Last week I visited with a friend, C, who is dealing with an aggressive form of cancer. Despite her baldness, pallor, and loss of muscle tone, she looked beautiful, even radiant, and I commented on this. "I'm on an intense, scary journey," she told me. "I'm on disability, I get a free pass from ordinary life, and my whole job is to take care of myself and to confront issues like the meaning of life and death. I wouldn't have chosen it, but it is a tremendous opportunity, and I'm completely engaged in it." She went on to say that her husband and son were the ones I should be concerned about, because they were picking up the slack now and will miss her if the treatments don't work.
C is a positive, spiritually profound person and has been for all the years I have known her. This isn't some illness epiphany; it is her spirit manifesting in everything she does and says, as always. I know that in her place I would not be so brave or selfless, and I would never expect anyone else to adopt her attitude.
Still, her words resonated deeply later in the week when we got word that a mutual friend, A, had died. He and his wife, B, had moved out of the city about 10 years ago because B's degenerative illness had progressed to the point where she required assisted living.
Bill, Ben, and I visited B and A about a year after they moved. They were in a friendly, supportive community, but it was clear that they both felt a little lost. In addition, the dementia associated with B's illness was more pronounced in this unfamiliar setting, stressing both of them.
A continued to visit New York once or twice a year, at first with B and then, when she was unable to travel, leaving her in the facility's nursing home while he was gone. Eventually B had to move into the nursing home permanently, as A could no longer care for her even with part time help. Except when he was on one of his pilgrimages home, A would spend most of every day sitting with B, talking, reading to her, and just sharing the day. As she gradually lost movement and the ability to recognize new faces or recall recent events, she became increasingly dependent on him, and agitated when she didn't know where he was, so his movements became increasingly restricted.
I met A, B, and C at the Quaker Meeting where we were all members. Serious illness seems to have deepened C's faith. In recent years, A found himself unable to reconcile the idea of a merciful god with all of the seemingly senseless suffering he witnessed and experienced. I have no idea what, if anything, B believes these days, and if I'm honest, I'm not sure what i believe, either.
I am haunted by the thought of B in her bed in the nursing home, surrounded by people she believes are strangers, agitated and inconsolable because she can't find A. I think about C's husband and son, struggling to accept the possibility of losing her. I always wish my loved ones long and happy lives, but these days I'm adding the selfish caveat that they all be a little longer than mine.