Facing a terminal diagnosis is heroic, no matter how a person chooses to react.
But in the end, dying heroically is still dying.
Some people respond to a terminal diagnosis by doing something unbelievably difficult – accomplishing some spectacular feat of physical endurance or creating a final artistic magnum opus. I admire them. They will leave an extraordinary legacy of courage that inspires those who never knew them, and comforts those who did.
But I simultaneously want to acknowledge those who react to a terminal diagnosis quietly and privately, and face the inevitable for what it is – inevitable. Because even if some miraculous force of will or faith or lifestyle change pulls a person back from the brink to health and longer life, still, in the end, they have not cheated death – simply delayed it.
If you don’t believe that grief and humor can intersect, don’t click on the link below (and don’t let little kids watch it). But if you can tolerate a spot of dark humor, here’s a little ditty my eldest brother composed for the theater company he works with (the show this song preceded was called “Serial Killers” because the audience got to vote on which short play it wanted to see serialized, with the next episode performed the next week, and which would not return). This song was actually written for Halloween, but in it’s way it makes a point about the inevitable:
My late husband Mike wouldn’t read the books I got him about food as medicine or meditation as a way to combat cancer. He didn’t want the little Zen painting kit I got him, thinking it would provide calming distraction from chemo and pain. He didn’t decide to spend his last ounces of energy biking across the country (which he had wanted to do when we first met) or touring the world to see spectacular places he hadn’t had the chance to visit.
He decided to stay home, with us. He calmly and bemusedly tolerated my lapse into temporary insanity, my mad and desperate decision to remodel the kitchen and finish the basement and replace the windows and rebuild the fence and the deck while ridiculously falling in love with the man in charge of the whole project, as if improving our home would help him live longer in it and as if falling in love again would give me a some kind of do-over – make me younger and less inevitably widowed.
Mike used his last ounce of strength to hold our daughter’s hand and say to her, “Remember, Dad’s love never ends.”
This from a stay-at-home-Dad, two days before he died, facing the excruciating pain of having to leave behind the exceptional, non-neurotypical child he had raised from infancy to the threshold of adulthood.
That was heroic.
And we will, and we do, remember.
If you have lost a loved one who had chosen to face a terminal diagnosis privately, accepting the inevitable calmly and with quiet dignity, or who received that diagnosis beyond the time they would have had the physical or mental strength to choose any other way, I’m sure you understand, and I want to acknowledge, their courage.
Mike said something else to me that has helped me cope.
When I asked him if he wanted both of us to be with him when it happened, he said it didn’t matter.
He said, “everyone dies alone.”
He was right. Even if a person departs “surrounded by their loved ones,” the final trip is always a solo flight.
We had a deal – he promised to “call me when you get there” – based on past experiences of hearing from departed loved ones, in unusual but unmistakable ways, in the two or three days immediately following their passing. Messages in music, or in electronics behaving strangely, or in the appearance of symbolic animals, or through experiences of visitation.
He kept his promise. He called when he got there. He did his best to let me know he made it, that he “arrived to his destination,” and that he was free and at peace.
That was heroic, too.
When grief washes over me, or bursts unexpectedly inside my chest, I try to remember those little messages he has sent and continues to send, and maintain faith in eventual reunion, when my time comes.
Which it will (“but not yet, not yet…”), even if, between now and then, I manage to write a bestseller, survive another Polar Vortex or achieve EGOT (win an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and an Oscar).
Wishing you the comfort of happy memories in the face of loss, and confidence in eventual reunion, I remain,