The spectator sport of death

Death is not a spectator sport, I am told. Death, I suppose, is the one thing we most certainly do alone in the end, but the journey leading there is so much more bearable with your people stumbling alongside you.

Today I chatted to a gentle husband who has looked after his wife for two years while she has faded away from terminal brain cancer. I am always astonished at the wisdom of these people after walking such a treacherous road. We have now been entrusted with her care, but he is by her side all the time and her friends drift in and out for short visits, carrying her through these difficult last weeks. They also carry him, delicately helping him shoulder the burden of this huge loss and suffering. We shared our faith, and how we cling to these people put on our path.

He shared a beautiful analogy with me. He feels his wife’s transition now is like a bride walking down the aisle. We all know what is waiting for her at the end of the walk. It is something for which she is ready and for which she has been preparing for many months. As she walks gracefully, she looks right and left, greeting people on either side, knowing they showed up for her, and she is aware of their deep love and their support. These are her people – the community that has carried her and will continue to carry her husband when the time comes. It is her life’s work: relationships built and cherished. It is what matters in all the pivotal moments of life. It matters more now than ever.

Last week a guest, Daphne, who is also here for end-of-life care, let us know that she is excited about her visitors who would be arriving. We organised scones with strawberries and cream and awaited their arrival. Her four friends arrived. She has known them for 74 years. They all piled into her room and it sounded like there was a stand-up comedian in the room because there was so much laughter. I popped in after a few hours to ask how they were doing, fearing our guest might be tired. But Daphne asked for a second round of cappuccinos and shared some of their naughty high school stories with me.

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This in itself is a beautiful story, but what moved me was something else altogether. When Daphne arrived at the beginning of the year, she refused to see anyone apart from her own children. She would not take phone calls and certainly did not text anyone. There were many reasons for this. One reason was that she wanted her friends and family to be spared from seeing her suffer. End-of-life is such an untravelled path; so new to us all, and nobody gets to do it twice. Daphne thought this was a good thing, to spend her last bit of energy and time with just the inner circle of the ones she loves most. It makes sense doesn’t it? But as time went on and she made peace with the illness, she allowed a few visitors, a few close family members, then later some friends. Last week, it was almost a party! How things have changed. My heart was full when I saw the joy for them all… this wonderful gracious allowance to once again, celebrate their friendship.

I spoke to a South African a while ago who had just returned from Auckland, NZ after being there for over a decade. She has moved back to SA, family in tow. That certainly was not an impulsive move back home, so I asked her what the catalyst was for her coming back. Her answer resonated with me completely. She said she went for a dental appointment (you did not see that coming right?) She went to sit down next to another lady in the waiting room and started paging through a magazine. A few minutes later another woman walked in, and took a seat. After some time both other ladies discovered that they went to school together but had not seen each other in many years. A conversation ensued about “Do you remember?” and “Have you heard?” and “Can you believe?” The two were spreading out their histories and how they intertwined, almost like a complicated tree root system holding up a forest of friends and acquaintances of belonging.

She said a sadness so profound hit her that she walked out and never saw the dentist. In that waiting room she realised that it is simply impossible to make new “old friends”; to know people so intimately that they don’t take your nonsense, don’t believe the new image you have created and never ask for explanations. She so desperately missed that, that she came home and has never been happier.

I am so utterly grateful for every person in my life that I can call a friend. I cannot envision my life without their support, guidance and love.

In life, and in death, we should cherish our friendships and connections as much as we can.

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