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.