“Hope this email finds you, well…”

Two Sakya-pa Patriarchs Tibet, 15th century, @ mfaboston

One of the many things they don’t teach you in adulting school is how to write an email to an old mentor who’s been forced to retire because: stage 4 cancer. You know?

By your fifties the cancer scenarios just multiply exponentially (almost like cancer itself).

I’ve been witness, as have we all, to a number of end-of-life experiences, and each is unique, mysterious, and profound. Some have been wondrous, others peaceful. Some have been like watching someone drown, thrashing and gulping for life. Some like a stone sinking into a stream in silence. 

Each required something different of me as well. A loving witness, playful (yes, playful) traveling companion, confessor, forgiver for sins long-forgotten by anyone but the sinner. Father, brother, son, lover, student, stranger, guide. These moments and these roles have all scared me shitless.  

I was working with this particular person when they announced their diagnosis, and I had what I would still call, years later, a totally inappropriate, unacceptable reaction: I was angry. And, unthinkably, I lashed out at this person, who was just given a death sentence, and had just had the terrible task of telling their team.

It was a very 1980s After School Special reaction on my part, and while we met later and discussed it, I was too embarrassed to tell them it was about me. About me having a lapse in my ability to deal civilly with the relentless loss that is just a part of life. And it has hung there ever since, between us, that moment of savage, rageful intimacy. The burden to forgive me for it I laid on them at a moment they were buckling under the weight of their own terrible news.

I still can’t speak about it with them, because it wasn’t really about them. And to do so would only selfishly center me again. All has been wordlessly, graciously forgiven, but I can’t forget it. It’s there, like… well, a tumor, this dark un-take-backable moment that can’t be excised. 

We have kept in touch, maintaining a kind and gentle post-relationship, but it feels, like a number of relationships with friends and relatives in declining health, almost pre-. The fear that every conversation is a goodbye with a full-stop, the selfish waiting for the awkwardness to end, the putting off that coffee for fear it will be our last. The not knowing what to say, and not remembering that it’s ok to not know what to say, that what is called for is simple, in most cases: to be present. To be in living, loving relationship with the living.  

So the email. It’s literally the least I can do. It’s the smallest possible gesture. But that line between formality and raw authenticity is a constant and painful negotiation. I know I’m overthinking it, and am asking you to indulge me. I’ll do the thing. But I’m dragging my feet. 

I remember – I can’t forget it – my last conversation with a young friend, 34 when he died after nearly a decade of recurring glioblastoma, when I told him a song, Rod Stewart’s “You’re in my Heart,” always reminded me of him. 

He burst out in disdainful laughter. 

I deserved it. It wasn’t “our song.” It certainly wasn’t “his song.” We had never discussed it. He wasn’t even alive in 1977 when it was in all the jukeboxes in all the pizza joints after all the little league games. To him, Rod Stewart was just the cheesy old punter with the raspy voice and syruppy MTV-era ballads his grandmother still listened to. 

I was overthinking it. I felt the pressure to leave him with something. Why it was a schmaltzy ballad I still can’t say. Maybe feeling the weight of the moment I wanted to provoke his famous disdain. Maybe I needed to hear that wicked laughter one last time. 

But that’s the moment I left him with, the moment I’m left with. I know it’s stupid in the wide scheme of things, it doesn’t matter, but every once in a while I remember it, and I cringe. 

But then there’s the bucket list trip to LA to visit a famous Hollywood dog I took with my aunt, who had gotten that last, terminal diagnosis, too, and watching her riding Inkie’s Scrambler at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, with one of the famous dog-trainer’s daughters (whom we did not kidnap, although, to be honest, I would not have put it past my aunt at that point), and my aunt giving me a sad little wave each time the ride swung them around my way – and that – that – was perfect. That moment in time, in life. It was everything in one moment in time.

I was Virgil to my dad’s Dante all those years ago, when he was dying from his cancer, and I can still relive that final moment of mutual wonder at the edge of the Lethe together. But that gave a much younger me the illusion that all end-of-life journeys are that insanely mythic, that your role in someone’s life is always that weirdly obvious, that the symbolism always clicks, that all the things that need to be said get said.

When the truth is: whatever gets said gets said. And that’s ok, too.

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