… how we don’t talk any more.
Not, to be honest, that we ever did. I come from a generation of “Big Boys Don’t Cry” and self- reliance and bottling up problems because they’re ours and and we can’t possibly show weakness by asking for help. That’s partly why suicide rates are so high among young men – they can’t answer the question “Who am I, really?” and asking for help would make them look feeble. My father’s generation was even worse. My father-in-law kept the illness that eventually killed him from most of his family until the last few hours of his life. I only found out that my own father had been diagnosed with dementia long after he had died.
That’s why the visit I made last Friday was both highly emotional and very uplifting. It was to a work colleague. I’ll call him Charlie, for reasons he will appreciate. Those who know him will realise who I’m talking about – for the rest of you his real identity doesn’t matter.
Three weeks ago Charlie was playing tennis. He got an ache in his leg which his doctor thought was a DVT. Sadly it was only a symptom of a much deeper and more serious problem. He has advanced pancreatic cancer which has spread to his liver. It is not susceptible to surgery or chemotherapy, either of which would only buy a few months more. Charlie has opted to receive only palliative care and has very little time left to him.
I knew nothing of this until last Thursday when he appeared on my chat contacts list after having been missing for some time. Of course I asked him where he’d been and the awful story emerged. I had been planning on going shopping for Alex’s Christmas present in Guildford the next day, but I went to see Charlie instead – a four hour train and ferry trip each way which is no mean feat when you’ve got your own terminal illness screwing up your lungs. But I’m glad I did, and for two reasons. The first and lesser is that if I hadn’t gone to see him before he dies I would beat myself up emotionally afterwards. The second was because of the long talk we had.
This had all come along so suddenly that I didn’t know what sort of meeting it would be. From the time I worked with him, I recall Charlie as a highly educated man with an agile mind, and that is the way I will continue to remember him once he has gone. But there is a natural human tendency to feel bitter and lash out and/or slump into a whining heap of self-pity when life kicks you in the balls like this, so I was prepared for it to be an emotionally difficult visit. It was, but for good reasons.
What I found was calm acceptance. Charlie is undeniably angry at what has happened, particularly as, at the age of 55, he had finally got most of the ducklings in a row and was making his plans to retire. But he was dealing with a situation that he couldn’t change by quietly and efficiently putting his affairs in order and making his peace with this world. (I was most moved by his determination that some good should come from his passing by placing money in a trust to fund a university place for a young member of his extended family. That will be a fitting memorial for him.)
We were able to have a long talk about what had happened, how he felt about it and how he will approach the inevitable end. I was struck by the stark comparison between this and a situation I must have seen a hundred times before. As some of you may know I worked as a volunteer in our local hospitals for many years. Out on the wards I’ve so often seen the scene – a patient with their visitor(s) – the patient knows they are going to die, the visitor(s) know it as well, but they are sitting there in embarrassed silence because they are emotionally incapable of addressing the elephant in the room. We need, as a society, to be more open with each other about dying. How many times have you heard someone bemoan that they didn’t tell a loved one something while they were still alive. “If only” is one of the saddest phrases in the English language.
We none of us know how we will approach our impending death. I only hope that I will have the grace and manners to do it in the same calm and rational way as Charlie. I did not want to say Goodbye to him because that is so final, but we both knew that this was almost certainly the last time we would meet.
To my friend when the time comes I would paraphrase the late, great Douglas Adams – “So long, and thanks for all the chilis!”.