The other day a friend and I went to visit another friend who was recently told by his doctors that death is imminent. As in just a few months. Our friend’s health has been fragile since he received a transplant heart almost twenty years ago. But for most of that time he and his wife have been able to travel and enjoy the company of friends, family and good food and wine.
For someone who’s been through so much, health-wise, this recent advanced cancer diagnosis is a double insult. But there’s no arguing with it. It’s there. He’s got it. That’s it. Wary of a flood of people coming around to make “final visit” calls, though, our friend has chosen to tell just a few people about his condition.
I’ll admit that I was wary of visiting. I didn't want to be one of those people making last visit calls. I know enough to have an idea of what I shouldn't say on such occasions. But beyond that I still worried that I’d fall inadvertently into some maudlin trap that would depress rather than lift the spirits of our friend.
So it was with some caution that I approached this visit. Both of us did. I remembered from my father's last weeks that many people who've been strong and independent in their lives don't like to have people see them when they aren't able to command the room like they used to. We didn’t know whether we’d find our friend in bed or in a wheelchair, breathing strongly or grasping for air.
The visit started on a good note. Our friend greeted us at the door with hugs. I'm pretty sure neither of us had ever been hugged by this man before. He was never the huggy type. But these were grateful, sincere hugs. We were immediately at ease.
Being more foresighted than me, the friend who accompanied me on this visit thought it might be interesting to challenge our friend to think about some issues we've been facing at a nonprofit in which we're involved. A dynamic business leader in his day, our friend has devoted the latter years of his life to civic and philanthropic affairs. He’s the kind of person who’s at his best when faced with a challenge to work on.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it. But I believe this turned out to be the greatest gift we could have given our friend. Instead of talking about his condition, an inevitably gloomy discussion for someone who’s living the condition 24/7, the conversation quickly moved to issues to which our friend could apply his considerable intellect. He's always been outspoken and intolerant of mediocrity. This used to lead some people to consider him arrogant. But those of us who’ve known him for a long time know this is the kind of resentment you can get when your ideas are insightful, honest and clear.
He didn't disappoint us on the day of our visit. He'd not only thought about our challenges, but come up with a list of terrific ideas and solutions, quickly cutting through our excuses and BS with a clarity perhaps unique to someone who doesn’t have time to spare nor feelings to coddle. He’d even created a graphic identity for our initiative that in just a few words and strokes of a pen cut through years of indecisiveness and wordsmithing on our part.
I have to tell you, as a person who enjoys being around people whose thinking keeps me on my toes, it was an exciting conversation. I don’t know who was having more fun. I know I went hoping to give him something. But I’m not so sure he didn’t give us more.
Instead of the visit being brief and maudlin, it lasted for over two hours and was full of energy. At the end, our friend was tired. But rather than be drained by the rigors of strong medicine, he was fatigued with the satisfaction of accomplishment.
When you're facing the end, people can be so solicitous. They want to show their love and respect. But I’m also pretty sure that if you’re the person who’s time is short, the last thing you want is people gathered around you talking about your health. When my time comes I hope someone will give me the opportunity to exercise those parts of my mind that give me not only the greatest intellectual stimulation and satisfaction, but also the greatest distraction from my physical condition.