“Come in and meet my mother,” I said to the father of my new 6th grade girlfriend when she came over for an after-school visit. He got out of the car and followed his daughter and me up to our front door. “She loves it when people drop in,” I continued. “Nobody comes over anymore, now that she’s dying.” He stopped dead in his tracks (excuse the metaphorical pun). “It’s okay,” I reassured him, “she’d love to meet you, honest.” He blushed, stuttered about remembering something he had to do, then told his daughter he would return for her in an hour. That was the last time the girl was allowed to come to my house.
A year later when the ladies at school handed out pink carnation boutonnières for students to wear on Mother’s Day, I was told to choose a white one because, “your mother is no longer with us,” the lady said in a hushed tone. There was only one white carnation in the generous basket of pink blossoms. “You mean because she’s dead,” I corrected. “Yes dear, so you get to wear a white one.” “I don’t want a white carnation,” I said and turned away, when what I really meant was, I don’t want a dead mother.
Death – we all do it. Few want to learn about it or seek conversations with any sense of curiosity or preparation for it. When someone dares to broach the subject in a social setting, people squirm, change topics or turn away. God forbid if anyone admits to actually being in the process of dying. That’s a real party pooper. The depth of emotion which accompanies death, loss and grief is probably the main reason the subject is avoided, while fear of mortality is another. It is unfashionable these days to feel sad, bad, powerless or, dead. After all, we are of the living crowd.
My friend is dying. He lives in an AIDS hospice house where I have volunteered over the last couple of years. I met Sebastian (not his real name) last fall when he moved into this six-resident home of respite. I felt an instant attraction to him. His conversation was intelligent, curious, and engaged with life, while he appeared to accept his predicament with the graciousness of a refined gentleman, keeping personal fears and complaints to himself. The wheelchair and his occasional wince of pain between labored movements were the only visible reminders that this man is living the last weeks and months of his life.
Sebastian’s array of experiences and interests, particularly in other people, and the fact that he listens with as much enthusiasm as he speaks, makes him a natural magnet for hospice residents, staff and visitors. He spoke passionately about the plight of homeless people with AIDS. You should write down these things you want to say, I encouraged, but his hands can no longer cope with a pen, or navigate a keyboard, and pain medication interferes with his ability to focus on a discipline as demanding as writing. Will you help me, he asked. So began my friendship with a dying man.
Seb begins talking in response to my few gentle probes while I record his conversation on an old cassette player. When I get home, I listen, type it out, and return it to him the following week. It soon became apparent that Sebastian was no more of an expert about dying than I am. We walk this journey of discovery together, though I say that with a bit of shame, because he does it so gracefully, and my time, unlike his, has not been designated a sell-by date, nor do I suffer a devastating and terminal disease.
Sebastion’s pages are filling up with reflections that pull me back to another time, another place, where it is comfortable to go; where one feels the first scent and taste of a sun-warmed tomato picked from the vine by a grandmother’s hand. Sometimes the pages are difficult and painful to read – impossible not to shed tears as I feel the enormity of what a dying person must realize, release and grieve. One recognizes the poignant beauty of simple things that we take for granted, like friends who feel comfortable with our company, walking to the coffee shop, helping a neighbor mow their lawn, or living in our own home with our own things around us and choosing who we share a bathroom with.
At other times the pages cause me to laugh with their delightful honesty and the ridiculous circumstances brought about by the act of dying. A description of Sebastian falling out of his wheelchair on a visit home to his city while his carer went into panicked hysterics, and Seb lay on the sidewalk laughing and begging bystanders not to pick him up for fear that they might break his fragile and already broken bones. What could I do but laugh, he asked me, and we laughed together at the story. It’s so tragic, it’s funny.
I’m glad I have my dying friend, though I’m certainly not glad he’s dying. Our friendship is like an oxymoron. As we build our relationship, we watch it slowly break apart. I try not to think of losing him, though I know it is inevitable. I can only hope that my belief in the afterlife is correct, and that at some future point we will meet again in far better circumstances. I don’t look forward to witnessing his physical demise or to saying goodbye after his last breath has passed his lips and his ashes fill the intricately carved soapstone urn that stands waiting on his dresser.
But every time I visit Sebastian, I come home happier – less afraid perhaps, of what life can surprise us with. Seeing how he copes with the inevitable and makes something so impossible to do – doable, I feel enriched by our friendship and ever so lucky to know him. When I enter the door of his room, he smiles with encompassing warmth and we both feel better for being there, in spite of the way it is. Despite the tears and fears and his unending pain, he smiles as if holding on to a secret joke. Sebastian doesn’t ask me to take it all too seriously for too long, because, he says, the old saying is so true: This too, shall pass.