BY ERIC SPITZNAGEL
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
This summer, I visited an old friend on her deathbed. Her literal deathbed. The bed she was lying in and waiting to die.
It was exactly as awful as you’d imagine.
Her bedroom was cool and dark. Soft New Age music was playing, like you might hear in a massage therapist’s office. Nobody spoke over a whisper. There was a hospice nurse reading a book in the living room, waiting for the only possible outcome.
Did I mention that it was terrible? It was terrible.
Her name was Danielle, and she had cancer. It started in her breast, then burrowed its way into her brain. She’d been fighting it for years, but the cancer finally got the better of her.
When she was just 43, the doctors sent her home, saying there was nothing else they could do. She had just a few months to live, maybe less.
My wife and I drove down to say our goodbyes to Danielle. I’ve visited plenty of sick friends and relatives, but never someone who’d been told to stop fighting; to just go home, crawl into bed, and wait for the end.
It’s a whole different level of sad. Especially when that person is right around your age, and your last pre-cancer memory of them is from a handful of summers ago.
I remember it vividly. My wife and I invited her and her husband, Richard, over to our house for dinner. We drank too many bottles of red wine and shared our respective fertility woes—like us, they were trying to get pregnant—and joked about how being an adult can be profoundly unfair.
At the time, not having a child—missing that window of fertility opportunity—seemed like the worst thing that could happen to any of us.
My wife and I had our first kid less than a year later. She and Richard never got pregnant. Then Danielle discovered a lump in her breast.
At first, it seemed like something she would beat. We visited her in the hospital, and refused to believe she wouldn’t come out the other side. But then her cancer got aggressive.
The last time we were all together again, it was in a dark bedroom, waiting for Danielle to die.
She was asleep for most of our visit. We took turns holding her hand, amazed at its warmness. Just watching her chest rise and fall seemed like a miracle.
We stood next to her bed with Richard for about an hour, making small talk, even managing a few jokes, but mostly talking about how she was going to die soon—as it turned on, within a few days—and how he was making peace with that.
Richard told us something that’s stuck with me. He only had 15 years with Danielle, but he feels lucky to have gotten even that much time with her. Long before the cancer diagnosis, he felt grateful every day that this beautiful, funny, kind, searingly smart woman wanted to be with him.
But I’m telling you, you spend an hour with a man like Richard, who has been waiting in a dark bedroom for two months for the love of his life to die, and he’s able to say, “I had 15 years of waking up next to her, and I was lucky to get that,” and it changes something in your DNA.
If I had been him, if I was in his shoes, I wouldn’t have been seeing the silver lining. I would have been screaming, “15 years isn’t enough! I was robbed! The universe can go fuck itself!”
And then I’d kick a hole in the wall, like a sobbing Chuck Norris.
As we drove home, I thought about Richard, and decided he had the right idea. If I could find a way to be even a fraction as grateful as he is when things are going well for me, then I’ll have really done something.
I gave myself a challenge: One full week of not getting upset. Unless I or somebody I love was in immediate mortal danger, I would find the positive in every supposed negative.
It only took a few days for that to fade away.
Yes, yes, I have a friend dying of cancer. Life is precious, I get it. But it’s garbage night, and I still haven’t put out the recycling, and our 4 year old needs a bath and somehow my wife got it into her head that it’s my turn, which is bullshit, and I have a dozen emails that need to be answered tonight, and our credit score has plummeted again because somebody (I’m not pointing any fingers) forgot to pay the cable bill, and I haven’t checked Facebook in hours!
When Danielle passed, my wife and I went to her funeral. If you’ve never been to a funeral for a 43 year old, it’s basically like this: A bunch of 40 year olds take turns getting on stage and saying, “What the hell happened? I don’t understand how this happened. This wasn’t supposed to happen!" But softer and sadder.
Richard talked about Danielle for almost 30 minutes, saying essentially the same thing he’d told us next to her deathbed. “I knew every day that I was lucky.” We cried through the service, hugged Richard afterwards, and then left.
My wife and I were supposed to meet up with her family after the service. All of her relatives were in town for a big reunion, and they were waiting for us. But we texted them, claimed the funeral was running long and we might be stuck there for another hour or so.
And then we found some hole-in-the-wall diner off the highway to have dinner, just the two of us.
Our meal was awful. Our waitress might have been a little drunk, and certainly illiterate. But none of that bothered me, because I haven’t laughed that hard with my wife in months.
Maybe it was the endorphin release from the funeral. Or the rush of playing hooky from family. Or maybe it was just a perfect, crisp fall day, and my wife and I were cracking each other up with dumb private jokes that were funny only to us, and I felt genuinely grateful for every second of it.
That’s hard to do sometimes: to actively notice when you’re happy.
Thinking about Danielle on her deathbed, her body slipping away, didn’t help me remember to feel grateful. It just reminded me that life could be randomly cruel.
But sneaking away with my wife when we had other obligations, hiding out in a diner booth, and laughing so hard we almost collapsed onto the floor, that was the only reminder I needed that I’m a lucky SOB.
I’m pretty sure it’s moments like this that Richard was talking about. They probably happen to you, more often than you think. But are you paying attention?
Or are you going to wait till the end, when you can realize too late, “Oh yeah, I had it pretty good?” Too bad you didn’t enjoy it in the moment.
Beause it can all disappear faster than you think.