My friend Jennifer is dying. She was diagnosed in stage 4 with breast cancer 10ish (or 5ish? I’m unsure) years ago and put up a good fight. Shortly after she left a job I got her, she had a mastectomy. I texted encouragement to her the morning of her surgery and said in support, I was listening only to the music of the Hooters all day. I thought she would appreciate the humor, but I don’t think she was amused. She just replied: thanks.
We traded texts about a month ago while she was in her latest round of treatments, but things went quickly bad soon after.
Her husband Ryan, also a friend, shared on FB that they had surrendered. She went home for hospice care a week ago, and I went to spend time with her Wednesday afternoon.
She’s deeply asleep and clearly not comfortable. The discomfort kind of comes and goes in waves, ‘though I’d wager she’s at least slightly uncomfortable, even on all the painkillers, all the time.
Ryan calls it “vocalizing,” but it’s moaning. She’s moaning with every exhalation, and after about half an hour with her, I could tell when a moan was an expression of more discomfort. Her forehead knitted a few times, which Ryan responded to with gentle rubs along her brow.
Their daughter Kate, a year out of college and enrolled in a paralegal program, was at Jennifer’s bedside the whole time as well, clearly exhausted and plainly devastated.
Ryan, who always puts his best face forward, did his best. If you didn’t know better, and if you were talking about world events rather than, you know, his wife dying, you wouldn’t guess anything was going on.
I asked a lot of indelicate questions, as Ryan and Jennifer would probably expect, but I didn’t want to gloss over anything, including the unpleasant suckiness of this situation, and Ryan seemed willingly transparent.
I tried to avoid the usual pleasantries, but I did say more than once that if there was anything I could do, I hoped he and Kate would reach out. I also said that if I could, I would take any of this away from them and carry it myself.
Her hands were under a thin blanket (her mother’s, only recently received in a box of stuff her mom wanted her to have when her mom died a few years ago), so I didn’t hold her hand, although I don’t know if I would have. I put my hand on her upper arm and kept it there for most of my stay, squeezing once in a while to remind her I was there.
Ryan and I talked a lot. Kate added her thoughts. I spoke directly to Jennifer a few times, but mostly it was just me and Ryan, two friends from our days in college working on the campus paper together. He was editor-in-chief. I was op-ed editor and copy editor (minus headline writing, which I sucked at). Jennifer was office manager.
We were so young and stupid, I said. Now we’re just stupid, Ryan said.
As our loved ones approach death, we are all stupid.
Before I left, I thanked Jen for being my friend. I recapped a few things: how when we started we were sorta friends-in-law, but somewhere in the years soon after we all left Hilo (I graduated; Ryan and Jennifer transferred to Manoa), Jen and I became real friends. And when they got married, she wasn’t my friend’s wife; she was my friend.
She didn’t need to be reminded, but I reminded her anyway that we had the geekiest of conversations about movies, books, and music — mostly books and music — and I found in her a geekiness to match my own, which is rare. I said I hoped to see her again, but in case I didn’t, I wanted her to know I valued our talks, and I thanked her for being my friend.
Then I said, listen. You don’t owe anyone anything. Do what you have to do.
And then Ryan walked me to the door, and we chatted in the doorway about what the next few days might look like, and then we chatted about work, oddly enough. I have a new coworker this Monday, someone he knows, and he’d heard from her that she met me during her interview.
I didn’t cry. I cried on the drive over, and I cried a little on the drive back. I kept it together for her while we were together.
My friend Jennifer is dying and it sucks, and I feel terrible, but there’s something strangely fact-of-life about it. She’s going to do what she does in her time, and while I want one thing, I pretty much expect the other, and I’m grateful I had this time with her.
Before I turn in, I’m going to pray that I can be whatever Ryan needs me to be. He’s lucky: he’s got a million friends, most of whom are better positioned than me to be of any help, so if he needs me to stop texting him and let him go through this, I pray I’ll have the discernment. If he needs me to send him a link to some stupid article about hugging in the workplace (he knows I’m against it and sends me articles all the time), I pray I’ll know when to do it. And if he needs me for something more intervening, geez. I pray I’ll be wise enough not to make things worse.
Ryan warned me before I came over. “Keep in mind: it’s not a Hallmark card.” I knew what I was getting into and I could have sat with her all night, no exaggeration. My time with her Wednesday was special and I’ll never forget it.
So Ryan was kind of wrong. It was a Hallmark card.