My friend is dying. I don’t know if she has weeks or months or even just days. My sense is weeks or a month—maybe more-- but that isn’t based on any real knowledge, just a feeling. I went to see her yesterday. It was hard and I had some fear and reservations before going. Showing up. Before Ron’s cancer and death I learned about the power and the absolute necessity in life of simply showing up from the author Anne Lamott. I didn’t have enough compassion or sensitivity or awareness or maturity or life experience or I don’t know what before reading her work to comprehend that often that is all we can really offer another person. Our presence, or willingness to sit with them during something hard, sit with awkward silence or with no idea of what to say to do, with the understanding that we cannot fix anything about the situation. Just showing up.
My friend and her family supported Ron and me and my girls from the moment we came back from Jakarta, after he died, and really up until today. Even when she was reeling from her own chemotherapy treatments (she was diagnosed just a couple of months after Ron) she would ask me if I needed anything, offer to drive my girls places, pick up paper towels from the store for me, have my kids at her house to play with her four daughters. She is just one of those people who already know.
One friend of Ron’s never came to see him after he became sick. I thought it was odd. Ron thought it was odd too, and was a bit hurt. A year or so later a mutual friend explained to me that that the friend who didn’t visit explicitly said that she couldn’t visit Ron, it was too upsetting for her. I remember feeling angry about that at the time, outraged, even. His sickness and death was too upsetting for her? After more than a decade of friendship? The anger is long gone for me. Now I just think it is sad. She missed the chance to spend more time with her friend. I do feel a degree of judgment though: I judge her for not being emotionally strong enough to sit with her discomfort and simply show up. So maybe that means my anger isn’t completely gone but I am almost there.
Since Ron died I make it a point to show up. To bring food, offer a ride, offer to talk or to sit. To say something to someone whose loved one has died. To try do whatever it takes. But yesterday was hard and I felt afraid. What was I afraid of? I was afraid of not knowing what to say, of having my own trauma brought to the surface, of traumatizing the girls, of being sad—of being all the things that make people not show up. We went to see her and her family, of course . And it was hard to see her so frail, to hear her weakened voice and to see the pain pump of morphine that she carries around like a purse—just like Ron’s dilaudid. I try to remember how long Ron lived in that condition and I don’t know. I don’t remember. Maybe a month or two at the most. I don’t know how long he wore that pump. The visit went fine. Her in-laws were there and we all chatted in the living room.
I felt sad for the rest of the day and my girls were out of sorts and teary at bedtime. Neither mentioned my friend or if they were aware of the feelings that seeing her brought up. When we left their house my older daughter remarked that the pain medicine pump looked like Daddy’s. My younger daughter cried at bedtime that she missed Daddy and was lonely at school—didn’t feel like she had any real friends. There is no way they didn’t notice how different my friend looked and yesterday, they could really see that she was sick. When Ron looked this way, we didn’t see it fully. Only looking back in photos could we really tell, with dismay at our lack of awareness, how sick he was at the time. Hope, optimisim, denial: all those things kept us from really “seeing” him then. I do remember feeling shattered though when I looked at the bones in his face protruding or I bathed his withered arms, the arms that had been so muscular and vital. Some part of me must have seen it, must have known.
I haven’t told the girls that my friend is going to die. I’ve talked with her and her husband about what their daughters know. They have come to me for advice about how to talk with their girls and all I can do is tell them my experience and that only they know what is best for their girls. However they handle it , it will be okay. It will. They’ve talked with social workers and experts. They know the only bad thing would be to lie, to mislead the girls. That is what all the experts say and it really is the truth. That would be the ultimate lie. I don’t know how a child would recover after that, ever be able to trust again if she were lied to about death. Their kids refuse to feel anything but happy right now, happy that their mom is out of the hospital and home with them and their parents have been as open as possible and tried to show the girls that any question or any topic is open for discussion. I think kids can only take in so much at a time and that they will circle back around. The kids can tell that the situation has worsened. I think their family unit is strong and their kids are doing really well. I remember the terror of doing or saying the wrong thing to my girls while Ron was sick and in all the places my heart is broken for my friend and her husband, there is a big crack for that same fear that they carry now.
When I write that whatever they chose to tell their girls will be okay what I mean is that life will unfold however it does in the next weeks or months and they will do the absolute best that they can and then afterwards, her husband/the girls father will deal with whatever happened, whatever they said or didn't say-- and it will be okay because it will be reality, the only reality that exists. It will or it will not be ideal and it will or will not be messy or upsetting or disappointment but he will deal with it. I look back and would I change things, do I wish they were different? Yes. YES. YES!!! Does wanting things to have been different help me now? No. Can I change things? No, I cannot. Death is not like it is in the movies and we don't all get the perfect good bye and we don't get the perfect last days/weeks/months because that shit ain't real. So what does that mean now? All I can do is be honest with the girls and answer the specific questions they ask and accompany them as they digest the new information or different than they remember information. Accompanying them might be painful or frightening but that is all I can do for them, accompany them in their grief and tell them what I wish had happened or support them when they express what they wish happened. I can sit with them. I can bear their hurt, their sadness, their anger. I can witness their pain. I can show up for them as he will show up for his children when the time comes.
So we showed up. And now that I have this 3-D experience of what it means to show up it makes me lose the anger I felt towards Ron’s friend who wouldn’t visit, and Ron’s best friend who won’t have anything to do with me or my girls (even though is the god-parent ,or “special-parent” of one of them) because it hurts him too much. I feel sad about losing both of these people but I can let them go, let the sentiment go. In my “before” life I don’t think I was very good about showing up. Sometimes I was, but I can think of occasions where I was cowardly and I am sorry now for my silence, for my not saying their name, for my avoidance of other people’s suffering that made me uncomfortable. I get it now. We don’t have to fix it. We can’t fix it. All we can offer is ourselves, our love, our willingness to sit with them, our willingness to witness their lives. All we can do is show up. We can show up, even if it is hard, even if we don’t know what to say or do, we can show up, we can love, and it will be enough.