I was coming out of anesthesia following a colon cancer operation, my family gathered around. A sister leaned in to inform me that “her dog had had what I had, and they had to put her to sleep. Without missing a beat, I looked up at my sister and replied, “Don’t ask why you don’t have my power of attorney.”
I’ve told that story for two decades, now, and love re-telling it, first, because it’s a funny story, and second, because re-telling it, here, makes it a little easier to segue into an elephant in the room kind of topic.
Friends have recently revealed that there has been a serious resurgence of cancer in the body of one of the partners. It is devastating news to receive at any time, but maybe a little more so during the Christmas- New Year holiday season. While not impossible, the probability of a happy ending is less than one would hope. They are facing the great specter of mortality. They know it and I know it, also.
Now comes the awkward part of the discussion. People don’t like facing mortality. We have a defensive habit of shying away from our friends when they are forced to to deal with the question because it reminds us of our own. We offer our immediate expressions of comfort and then want to disappear into the wallpaper. We say we don’t know what to say, we say we fear reminding those facing the problem in the here and now, that they are facing the problem (as if they could forget). In my own particular case, I recently found myself not sending an article I would have otherwise sent because I thought it would be too specific to their situation and I didn’t want them to think I was adding to their pain by referencing something adjacent to their difficulties.
There is, too, the sense of helplessness that is engendered, within us, when faced with others’ needs. We think, sub-consciously, I believe, that it is a fault within us that we can’t do more than just feel sorry, that we can’t heal their pain. All this, provides us with a rationale to back away, to be involved less and less with them as they travel their road, when they need us the most.
Nothing of this has to do with them; it’s all about our own fears and selfishness. We don’t want to deal; we don’t want to be reminded of our own vulnerabilities. I’ve seen this again and again during those terrifying days, in the gay community, when Aids threatened so many of our generation. We were there for the party, but disappeared (except for our Lesbian friends) when there was debris, after. If we didn’t see the debris, the pain, the confusion, the danger didn’t exist.
I am not going to let this happen in my friendship with John and Laureen. I am going to risk saying and doing stupid things, trusting in their understanding of my love for them. I am going to face my own fears and vulnerability through them as I try to be with them as they face theirs. This is what friends do. I will continue to try to be me with them and allow them to be themselves with me. I encourage their other friends to try this, as well. Who knows what miracle a unity of love will allow.