Thirty years ago friends were dying of AIDS. Those were traumatic times; we were young and suddenly thrust into caring, grieving and burying too many friends in a short space of time. We were emotionally ill-equipped to handle death because we figured that was for old people.
Now I’m old and death comes to take friends and loved ones at random and in increasing numbers. I think much more about death, about responding to it and how I too will face it one day.
Recently, my friend Abby Tan after four years of battling cancer died with dignity and courage. I was with her through much of that time and I got a first-hand lesson in understanding dying.
When I was with Abby, I often listened to my conversations with her, weighing its authenticity and honesty. I checked my bedside manners taking cues from doctors, nurses, friends, and what my feelings were telling me. We have watched too many dying scenes on the big screen and I wanted to ascertain my reactions were genuine and not celluloid.
I scrutinized my behavior from pleasantries (“How are you…?”) to affectations, deleting those actions that seemed mundane. I didn’t want to be a clod to a friend who woke up each day knowing the limits of her life.
Thoreau once remarked after seeing autumn leaves falling , “I watch these brilliant colored leaves for they teach me how to die gracefully.”
I wanted to learn how to be of solace to a dying friend. But more importantly, when my time is up, I want to replicate the grace, spunk, and love Abby demonstrated till the end. Here’s what I learned.
1. Smile. Abby treated her Cancer as a wily opponent. She researched and went for promising treatments, hopeful with each one, and always bearing a smile. When a treatment failed, she’d try another, undaunted, still bearing a smile.
One could only smile back at Abby. Sometimes I thought I was looking flippant smiling even when cancer cell counts were increasing and things were looking hopeless. I wanted to cry proving to Abby how I felt her pain. But that was disingenuous. I was not in pain, she was.
At her bedside hours before she died, I’d still give a pixie sort of smile whenever she looked my way. At one point, she smiled back. It was a genuine smile, a grateful smile, a smile that you give just as you’re leaving a house or driving away. With that smile, I felt the cord that had attached itself these years between her and me, loosened, sliding softly and smoothly.
When visiting Abby in the morning just a week before she passed away, she was still downstairs at her dining room table reading one of three newspapers. She would discuss the news or recount her career as a journalist, the best of the stories she filed and saw print. She would critique what I wrote. For so long as she could stand the pain, she wanted to move, to experience, to have a conversation, the basic elements of affirming life.
It was only three days before her death that finality set in. She decided it was over and wanted to go to hospital. The planned Antartica trip was canceled.
She had weakened so, grimacing in pain, and could no longer walk down the stairs. She was laid on a stretcher and carried to an ambulance. She didn’t open her eyes to see her garden. The newspapers had neatly piled up on the table, unopened.
At the hospital she refused to eat any further.
In the last hours of her life the morphine substitute drip she was on eased the pain but made conversation difficult. A smile, a touch, and just being there was now the balm for me. This was the moment to be brief in words as I strained to decipher her occasional whispers. I didn’t want to tell her to “rest” or “let go.”
I simply said “Abby, I love you.” Perhaps that’s what I’d like to hear when I go too.