My friend Mack tells the story of one of his buddies who started out a conversation with “If I die, I have all my important papers in one place….” Mack let him finish and then said to him, in the clever way my friend Mack talks, “It’s never IF, John. It’s WHEN.” As Mack was relating this tale to us, he mentioned that he has created a “WHEN” file into which he puts all his instructions for that time when his kids will need to wrap up his affairs.
I don’t have a “WHEN” file but I have a bright red 3-ring eye-catching binder that has all my last instructions in it. And I borrowed “WHEN” from Mack to print in big black letters on the spine. There is no missing it.
But that isn’t really the point of this blog today.
A friend of ours is having surgery this coming Thursday. He’s got a lot of strikes against him. Although the surgery is to remove a cancerous kidney, it is a long arduous process. He’s nearly 81, has been treated during the last year for bladder cancer, which then spread to his lungs and his kidneys and was treated with more chemo. His children and his companion will be at the hospital with him during this surgery. He hasn’t said anything to us at any point about his chances. His decisions all along have been to fight aggressively; therefore, chances are nothing to be discussed.
Jerry’s daughter (and my precious stepdaughter) died six years ago from breast cancer. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had all died young from this insidious disease, and in spite of Kathie’s and her doctor’s vigilance, when the first lump was discovered and biopsied it was already stage 4 of the most aggressive form of breast cancer. Kathie made the decision to fight tooth and nail for her life. She told us all from the beginning that she didn’t want anything negative said to her about “possibilities” or “eventualities” because it would be antithetical to the way she believed and what she needed from each of us. She truly wanted to move mountains and to believe they could be moved.
Consequently, when no miracle occurred and she ultimately lost the battle, we had not been able to say good bye to her in the way we wanted. In fact, although our family always said “I love you” when we parted, she told us that she didn’t want anything more from us than the standard “I love you” – which sometimes seemed to be just routinely tacked on at the end of the conversation, although of course we really meant it.
I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life, but one of them is that while Kathie and I were good buddies, to honor her wishes I could never say to her that she was the best stepdaughter a mom could have and how very much I truly loved her and would miss her in my life.
And now the possibility looms that we will lose an old friend …. And we have sat at lunches with him over the past few years when he’s been battling cancer and we’ve pretended that it’s no more serious than any other surgery or problem. Does he understand how much we have loved having him in our life? Being his friend? Sharing his kids' lives while they grew up? How much we will miss him when he goes, whenever that time is? We’ve never talked about it; we just assume he knows.
I guess the best that we can do to any of our friends, and our families too, is to keep very up-to-date with our hugs and our kisses and touches and our phone calls and our notes and our thanks and our “thinking of yous.” When my mother went into what would be her last surgery, she prepared a bag of goodies for each of us three kids. Into the bag went the clothes we wore when she brought us home from the hospital, our baby book and a note. Each note was the same. It said at the conclusion, “It’s been great fun being your mother.” So this business of being up-to-date can go both ways. If we the living have something to say and if we are smart, we will get it said one way or the other before it is too late.
As to how to say all that to one who is teetering at the brink but who would just as soon not think about it, I just don’t have an answer.