My friend’s brother is dying. This is not a new thing. He has been living with dying for several years now. From his diagnosis, he knew the illness was “terminal.”
Of course, in a very real sense, we all live with that terminal diagnosis. We will all die. But most of us get to pretend that we will die at some unspecified point in the fairly distant future. And before that happens, we will be able to live interesting lives, full of activities and experiences.
That is not James’ reality now. The point at which he will die remains unspecified, but he knows it is not in the distant future. It may not be tomorrow, or next week, or even next month, but his future is now measured small, months at the most optimistic.
I don’t know him well. Really I know him only through my long friendship with his sister. But I have learned to know him better, I think, as I consider the choices he is making now, at the end of his life.
Little by little, and sometimes too much by too much, his life has been diminished. He could no longer travel, no longer play golf, he could seldom play any sport, even in the backyard at family gatherings. Then he couldn’t work. And there were the treatments, the pain, the side-effects. Then he couldn’t walk very far, then not without a walker, then he started needing a wheelchair at times. And the pain kept growing, and the side-effects more difficult to treat. Then the medications to control the pain blurred his mind, taking from him even the clarity of thought and speech that was his hallmark. He is a natural caregiver who could no longer even take care of himself.
A few weeks ago, he entered palliative care in a hospital. Yet still, he agreed to another round of radiation treatment, talked with the doctors about other possible treatments – knowing that cure was not even a remote fantasy, that the only reasonable hope was to extend his life – with suffering, with almost no ability to do most of what he loved and valued – by days, weeks, maybe, at the most optimistic, months.
Why? Why does he make these choices when many would have gone, if not gentle at least resigned, into that good night? Why does he continue to, not rage, but fight against the dying of his light, his life?
It seems to me there is only one answer. Because everything else has been stripped from him. He cannot work, he cannot play, he cannot walk, he cannot care for himself, he cannot even think clearly at times. So much is gone that what is left becomes very clear. What is left stands out against the emptiness of all that once was there.
He hangs on for every day, every hour, every minute he can have with his children.
He loves his whole large close family. His brother and sisters, their children and grandchildren. Cousins. He loves them all. He has done more than his fair share of taking care of many of them. But would he hold on just for them? I can’t know. Maybe, maybe he would; maybe it is just in his genes, in who he is. Maybe he would hold on even if he did not have children himself.
No one can know. But I choose to see in James the full nobility of a father’s love. Nothing that he has lost is as important as what he still has, as what he can still give – his presence to his children.
I don’t know if he has a lot or a little or any money to leave them. I don’t know if any bequests he can leave will last a short time or a long time. But this I know. He gives his children a forever gift with every day of his presence. As long as they live, to everyone they care about, his children will be able to say, “My dad chose to live when he had nothing left to live for except to spend more time – despite pain, despite humiliations, despite tiredness – more time with us.”
What a gift!