Last night I learned that a dear friend has only a few days left to live. I telephoned the hospital from our cottage to see how he was holding up without knowing what to say. I didn’t find any words to comfort him and could only listen to his words of shock and sadness. I sent him a hug over the phone line and cried after I hung up. My husband wrapped his arms around me and we stood quietly listening to the birds in the forest calling as dusk fell around us. The lonely call of a loon in the distance echoed across the still lake. I thought about hearing a loon call one last time. I wondered what my friend must want to do one last time and I realised there are too many things. Moments that he’ll no longer get to have, treasures given by time.
There are so many tiny moments we string together to make up our lives. Moments I sometimes try to catch and hold in the words on a page. Experiences, feelings, sounds, smells and tastes all go into making each moment a memory. It’s hard to think that these moments will come to an end, that at some point we ourselves will become a fading memory. The “I” that is us, our hands, faces, thoughts, actions and words that make us alive, will eventually vanish. The prospect of death brings us face to face with this harsh reality.
If I had only a few days left to live I’d want to smell the hot sun baking the pine needles that line the path to the cottage, or take in the smell of the wet earth after a rainfall. I’d want to hear the sound of rain pattering on the boathouse roof and the symphony of a thousand frogs on a still spring night. I’d want to feel a rose petal, or the soft texture of a geranium leaf. I’d want to climb the hill at the cottage and lie on soft moss and watch the clouds drift past.
I’d also want to see all those I love. I’d want them with me for one big party. I’d cry with them but I’d want to see them laugh too. The end of the party would be hard — goodbyes always are, but I’d want to see myself in their eyes one last time and feel their love. I’d want to be happy so that they remember me as I usually am. When it was my time to go, I’d want to lie with my head on my husband’s chest and fall asleep there one last time.
Death waits in the shadows. Some of us see it before it comes, some of us don’t. What a frightening thing to see and how hard it is to remain strong facing it.
I think of my father now, of being with him when he died. He knew death was coming for him. I remember his surprise that he had made it through his last day. He struggled to hang on all night despite the weakness of his body. I remember sitting with him, thinking that I’d never get to ask him another question, that I’d never see his smile again. I wished that I could take part of his sickness from him so that he could live longer. I hoped something would happen and he would get better, that he’d make it and everything would go back to the way it once was. I wondered if his face would fade in my memory. I sat studying it as he slept. But it hasn’t faded. I wonder now if I will see the twinkle that my father had in his eye in my unborn son? Will a part of my father be in the boy we will have?
I’ve always used hope to face every struggle, but the doctors didn’t give my friend any of that. He will die, as we all will, but he knows it will be sooner rather than later. He has to face death knowing it is coming for him quickly. It’s a path I may have to take, facing death before I’m ready to go, and I hope I’m as brave. Are we ever ready for it? I want to tell my friend not to give up, to fight to the last minute, even though I know it isn’t rational. When reality is this harsh, though, it’s tempting to throw reason to the wind.
It would take a miracle to stop the progression of his cancer, and yet I hope for one. Is it empty hope I cling to? Life itself seems a miracle, one that involves hope every day we are alive. I think that may be the key to coping with our own mortality, to live with hope no matter how many days we are given. A few years ago a friend I had gave up on life. He’d lost all hope, and without it living itself became too difficult a journey. I’m not sure where or how hope became so strong in me, but I won’t let it go. With hope our own mortality gets pushed aside and we can take in all of life, each and every tiny moment, with our arms wide open.
Today I face the fact that my friend will be gone from our lives and I think of the sorrow that so many will feel. My throat tightens and the tears come back. I don’t want him to give up hope. I believe that he’ll need it to experience the moments he has left with his arms wide open.