Saying Goodbye to a Friend
My first experience in actually saying goodbye to a dying friend of mine was with Terry. He and I had roomed at the Stanford Fire House in the ’50s. We got a free room, bunkhouse style, and a few bucks a month in exchange for being on fire-call several hours a week. We were both in graduate school at Stanford, Terry having transferred in from Notre Dame.
We talked incessantly about religion and sex. “Is there God? Does the Church matter? Under what circumstances is sexual intimacy morally acceptable? What did St. Thomas say about it? What did Terrance (who only wrote when he needed to drink) say about it?” Intense stuff! We were young, overly intellectual, and romantically naïve.
Terry joined the navy in 1957. I went on to finish graduate school. We corresponded for a few years, fell away for thirty years or so, and then in 1993, Terry called. “I wanted to get back in touch with you before I die.“
We resumed our long conversations by phone. We felt very close. No longer as intense as we had been, life experience had mellowed us. “I still have your letters,” he said. “I treasure them … full of lassitude, ennui, angst, and abulia, not to mention profound questions of life, love, and sex.” He gave me one. One was enough. Not a part of my life I wish to relive, especially the abulia.
Mariana and I visited Terry at his office at San Jose State, where he was a Professor of Library Science. Later that day, we went sailing out of Santa Cruz and then visited with his wife, Fran, in Ben Loman.
Not long after, Terry died of lung cancer, with his family all around him. Fran wrote me, “Terry enjoyed his phone conversations. I am glad that you and he reconnected in the last few years.” This parting seemed realistic to me. Terry and I both accepted the fact that we were dying, he for known reasons, I for reasons yet to be determined. We focused on those things we shared – literature, philosophy, religion, Irishness, and love of our wives and family. We enjoyed our time while waiting.
The Dogs Are Depressed
In 1997 my sister Sally developed cancer, leading to her death in 1998. Here is a tale of her last day in the hospital before being sent home to die.
The hospital room looked like any other hospital room – raised bed, curtains to draw around the bed for privacy, two stiff metal chairs with brown plastic padding, a metal cabinet with a glass of water, a convenient basin, and lots of flowers. Sally, once a vigorous horsewoman and always a lover and owner of dogs, was propped up, looking tired, bloated, and in pain.
We, her son, granddaughter, brother, sister-in-law, stepson, daughter-in-law, and a medical technician, were waiting to hear Sally’s latest blood work results. The technician mentioned that Sally’s blood chemistry had gotten out of balance. She was dangerously low on potassium.
“Sally should eat a banana,” said Mariana. “Bananas have potassium.”
“Yes,” said the technician, “but she would have to eat this whole room full of bananas to get what she needs.”
“I need potassium,” said Sally. “It makes the heart stop.”
This was Sally’s way of letting us know she was done with living. As was her style, she was painfully blunt.
Conversation slowed and stopped. We were waiting. Finally, the oncologist in charge of Sally’s chemotherapy arrived. Speaking to Sally, he said, “This didn’t work out like I planned. You can go home now.”
Painfully blunt. He left, no hello, no goodbye. We remained mostly quiet, somehow consoling ourselves by our presence rather than by any action. In the quiet, Sally said, “The dogs are depressed.” This comment sticks with me, symbolizing the sadness we all felt then and which I still feel.
In anticipation of Sally’s death, I sought personal support for myself. I went to a grief counselor who was about my age. We talked of our past experiences. When his mother died, his father and family stiffened up and shrugged it off as best they could, with little or no display of emotion. Then years later, when his father died, he and his friends and family openly grieved, mourned, and staged a cheerful celebration of life, remembering the good things about his father.
These few visits with the grief counselor, plus many conversations with Mariana, helped me accept the inevitability of my sister’s passing.
Sally had left instructions that there be no funeral, but we “could get together and do something” if we liked. I joined in the Celebration of Life ceremony. Sally’s granddaughter, Jessie, about sixteen at the time, had set up a display of photos spanning many years of Sally’s life. Friends, family, and the doctors she had worked for were all there. Her son Jim talked first. “She was my rock,” he said. I told stories of her early life in Reno and consoled people as best I could by “being there.”
We all cried a lot.