My son is dying. That’s a simple, unhappy, unwelcome fact. Sometimes he has good days, visits a friend or his brother and family; more and more often, though, he has a string of bad days. We’re in the middle of one of those strings. He’s nauseated. He aches all over, like the flu, he tells me. He’s listless. He hurts. He’s unsteady on his feet, holding onto me while he makes his way to the bathroom or his bedroom. He’s fallen twice in the past week. And when he called me to his room at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, he thought he was dying.
We talk about his funeral and what he wants, all the time knowing that a proper, in-the-church funeral won’t happen until there’s some resolution with the pandemic. We talk about what we think happens after death. Is there nothing? Is there something? If there’s something, what do you think it looks like, mom? Will I see my grandmothers? My aunt? Will I know them?
What once might have been philosophical conversations have suddenly, too soon, out of order, become real. Become imminent. I search for words of reassurance, comforting him as well as I can, helping us both come to terms with the inevitable.
Then, today, a phone call from an old friend of his. A man he’s known for years, a former neighbor, a man older even than I. Martin was sleeping in the recliner next to me. I told him, when he stirred at the ringing of his phone, “It’s Art.” He didn’t want to talk. It quit ringing, and immediately started up again. When it began for the third time, I answered his phone.
Art loves Martin like a son. I know that. Martin was there when Art’s son Mike died about 30 years ago. Martin and Mike had been good friends, and his death was prolonged and sad. Another young person dying out of time. Art and Martin bonded and have remained close over the years, although they don’t talk often – Art’s still in Miami, we’re in Portland.
Over the weekend, Martin’s dad had told Art how ill Martin is, that he’s dying. Art was calling to insistently, stridently, tell him that he knew how to cure Martin’s liver cancer. He’s cured himself of MRSA and a cancer on his face. His friend lived several years after a terminal cancer diagnosis by using this miracle method. It seems that Art knows what the finest doctors in the best cancer hospitals in the PNW don’t: the cure for cancer is baking soda. Just mix it in water and drink it three times a day. And – hey! what’ve you got to lose? Well, peace of mind for a start.
I – according to Art – have been brainwashed by the medical community. The CT scans, the MRIs, the blood work? The liver eaten away by cirrhosis? The metastases? Pah! For some undefined reason, the doctors don’t want to listen to Art and his baking soda cure.
I listened. I was polite, as my mother taught me to be. Told him that I would convey his message to Martin and let him know that Art wants him to call back. I did all of those things. And Martin said he’s not going to call him. I feel kind of sad about that, but Martin’s an adult and gets to make his own choices. But, frankly, we’ve been on such a roller coaster around here that I completely understand my son’s reaction.
So, here’s what I want to talk about: If you know someone is dying, from cancer or anything else, offer your good wishes, your prayers, a memory, a bit of levity. If you believe in miracles – I do – keep believing. But keep those beliefs to yourself, keep your miracle cures, that x number of your friends have had success with, to yourself.
This dying business is hard work. A lot goes into making peace with it, especially when you’re in what should be the prime of life. And when you do that hard work, when you begin to reach a place where you can face the unknown with even a little more courage than when you started on this path – well, it’s not a kindness to say, “I know how you can be cured,” or “I know God is going to heal you; God told me.” Because no matter how well-meant those words are, no matter how much you believe what you’re saying, it unravels some of that hard work. And you have to start all over again to reach that place of beginning to accept. You may think it’s a kindness, a ray of hope, but it isn’t. It’s actually hurtful. And it not only hurts the person who, in the midst of illness, has done that hard work, it hurts the ones who have sat with him, listened to the fears, cried lonely tears, and been quietly thankful to have seen the beginnings of peace and acceptance on the face of a beloved child.