[Two years ago today, my best friend died. I wrote this after having spent time with him several days before he died. I miss him every day.]
V, one of my closest and dearest friends, is dying. The cancer in his liver has become unmanageable and untreatable. Earlier this week, he was placed in home hospice care, and just this afternoon, he was transferred to a nearby hospice facility. He may not survive the weekend.
V is a convert to Catholicism, and we shared many lunches, phone conversations, and rounds of golf (many rounds) discussing the faith, how to better integrate it into the daily stuff of life: being good husbands and fathers; balancing faith and career; dealing with temptations; understanding suffering.
When the cancer was detected in 2013, he knew the road would be rough. His conversion (his wife was Catholic) occurred many years before then – it was because of his conversion that our friendship developed. I can’t recall how Catholicism came up in a conversation between us, but it was certainly God and His inscrutable way, forming the foundation of our friendship. Faith was the bond between us, and it’s prepared us both for this circumstance in V’s life. Two brothers of the Lord, helping each other along the way. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17)
In January of this year, after a consultation with his specialist, he confided in me that the treatments – which originally showed some promise – were no longer effective. The cancer had metastasized in his liver, and was spreading. Still he was hopeful, yet resigned to God’s will. We spoke again during Holy Week, as he prepared for a family vacation to Florida. He sounded tired, spent – as Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “…stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”. He described his condition to me – becoming gaunt in the face, and retaining fluid in his lower torso, legs, and feet. Still, he assured me, once they returned to Michigan, we would get together for lunch.
We got together, just not as we had hoped. The trip proved to be overtaxing, and V’s condition worsened. This past Tuesday, his wife L texted me that he was now in home hospice, and he wanted me to know. He wanted me to come. I said I’d come visit Wednesday afternoon.
As I drove to his house, I thought about the things we would talk about, the memories we would share, the anticipation of meeting Christ soon. He knew he was dying, I knew he was dying – there was no pretense of any false hope. This was a final visit between two best friends.
I arrived, unprepared. V was more than gaunt. He looked 94 rather than 54, his jaundiced skin stretched tightly across his cheek bones and jaw. His trembling hands were splotched with countless liver spots. His swollen fingers could barely manipulate the remote control of his powerlift recliner. Despite his thick bathrobe, Mountain Dew sweatpants, and woolen socks, I noticed his distended belly, bloated legs and feet. He hardly resembled the man I last saw in January.
So I said what any friend would say: “Geez, V, Florida was so not good to you.”
And he smiled – weakly and feebly, but it was that smile I had seen so many times over the years. He sheepishly said ‘sorry’, and we embraced.
Speaking took tremendous effort, and when he did, it was with a barely audible squeaking voice. He had so little strength – this man who could drive a golf ball 300 yards – he was incapable of speaking in full, coherent sentences. He faded in and out of awareness, almost narcoleptic.
L, his mother, and his sister bustled about the house, so he motioned that he wanted to sit on the patio and spend quiet time together. He shuffled there under his own power, managed the steps down to the patio, and we sat at the table. I unfurled the umbrella.
We didn’t say much. There wasn’t much that needed to be said. No pretenses.
He was fading out a bit, sitting in the afternoon sunshine. I reached over and grasped his hand, and his eyes slowly opened.
“V, in a way, I’m kinda envious.” He blinked a bit, cocked his head slightly. “You can see the finish line.”
He nodded a little, and said to me, in broken phrases and whispers: “There’s a fork in the path before me. I can choose either one, and I’m at peace with the one I’m on.”
I held his hand for some time, in the sun, on the patio, that Wednesday afternoon.
The previous evening, I was in my parish’s adoration chapel. I have a regularly scheduled Tuesday night adoration hour. Much of the time I meditated on death and The Four Last Things: that it isn’t of our choosing, that it is always before us. I read the following from Thomas a Kempis’ “My Imitation of Christ”, from Book 1, Chapter 3: “Blessed is he that always has the hour of death before his eyes and every day disposes himself to die…Be therefore always prepared, and live in such a manner that death may never find thee unprovided.”
Eventually V started to get chilled, so we went back inside, and he returned to his powerlift recliner. I told him I had to get back to work, so I reached down and we embraced. He trembled a bit, just for a fleeting moment. Whether it was out of grief for himself, or for me, I’m not sure. Maybe my hug was too intense. I kissed him on the top of his head, told him I loved him, and asked him to pray for me. He said, of course.
I hugged L at the door, told her to call if she needed anything. I took one step outside, when she grabbed my sleeve. V had followed me to the door. The three of us hugged, one last time, in the open doorway. We waved good-bye, and by the time I had backed out of the drive, and drove past their home, the front door was closed.
There’s a great grace in a happy death, in dying well. There’s also a great grace in witnessing a happy death. Knowing that V is at peace is a blessing and comfort to me. His journey towards the throne of God fills me with peace I don’t deserve. May I be so fortunate to have as happy a death. He is prepared. He is not unprovided for. He knows he’s received a tremendous grace, despite the accompanying burden of his family’s grief, and his friends’ grief.
I’ve received grace from our friendship and his witness to death, and for now, it is enough.