Sunday, October 07, 2007

How to live your life

With extraordinary courage, a desperately and incurably ill friend of mine trundled halfway across the country two weeks ago, supported by his devoted family, in order to give a conference paper.

I think he did this partly in the spirit of 'ride it till the wheels fall off' and partly to continue his life's work as long as he could, in accordance with the ethos of service by which both he and his wife have lived all their adult lives. The paper contained research results that will be of immediate practical use in his own field and also in court cases and legal judgements. It will also give a couple of his junior co-authors a refereed publication to add to their CVs.

I saw him today and he is very weak, breathless and permanently exhausted. He finds talking difficult, though he is still making jokes. I can't imagine what torment the travelling must have been, never mind delivering a conference paper to a national organisation -- not even with the support of the rock he's married to, who's been a dear friend of mine since we were in our early 20s.

Looking at him today, I had no idea how he could have done it. Often barely able to walk or speak, he's continued to be active and productive for as long as he possibly could. I was reminded of stories I'd heard about the late and much-lamented John Iremonger, publishing legend, charming dude and general force of nature, still sitting up in his hospital bed reading manuscripts in the last days of his life.

This is the second time in eight years that I've watched a friend my own age dying of cancer and have had to take, willy-nilly, the role of useless, helpless bystander. As experiences go, there are two things I can tell you about it:

(1) It is a complete crock.

(2) It doesn't get any easier with practice.

8 comments:

Mindy said...

It sucks. The only thing you can do it tell him how much you love/admire him and be there for him and his wife.

meggie said...

Fate Forbid we should ever get used to such a thing!
Hugs to you!
They can be ok, in cyberville, where you dont have actual contact, with people you might not want to actually touch!

dogpossum said...

I hate it that I know just how you feel - I've had two friends die of cancer in the past few years and I'm only 32.

But I think I'd like to go down swinging like your friend - the thought of bringing it at conferences like that is inspiring.

Anonymous said...

It's very hard being friend or family to someone who's suffering like this. What to say? When? How much energy to put into it? When to be silent? How and when to show your own pain?

Somehow it works itself out, though one rarely feels comfortable with one's effort. Sometimes you do, and those times are heavenly.

Prayers work; trusting them is part of it. We can feel very beautiful in loving someone, and praying for them, or just holding them dear in our own private moment of peace.

Yes, it's a crock.

FWIWIMHO, a certain timeliness occurs with cancer. It is as though some greater force moves it forward, one way or another.

Or perhaps it really does.

And no matter the person affected, courage is there in spades, one way or another. All the best.

Kathleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen said...

Sorry, that didn't make grammatical sense. Take two:

A close family member had a debilitating and finally fatal illness over a ten-year period. The things I *hated* hearing from lovely, well-meaning people:

* this will make you a better person
* there's a meaning in this, you just don't know what it is
* he's going to a better place
* you'll learn from these experiences.

Frankly, these things might all be true, but I agree with Mindy: "I love you" is the only thing that has any real meaning.

genevieve said...

PC, I am so sorry for your trouble.

Kathleen, one of the best early intervention booklets I ever read was written by the parent of a disabled child whose response to that first statement in your list was a resounding, "Shit, was I such a bad person in the first place?"

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thanks all for these steadying remarks.

Meggie, you're quite right about the idea of getting used to it being repellent, and I have never been one to turn down a hug from anyone. D-Possum, that is dreadful -- 32 is much too young to have been through two like that. Kathleen, I agree that your list is an excellent one to avoid, but I do feel for people who don't know what to say. Genevieve's response to 'This will make you a better person' was exactly what I thought myself.