Less Fun than Bees
I have a friend who is in the final stages of terminal cancer at the moment. She was one of my best friends in the last couple years of high school, but we fell out of touch and despite occasional second-hand news of one another, it stayed that way until I got my current job at the museum, where her older sister also works. Via her sister I heard about my friend's first bout with cancer, her remission, her marriage and kid-having, and then the recurrence of illness nearly two years ago and the ups and downs that have followed. She and I talked about getting together for coffee or something in these last couple years; we played a little phone/email tag, but never quite worked it out. Then a couple weeks ago they finally discontinued her chemo, and that, as they say, is that.
I'm not going to post here about my friend being a cool person (though she is) or how genuinely sad the prospect of her death at age 38 seems to me (very.) What I've been thinking about more has to do with the assumptions we make on a daily basis that affect how we go about dealing with serious shit like death. I think one of the reasons I'd not been hugely proactive about getting in touch with my friend over the years had to do with my assumption that we were Very Different People from who we'd been when we were friends at age 17. And therefore, what would we have to talk about? The people we all were in high school are long gone (or so we imagine--hell, so we hope, right? I was a wildly moody little cuss for 4 straight years, and I seem to recall everyone else being much the same.) Add into that the fact that dying young is pretty fucking horrible, and pretty well beyond my ability to wrap my brain around, and I assumed we really, REALLY would be strained for conversation. So I was worried/depressed about about the coffee.
My assumptions, as it turns out, were complete crap--I'm happy to report this. First off, we haven't actually changed all that much. She's married, with two kids; I'm a long-term bachelor who likes small children in smaller doses. She had a job with tremendous organizational responsibilities; I am lucky if I can remember to tie my shoes in the morning. But at the core, we're both smart, we both laugh at a lot of the same things, and we still (I hope!) like one another's company. I realize a lot of high school friendships generate heavy baggage which it's best not to unpack later in life... but probably one of the few plusses of our not having stayed in touch is that I really don't remember much of the stupid shit. I remember that there WAS stupid shit--and maybe I just have a terrible memory, but honestly the details are long gone, and I don't think it was more than just the usual dumb crap kids do and say when going through the exceedingly painful throes of teenagerdom.
The other assumption, that the fact of her impending death would make normal interaction impossible, was also mercifully crap. I've been lucky enough to get some time to visit with her in the last couple weeks, and while her illness is always present, it's not in charge of the conversation. Today I found out how she met her husband (I'd been wondering!) Last week we had discussion of where to find the best milkshakes in town. I can't think of a better way to spend some time with a friend, dying or not, than sitting around, catching up, and shooting the shit for a while. :)
So the long and the short is, if you're ever in a situation like this, DON'T BE AN ASS. Quit assuming you know how it'll go down before you even make a move. Call your friend, forget whatever that dumb high school shit was, and go bring them a damn milkshake and some conversation. You'll be glad you did.