The phone rang first thing this morning.
I have broadened my horizons and now include early morning phone calls to the calls you get in the middle of the night! In my humble experience, unless you’re awaiting the impending birth of a new family member, nothing good ever happens when the phone rings late at night or early in the morning.
A good friend of mine (let’s call her Sarah) whose husband had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer a year and a half ago was on the other end. In a very soft shaky voice, for the first time, she put into words her greatest fear. She simply said, “I don’t know how to watch him die.” I felt like somebody had kicked me in the stomach; the wind was literally knocked out of my lungs. The reality in some words is too real to bear. But the truth is a slave to no one.
There is no good time to get bad news, and this certainly qualified as the worst of the worst to ever have to say or hear. As hard as it must have been for her to say, hearing her finally admit defeat to this relentless disease made all our worst fears so real.
I can honestly say I wasn’t blindsided by this news. It had been a very slow, painful process for him to go through and all the rest of us helplessly watched. After not getting the results doctors hoped for from many different treatments, the last and final option they had was a bone marrow transplant. He was lucky, and we were so hopeful when a perfect match from the donor transplant list was found! What an amazing gift. A person you don’t even know is willing to give you some of their bone marrow for you to have a chance at life.
He had the procedure done four months ago. And the roller-coaster ride continued, the ups and downs of this whole process being unbearable. Unfortunately, no matter how hard they fought and no matter how many different treatments they tried (they call them cocktails), nothing seemed to work.
The finality of those words; acceptance of this hard reality, was paralyzing. I wished we were not on the phone. I would have put my arms around her to assure her she was not alone. I heard the fear, and hopelessness in those few words. Her pain was palpable. She had reached out and touched someone, and that someone was me.
There was no way to sugarcoat this or say anything in any way that softened this blow. I needed to find the right words to express my sympathy, without offering advice and at the same time assuring her that somehow everything would be OK. Now, that is a tall order even if time wasn’t of the essence. We always feel like we should have the exact right words to offer support and comfort to someone in their time of need, but that’s not always possible. I had learned the hard way from personal experience the worst thing to say to anyone at this critical moment is “I know just how you feel.” Understand at that moment, this is their crisis. They are the ones dealing with a catastrophic situation and an enormous range of emotions.
Taking a deep breath and in my most confident, reassuring voice I said, “Oh, that’s the easy part, just follow his lead. When he is having a sad day, be sad. If he in the mood and wants to talk, talk. When he needs to sit with you in silence, just be silent. This would be the time where saying less is more. Your mere presence speaks volumes without the risk of saying the wrong thing.”
I reminded her that she had been dancing through life with him for many years until now. Just like being on the dance floor, follow his lead. Even though I didn’t say it, I knew we were both thinking the same thing. This time was so very different; it was going to be their final dance together. So I just repeated the same advice, and told her to “just follow his lead, be the belle of the ball and don’t ever forget he saved the last dance for you.”
There will be times when everyone feels like a victim being thrown into this game called life. We don’t remember being asked if we wanted to play. We didn’t even know the rules, but quickly realized nobody else did either. They seem to change from moment to moment, and we have no control over the circumstances. Like it or not, game on. The cards had been dealt, and they may be stacked against us.
This time, we were playing for life or death. And death laid down a royal flush. In the end, Sarah lost the love of her life, the man with whom she had spent decades and the father of her children. The world lost a special man, ask anyone who knew him. When something like this happens to you, you have three choices: you can let it define you, you can let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you. The choice is yours.
Every end has a new beginning, but this time I’m sure beautiful memories of this wonderful man will last forever.