Friday, January 21, 2011

What If You ...

What if you only had two months to live? How would you feel and what would you do with that time?

If you are a 40-something patient at one of the most respected hospitals in the country and the doctors tell you the cancer is back, it has spread to several places in your body, there is nothing they can to fix it and you will die within months, possibly as few as two, would you be in denial? Would you pin them down for a more precise estimate? Would you ask if the pain you're in now will get worse during that time? Would you ask if you can go home or travel or have visitors? Would you pray? Would you call hospice?

This is actually a current situation with someone I know, a friend of a friend. For privacy reasons I'll call the friend M and the patient D. D is M's best friend; they talk by phone for hours every day, as women often do. Even though they had a falling out at one point, they have been good friends for many years. M helped D through periods of surgery and chemo a few years ago. D knew there was always a chance the cancer could return but she hoped it wouldn't and she maintained a fairly healthy lifestyle to hedge her bet. But the excruciating back pain of the past couple of weeks turned out to be her worst nightmare. Today she got the official diagnosis.

D, of course, is distraught and angry. M is devastated and showing concern and emotion I have rarely seen from her. As I write this, I can only guess how D is feeling, but I know exactly how M feels because she sent me this note:

This is so depressing. They said she had, maybe, two months. Jeez. You know she's about 8 years younger than I am. I have never had a close friend die. I feel like I'm walking around in someone else's body, doing things, and just watching my hands do things. I look out over my nose, but it isn't my nose, it is just there, cast in stone. I can see my eyelashes, but they aren't mine. I can't even put makeup on, because I'll just cry it off. I can't think. And most amazingly, I can't eat. I just want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head, and hope it was all a very bad dream.

How would you feel?

I think I know how I would feel. I am sometimes so blindly optimistic that my first twenty questions would be versions of: how do we fix this because I am just not ready to die?! When they finally convinced me that there is no fix, then I would want a timeline. If I could survive on my own for at least a few weeks I would cash in my savings and book a trip to New Orleans, Asheville, Milwaukee, Kona and London, cities where the most important non-local people in my life live. If I couldn't travel, I would book trips for all of them to come see me.

It is easy for me to say all of this because I am not in that position. But the older I get, the more death I see and the more I think about my own mortality. I want to say I live for today, but I'm still learning how to do that. I am a history buff and a futurist; my present is often fuzzy.

However, the present is all we have, isn't it? Our future is the sum of moments in the present. We can and should plan for a long, healthy future but we should also live as if today was the last one. For some people it is.

1 comment:

Linda V. said...

This just happened to me, when my sister-in-law was told there was nothing more they could do for her. After a 10-year fight, to be told this is the end, can not be prepared for, or accepted right away. It was just 2 weeks later that she passed away. Tell M that just being there for D is more than enough. Tell her to ask D what she wants to do, and if feasible, make it happen. Help her set her affairs in order. Be strong for D. Because knowing she did everything she could to help, will give M comfort at the end.