One of our classmates (left unnamed) was always very positive, and he sounds fine on the phone: He’s improving, has a girlfriend who stops by every other day, and is getting out in the world. Only when you hang up does the reality sink in: He is sleeping on a hospital bed set up in his dining room and has to drag around an oxygen tank wherever he goes. That is not a good way to live. I wonder how many of our old classmates are the same, alive and living in their own house, but not really doing well.
I remember our classmate’s father. He was no intellectual, but shortly before he died (I’m guessing in the early 1960s), he did a very wise thing. He took each of his children aside and told them one-by-one, “It’s going to be all right.” (The youngest was probably in their late teens by then.)
This particular classmate’s wife died four years ago of pancreatic cancer. People often say what a terrible diagnosis pancreatic cancer is, and that is certainly true, but I was ambivalent about wanting her to get well. At our age, if we survive one illness, something else will soon come along. Getting better does not necessarily mean a new, full life. She was already going through one cancer. Did I want her to go through something similar again, perhaps even worse? The best we can hope for is a comfortable passing. Passing or not is not an option.
My friend and classmate often said he felt there was still something he had to do, like write a book. I told him he already did it—he took care of his wife when she needed him, and that was far more important than writing any book. He stepped up to the plate when he was needed, and he should always remember that.
And, I thought, pancreatic cancer, as bad as it is, has some positives: At stage four (hers) there is virtually no hope. Long ago, I had a friend who died of a cancer that was considered highly curable, yet his kept coming back and finally killed him. I always thought that false hope was much crueler than no hope. I can’t imagine waking up every morning searching for dreaded new lumps, but then, I cannot imagine each day, no matter how bad, as still the best day of the rest of my life because my condition will continue to get worse. Today was bad, but tomorrow will be worse, and the day after even worse than the others.
With pancreatic cancer, you have time to get your affairs in order and can pick your time of death by continuing, or discontinuing medication. I have seen this in several different cancer deaths where the patient themselves decided when it was time to stop the medication and let go. Hanging on for a few more days is not that appealing anymore.
Like Maurice Chevalier, tuck that walking stick under your arm, tip your straw hat, and depart life stage left with a strut and a smile. It’s going to be all right.