A couple of weeks ago, I found out that my friend Wayne was dying. It shouldn’t have been a shock. He had cancer several years ago, and he was in remission, but it came back, and he was losing the battle.
The death of someone you care about is a life-changing event in anyone’s life, no matter how it happens. You not only lose someone you care about, but you also have to think about the fact that it will happen to all of us eventually. I have had people in my life pass away before, but it has always happened either suddenly, like an accident or heart attack, or it happened far away, so I knew it was happening, but I didn’t actually see it. I always said before, “I wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye.” However, even when you do have a chance, it’s not easy to actually say it. You don’t always do what you think you will do.
Wayne was not just any friend. We were married for a while about a decade ago. Our marriage ended for various reasons, but not because I didn’t care about him. I’ve had plenty of relationships where I needed to purge the person from my life when the romantic part was over, but I never married any of those people, so I feel like my judgement of him as a person was right. It was only our romantic compatibility that was wrong. At any rate, he always remained important to me.
I didn’t divorce him right away when we broke up because he was diagnosed with cancer, and he was on my health insurance. He didn’t tell me when the cancer came back because I had found my soul mate and was getting married again, and he didn’t want me to feel responsible for him. I feel like we could call that love.
So, of course when his family told me he was sick again and going into hospice, and I should come right away if I wanted to visit him, I went. By the time I got there, he was already standing on the platform of his upcoming journey, preparing to board the train. He seemed like a hazy version of himself, but he was still trying hard to be present, and conscious of not wanting to seem helpless.
We chatted like it was just a regular day. Nobody mentioned death. We joked with each other and recalled funny stories. He mentioned that he was worried about his cats. His family couldn’t keep them, and he worried about their fate when he was no longer able to take care of them. He reminded me that they were mine for a bit when they were kittens, before we broke up. I wanted to tell him I would make sure they were ok when he was gone, but I didn’t want to talk about him being gone, and I knew I would cry if I let myself think about it, so I just said, “I remember.” I relayed messages from friends who were thinking of him. Some of them were hoping for his recovery. His relatives were still trying to get him to eat. We were all in the land of the living, trying to hold him there with us.
When I came back two days later, he seemed to have boarded the train, even though it hadn’t yet left the station. I sat with him for a while, but I wasn’t sure he knew I was there. I told him I would let him rest and that I would see him tomorrow. Why did I say that, like I thought he would be better the next day? I should have held his hand and told him it was ok, and to let go. I always imagined myself being the strong kind of person who wouldn’t let denial hold me back from the right behavior in that situation, but I turned out not to be. This isn’t something you actually know about yourself until it happens.
The next day, I came back, and it was clear that he was leaving us. His consciousness was somewhere else, and his body was a shell full of pain. I started to accept it by then, but I wondered if it was too late to tell him. In hopes he could still hear me, I told him I loved him, and that a lot of other people loved him, and I promised him I would make sure his cats were ok. He died a few hours later. I wonder if that’s all he was waiting for. I think that’s possibly why he wanted to see me. He knew I would take care of his pets.
I spent several days crying every time I thought of it. My already busy life was packed with helping to organize a celebration of life event for him, and I was also frantically working to find a home for his cats. I was moving nonstop and was able to distract myself, but now and then I would see something that reminded me of him, or come across something that used to be his. I had been given a couple of things of his that were prized possessions when he was well, and I felt like I was stealing from him because I had them. Sometimes, I would be eating, and I would feel guilty that I was doing something that he could no longer enjoy, or I would be outside, wondering if the last time he was outside, if he realized it would be his last time to feel a breeze. Every little thing I did in my daily life seemed so ridiculous and unimportant. I spent a lot of time wondering what the point even is in doing anything when it’s just going to end anyway. Everything that is you will just be gone, so why do we do anything?
That feeling still comes and goes, but it’s starting to come less frequently. There is no way to really live if you think too much about dying. Forgetting about it most of the time is the only way we can keep having a life that matters.
I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he just stopped existing, or if he went somewhere else, or if he was born into a new baby somewhere, or if he’s still lingering on the edges of here where he can see us. All I know is that he is not here anymore, and I am. Everything that is him is no longer here, and everything that is me will also go away. And that is going to take me some time to get used to. I also know that as time goes on, the reality of it will fade for me so I can feel like things matter again. Meanwhile, forgive me if I don’t fully participate for a bit. I’m still saying goodbye to my friend.