My best friend from high school is dying of cancer. I’m not sure exactly what kind. On a recent visit I overheard the words “prostate,” “metastatic,” and “palliative care.” You know the kind of cancer you get better from? Tom’s cancer is the other kind.
Tom and I became friends in high school. We both preferred books to sports. We were both iconoclastic and disconnected. We were both the roundest of pegs. So we had a lot to talk about.
Tom introduced me to Evelyn Waugh whom I still read and Jack Kerouac who had fallen by the wayside.
A few marriages, fewer divorces, several children, and 50 years later, we are still friends. Our conversations are still punctuated by “unbelievable!” “unprecedented!” and “outrageous!” We have obtained some insight into why we didn’t go to the senior prom. We are still not completely clear on why anyone did.
The indignities of care—catheters, vomiting, slurred speech from pain meds—were obviated several hours each day giving us an opportunity to share a few laughs. We cuddled up on the couch and watched Kind Hearts and Coronets as we had half a century ago. (The film is as articulate as it is dark; no reason to wait until your best friend is dying to get together to watch Alec Guinness.)
Four days flew by, wasn’t nearly long enough. The best of the visit was telling stories about girls we were too shy to talk to in high school, wondering if they too were in their 60s, if they would take our calls now. The worst was when Tom insisted that I accept a gift that I had given him decades ago. “So you’ll think of me,” he said.
As if I could ever forget.
Tom was a wonderful sailor. He always had access to some creaky boat or other. Because we had more courage than brains, we would take turns pulling each other through Biscayne Bay on a frayed rope. At night. Through the bioluminescence—multitudinous glowing green sea creatures twinkling in the dark water. That we didn’t come to harm—smacking into something large and unseen, being eaten by a shark—was more a tribute to good luck than good sense. We were 17. What could possibly hurt us? Cancer wasn’t even a word in the textbooks that we certainly didn’t bring on the small sailboat.
What does looking through the 1973 Coral Gables Senior High yearbook and telling the same stories have to do with parenting? Only that at some point you have a legacy when you no longer have the ability to go to the bathroom on your own.
What will you talk about when your kids come to see you for those final golden visits? Remember the time you got an 81 in algebra? seems an unlikely topic. Whereas Remember the view of the valley from the top of that trail might be worth reliving.
You and I have both heard of kids who don’t visit dying relatives. What is that about? Too busy at work? Too far to travel? Too many appointments at the hairdresser? Would it be an oversimplification to suggest that kids who can’t bring themselves to visit are more likely to be the kids whose conversations growing up were about grades rather than hiking? Maybe those kids got the message: accomplishment, earnings, and attainment are more important than connection, conversation, and sitting by the bedside.
Because the days are long, but the years fly. Or as a songwriter said,
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well, mister they vanished right into the air.
Neither Tom nor I did well in math in high school, so the following equation might need some work.
Memories plus shared experience plus reciprocal affection equals legacy.
The best time to plant an oak tree is 50 years ago. The second best time is today. The best time to focus on your relationship with your beloved children is also today. (And please, dear readers, if you haven’t seen your primary care physician for a cancer screening in the past year, put down this blog post and make that call.) Because the only thing more unimaginably horrible than the debilitating slide into oblivion would be doing in by yourself.