.
I will miss my friend.