A good friend of ours died yesterday: college buddy, the best man at our wedding, the amazing human being who, along with the beautiful wife whose left arm he holds, above, we asked to take in our kids if we were to die. He was only 58, diagnosed four years ago with a bad disease that he lived with so graciously, and for years longer than predicted. In this 30+ year-old photo a group of friends is embarking on a canoe trip into Canadian Boundary Waters, aka Quetico Provincial Park. He’s the one with the big thumb’s up, or is it a wave goodbye? What did our friend know, that we didn’t?
None of us knew that within a decade there’d be seven children between the six of us, a pair of twins, far more girls than boys. None of us knew that we’d all lose touch during the toughest of those child-rearing years, only to get back together months before his diagnosis. I can’t really say why I’m hesitant to tell you his name, why I chose this long-ago and blurry photo instead of one more recently taken.
The details are important, of course: a man always (and sometimes, if rarely, to our mutual chagrin) larger than life, with more energy than the rest of us put together. In college he organized the ski trip on which my husband and I met. He organized this canoe trip to Quetico. He was a great skier, runner, contender of all varieties, but also, invariably, a peacemaker. A uniter. A forgiver. He became a physician, like the the other two young men in the photo (one of whom is my good husband). He delivered a lot of babies, the greatest irony of which is that his own first grandchild is due any day.
We knew him best before kids, and then when all our kids were little. He was, as you might by now expect, a high-energy dad. My husband and I and our children were particularly blessed by the fact that we loved not only him (who was our mutual friend) but his wife, as well, and that all five of our children got along like family. The kids don’t know each other now; life changes and people move on. But we’ve seen our friend in action with all of his children and their partners since he got sick, and we’ve seen his relationship with them and his wife grow into something almost not of this world. And I guess this is all I’d really have a hope of explaining to you here.
What I want to tell you, what I think you might have a chance of understanding, is how our friend, quite simply, has taught us how it’s done. How to die. How to die inexplicably young, and before so many good things had a chance to happen, with the kind of grace and courage I did not imagine anyone could possess.
He researched and pursued and enrolled in the latest treatment options until about a week before he died. I am not kidding when I tell you he looked on each one as an adventure, full of challenges physical, intellectual and spiritual. He rode the wave of success in a few, always gratefully, always with a sense of wonder at the science, the medicine, which he loved to the end. Seriously, the only time I heard him voice regret was in our final conversation, when he described how he’d run out of options. He regretted only, I think, not having another treatment to try.
He lived the past four years of his life with incredible honesty and purpose, presiding over a spectacularly beautiful wedding (one of his daughter’s) last winter, outdoors, in the Canadian wilderness. He and his wonderful wife in this last week held a “Father’s blessing” of another child’s relationship, having understood, I think, that he would not live to see her wed. And about that first grandchild’s birth, his words were literally, “It’s too bad I probably won’t get to see it.” Sadness, only. Still a little hope. No anger. Not that my husband and I ever saw.
He spoke freely, with family members and friends, about death. His own, anyone’s. What might be next. How he did not think this was the end. I believe I would have known if he was afraid. I believe he was, truly, not afraid to die. And the impact of this–of this openness, this courage, has literally changed my life.
I have always been petrified of death. Not so much the suffering beforehand but the infinity afterwards. It’s been the stuff of nightmares for me, but I think, now, I can change that. When our friend approached his impending death the way he did, so honestly, so graciously, it taught me something HUGE. It taught me that’s everyone’s better when the dying person’s better. Do your own spiritual work, get yourself straight with your Maker, or the universe, or whatever it is you imagine is next.
Even in your dying days there’s still a chance to love people, to help them along in all of their own fear and suffering. But you have to be brave. You have to be gracious.
This is what our friend knew. This is what he did for me.
The magnitude of this gift, given by a dying man who could have been angry and cold and closed but was none of these, is beyond description.
All I know now is that I want to do it, too, for everyone I love.