Recently, my friend’s mom was dying. I had no idea what to say or do.
Because I’ve been through it all — the hospital waiting rooms, diagnosis, ICU, oxygen machine, the relapses — I’d like to think I’d know exact right quip or quote. My friend would call and explain the situation: fluid behind his mom’s heart, repeated infections, a respirator. All signs pointed to a death process, yet I kept wanting to tell him she’d be okay, there’d be a miracle, it would all work out.
I’d get off the phone, disappointed in myself. I felt I was failing. Here I was in a position to offer my friend the type of frank, honest support I wish I’d gotten when my sister was dying, but instead I found myself repeating platitudes. Truth is, I was scared.
At the mention of hospitals, my mind goes spinning. I cross over, in my imagination, to that alternate reality — a place where Jell-O’s still popular and where death hangs in the air. I panic when I think of the slick sterile hallways, the soft serve machine in the cafeteria, the folding cots.
A hospital is not the same as the rest of the world. Health is not illness. Life is not death. The hospital is a place cordoned off, for people whose bodies have had some kind of malfunction. The people inside the hospital are closer to death than those of us outside.
Christopher Hitchens, with his inimitable wryness, relates his experience of diagnosis with Stage IV esophageal cancer as crossing over from the land of the healthy into the land of the ill:
The new land is quite welcoming in its own way… A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck. That’s how I discovered that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that one of these deformed beauties—located on my right clavicle, or collarbone—was big enough to be seen and felt… Many needles were sunk into my clavicle area—“Tissue is the issue” being a hot slogan in the local Tumorville tongue.
Hitchens passed away eighteen months later, and his collection of essays, Mortality, was published posthumously in 2012. He elaborates on the medicalized days in Tumorville:
For years, I found it absurdly easy to undergo routine blood tests. I would walk in, sit down, endure a brief squeeze from a tourniquet until a usable vein became available or accessible… Over time, however, this ceased to be one of the pleasurable highlights of the medicalized day. The phlebotomist would sit down, take my hand or wrist in his or her hand, and sigh. The welts of reddish and purple could already be seen, giving the arm a definitely ‘junkie’ look.
A hospital is not the same as the rest of the world. Health is not illness. Life is not death. In the land of the ill, we’re forced to consider what keeps us alive instead of dead in terms that are stark and literal. We find ourselves thinking not, “What should I have for breakfast?” but instead, “These veins carry the blood to my tissue and that’s why I’m sitting here any thoughts at all.”
At the time when my friend’s mom was dying, I’d built up “safe” barrier between my life and the land of the ill. I wasn’t sick, nobody I knew was dying, I hadn’t set foot in a hospital for years. I was quite enjoying the land of the well. In this land, we have more space to cultivate our desires, sense the texture of a day, dive into the chaos and ambiguity of a world moving at full tilt. The privilege to ignore the fact that many of our daily concerns are vain and frivolous.
There are people who say that we should at each moment consider the — indeed, very real — possibility that it could be our last. I disagree. Yes, life is precarious. Yes, everyone we know will die. No, we don’t know what it will be like, we haven’t ever spoken to someone who can give an account. In the land of the well I could ignore these questions, but my friend would call me and bring them all back, and I think I resented him for it; I feared his brush with death was somehow contagious.
Eventually I was able to quiet my own fears enough to be able to listen to him, offer empathy, be present. In retrospect I think that was actually enough. Sometimes it takes self control to not say certain things, like She’ll be okay! You’ll be okay! Don’t stress! Keep your chin up! Things that I want to hear and believe, but aren’t necessarily useful to the person facing the mystery of death.
There are wrong things to say, that’s for sure. But there’s no “right” thing. In retrospect, I cut myself a break for stumbling through, because of course we wish there were some quip or quote that could “help,” or change the situation. It takes a different kind of attention to to be able to bear witness to, via a friend, the terror and the infinity and alternate reality of the land of the ill.
MOLLY GANDOUR produced the Academy Award-nominated HBO doc “Gasland.” Her upcoming feature length documentary, “Peanut Gallery,” is about talking for the first time in depth with her parents about her sister’s death—sixteen years after the fact. It will be released this summer by Random Media. For more thoughts on grief and loss visit her blog. She lives in Brooklyn.