A hot, sunny Labor Day morning: I pull up in front of Kim’s entry bower. Our friend Larry has planted her trellis with morning glories; their leaves are richly, deeply green and glossy, although, Kim says, the plants have never bloomed.
“What’s up with THAT?” she asks rhetorically, noting that Larry has never seen such a thing happen: morning glories always bloom. But not these, not at Kim’s house, not this year.
There are pots of brightly crisp annuals; there is an old, lazy cat basking in the sun. There is Kim,–the day after her 60th birthday–lifting slowly from her shaded seat inside the bower, turning to pick up her purse and a book we’ve shared, and starting the slow trek to the passenger door.
I open my door into traffic, bound out quickly, and run to hug her.
“How ARE you?” I ask, exuberantly.
She gives me a look that says, clearly, ‘Now, THERE’S a stupid question.’
“It’s good to see you,” she says quietly.
I am such a thoughtless idiot. I have just asked my dear friend, raddled by course after course of chemo for her metastatic cancer, how she is. “How are you?”—that trite non-saying of our modern life. I expect, of course, the perky non-answer: “Fine! Good! How are YOU?”
But fine and good don’t apply here, and “How are you?” is a stupid question to ask someone in the last stages of cancer—or someone enduring any kind of debilitating disease. I need to turn off my auto-pilot; I need to think, and learn.
We drive to Timmy H’s, on this morning when many hard-working people (not, alas, the staff at Tim’s) have the day off, and we are lucky enough to find a table tucked into a corner, a table not surrounded by a whole bunch of happy people anticipating the day’s barbecue or boat ride.
We talk about the thoughtless “How ARE you?” It’s such a knee jerky thing to say, I tell her, and she says she knows; she hears it all the time.
We talk about things that might be better to say–things like, “It’s good to see you, Kim,” or, “I’ve been thinking about you,” or even just, “Hello!”
With Kim, the keys to conversation now seem to be honesty and observation. She is a person who has always met life right where it hits her; other people with cancer might enjoy subterfuge, the pretense that they are blooming and what could possibly be wrong? Kim does not want to pretend. So that’s an obvious rule I need to remember: each person is different. Meet each person where she is. Observe, observe, observe.
Kim says so many people tell her she looks good. This is not something, when she feels, bluntly, like crap warmed over, that she really wants to hear.
I think about my mother’s friend, Janet; many years after Mom died, I saw Janet in the supermarket. She’d just been released from the hospital after surviving a massive heart attack.
I said hello, and gave her a hug, and before I could say anything else, Janet said, “What do you think of my color?”
I was stumped for a reply.
“My color,” she said. “Everyone seems to like it. I’m not a cussing woman, but if one more person says to me, ‘Oh, your color is wonderful,’ I may just start.'”
Oddly, it was true; she was rosy-cheeked and looked like a stereotyped picture of glowing health. But, two days out from a heart attack that damned near killed her,–feeling, she said, like she was recovering from being hit by a large, speeding truck,–she did not want people discounting her health challenges by telling her she appeared to be fine.
So I make a mental note: don’t tell a sick person how good she looks. And don’t, says Kim—for God’s sake, and for your own safety, DON’T—tell her, “Keep smiling!”
Kim says to think about what YOU would like to hear if the situation was reversed. If you say what you think you’d probably like to hear, it might not be exactly the right thing to say,–you and your friend being of course, very different people,–but it will come from a place of thought and observation.
And, while what you do say might hit a perfectly clanging off-note, it’s better than not saying anything. There are many people, Kim notes, who just simply avoid talking to her at all. It’s as if her condition is embarrassing or horribly, horribly contagious. [Guess what, friends? It’s mortality, and we DO all have it…] It’s as if she has done something shameful and deliberately malicious by being sick.
I’m reminded of visiting my friend Cathy back home last year; she was completely confounded by her friend Ken’s behavior. Ken was family-by-choice close with Ted and Elaine, and Elaine had a fast-moving, lethal brand of cancer. She was entering her end days, and since the diagnosis, Ken had avoided her. He hadn’t visited or called, hadn’t even sent a card. It was as if, Cathy said, Elaine had done something deliberately to make Ken’s life miserable. It was as if Elaine was already dead and buried.
Gosh, said Cathy, sardonically. Poor Ken. How tough that he has to deal with his dear friend’s impending death.
There’s a good ending to that story: Ken went to see Elaine, and he discovered she had not become a scary someone else. She was the same person in a dying body. Sure, illness had pared away a lot of the frew-fraw; she didn’t have to suffer fools anymore and she didn’t want to waste time discussing the weather or dem Yankees. But her wit and warmth were intact.
Ken decided he could do some landscaping while he visited; that’s his gift. So he planted a special garden that can be seen from Elaine’s bedroom window. He put a comfy chair right in the midst of the flowers and foliage, and some days, Elaine feels well enough to sit outside. She might bring a book; she might bring a drink; she might just sit and soak up the sounds and smells and rays. She tells Ken that, each time, she knows it might be her last day to sit outside and savor; her disease progresses relentlessly.
He is there now; he can listen, squeeze her hand, pull a weed, get the garden spot ready for its next viewing.
Ken was a late starter, but he discovered another truth: we can use our gifts to comfort dear ones. Ken–like Larry–can bring forth beauty from the ground. Others might create collages, knit prayer shawls, bake cookies, call and chat for 15 minutes, or send thoughtful notes.
And, maybe most importantly, we can listen. This dear one is an explorer in a land I’ve yet to visit–but it’s a place I will come to, one day or another. I can listen with an ear for learning; I can listen with a will for sharing. And in listening, I will learn how best to be a friend.
I would really prefer that, when I visit Kim, we would pile a few more friends in the car and drive off to explore junk shops, thrift stores, and garage sales, something we both love to do. I wish we would talk about Dorothy Parker and Dawn Powell and how cutting-edge witty they were, and then trade books we’ll get around to reading, oh–down the line, when life is less busy and things settle down. I’d love finding new and funky coffee shops together, and treating ourselves to the gooey-est, yummiest treats on the menu.
But we’ve done those things; the sun has set on those thoughtless, carefree days, and a new stage of friendship has begun. I enter this stage gracelessly; no doubt, I’ll be bumping into its furniture and knocking fragile vases off shelves–watching in embarrassed shock as precious things shatter.
Not knowing what to say or when to say it.
I want this: for Kim to be well and whole and happy. I want her to get a new motorcycle and go tearing down the road, off on an adventure. I want it because then my life will be easier, and then I can rest without the heaviness of impending loss.
But this time is not about me and what I want. This time is about my very dear friend Kim, and what she needs.
And I have a wonderful resource: I have Kim herself, a guide and mentor in navigating these latter days, a trusted friend who shares her truth with me. I have the honor and the opportunity to walk this path with her a ways, and I will do my best to be awake and aware, to observe. To stay the course.
It’s so much easier, isn’t it, if our loved ones just don’t get sick? But sickness happens. It’s part of them, part of us, part of life. We need to show up. We need to share it. We need to cherish our friends, our family, and our time together. It’s too brief, and too fleeting, to waste.
Oh. Here’s something else we need NOT to do, something I promised Kim I would share–at the end of our visits, our chats on the phone, or our handwritten notes, we need not to chirp to that person who is ravaged by chemo, undone by cancer, exhausted by the battle, “Have a nice day!!!”
My friend Kim is a pacifist. But she makes no promises if she hears “Have a nice day!” one more time.