Not a best friend but the wife of a friend from high school. I had known her for over 50 years. So had my wife. They both graduated the same year from the University of Penn’s nursing school.
The four of us usually got together at least once a year to discuss our children, our jobs, our lives. She was a dynamic woman with her own life and a wide circle of friends that I was not part of. I took her for granted, seeing her only as the spouse of a friend, assuming that she would always be there, but now she is not. She died a little while ago of pancreatic cancer. There was nothing heroic about any of it— just grit-your-teeth-into-sand endurance.
Pancreatic cancer is feared for good reason—it is almost always fatal within a few months. Hers was typical. It had reached Stage 4 (had spread to other organs) by the time it was detected. She was kept alive with chemotherapy and comfortable with increasing doses of addicting morphine. Finally, both she and her husband agreed this was no way to live. They stopped the treatments, and she died soon after, the way many cancer patients let go.
I did not know what to wish for her except to remain comfortable. Should we hope for a miraculous cure? At our age, something will soon get us. Who would want her to go through this all over again with something else, probably worse and possibly alone? We are not told how Lazarus finally died.
Death is just around the corner for anyone our age, as inevitable as taxes. Would we rather linger on for years in nursing care, in dementia, or paralyzed and babbling from a stroke?
Given the alternatives, pancreatic cancer is not so bad. It is almost certainly fatal, but this can be a positive. The diagnosis removes any cruel hope of a cure. The bullet has been fired, and it is on its way. So many cancer patients go through a series of difficult treatments, remission, soaring hopes, then recurrence that starts the cycle all over again. The succession of dashed hopes seem unendurable to me, but the patient can do nothing but endure.
Pancreatic cancer gives the patient time to accept and understand the inevitable, and to arrange their affairs. This period has flexibility to allow for more time, if needed, or less when the burden becomes too much. The patient remains in control. They can stop treatment on their own and slip away without the permission of anyone else: not a judge, not a doctor, not a spouse or kin.
Author Roger Angell said, “the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.” (see posting of 2/13/2014). I plan to tell my grandchildren when the time is right, “Everyone has a funeral. Either you will come to mine, or I will go to yours. I hope you will come to mine. I know you will be sad, but try to remember this is the way I want it to be. I don’t want to ever, ever, go to your funeral.”
When I was about 10 years old, my great-grandmother almost made it to 100. I remember saying to my mother, “Wouldn’t you love to live to be a hundred!” I was shocked at her answer.
“Oh no,” she said. “I would never want to live to be that old.” I did not understand then, but I do now.
Our friend will never know how profoundly she changed my view of death. When we get together with friends our age, I wonder who of us will be the last one standing. Now, I hope it is not me. Stay healthy, classmates. I don’t want to be that little old man sitting all alone on the Ocean City boardwalk on the date of our graduation. I do not want a bottle of champagne. It will not be a celebration.