Anyone who’s reached my age of 73 has no doubt had friends or family or professional colleagues or neighbors or acquaintances who battled cancer — some successfully, in the sense that they’ve had long remissions, some less so or not at all. Some of those struggles in later stages involve hospice care.
Hospice, in most of our minds, introduces the “D” word — the battle has entered a new phase called “comfort care”, which is a prelude to death. I’m curious about who throws that word out loud into a circle of a common consciousness.
Friends that I met in my first residence here in Seattle are battling cancer. He has it, she supports him. Both have written updates on a website called Caring Bridge, which is designed to keep people informed so the two at the center of a cancer battle are not deluged with “what’s going on?” emails. Early on, both of them wrote for the site. These days, she is. She wrote to announce the end of treatment and the beginning of hospice, and right out there said, “Hospice makes people think of death.”
I’m glad the word is out there. It wasn’t mine to say, only theirs. Now it’s been said.
Some years ago I lost a dear friend, and the last time I visited her in the east coast assisted living facility where she returned between hospital stays, she surprised me by greeting me in the lobby. Normally she’d have been in her room, in bed or in a reclining chair. I must have looked surprised, because as she embraced me she said softly, “I’m not dying yet.” If I had responded with the words that came to mind — “But you are dying” — I would have lost it then and there, right in the anodyne lobby filled with green plants and soft music and innocuous art. I chose not to engage with the “D word”, smiling back and saying something lighthearted like “I’m glad to hear it”. She held on to me tightly as we began the slow walk back to her room, revealing without words the effort coming to meet me had taken.
I sidestepped her invitation to talk about what we both knew was coming, probably in a matter of weeks. Shortly thereafter, intense pain that was hard to manage even with heavy doses of morphine overtook her ability to have that conversation. She could only talk about the pain, and needing more help to make the pain stop.
I’m glad my friend here in Seattle put the D word out there, as a signal that they are open to talking about death. I think death is easier when talked about, although I have no special skill in doing so. Indeed with all the sudden death in my life, I’m probably worse than most.
Like the merry-go-round at Asbury Park that tempted my much younger self to grab for the brass ring, life brings us back around. The D word is out there, waiting.