“I was riding Metro on Thursday evening and I recalled accidentally meeting him on a train about once or twice a year. Then my mind started thinking about the times we went to Nationals or GW basketball games on Metro….I probably got a little misty, if anyone was looking my direction on the train.”
“I cried a bit in the corner of my classroom.”
These emails from a couple of friends describe how we have been mourning the loss of one of our own generation. We all met as young adults, still adolescents, in college. We were all close to him, although we aren’t necessarily close with one another. But our friend, who died way too soon earlier this year, bound us together again when we heard about his sudden illness.
We all met as young adults, still adolescents, in college. We were all close to him, although we aren’t necessarily close with one another. But our friend, who died way too soon earlier this year, bound us together when we heard about his sudden illness.
Together, we worry for his wife—who long ago become a close friend as well—as she handles this tragedy with a grace I could never hope to come close to. As my brother said, “who ever thinks their spouse will die at age 50?” With her, we grieve for their children, for whom she feels worse than herself. “Poor chicks,” she texted me a couple of days before her husband died. She had just taken them to say good-bye to their father.
As my brother said, “who ever thinks their spouse will die at age 50?” With her, we grieve for their children, for whom she feels worse than herself. “Poor chicks,” she texted me a couple of days before her husband died. She had just taken them to say good-bye to their father.
Some Deaths Are Harder to Process
It’s not like we haven’t dealt with death. Most of us have buried a parent. Nor was this death unexpected; our friend had been struck down six months earlier by a stroke caused by a brain tumor and had been in hospice care. We all visited, although not all of us lived nearby and had to take trains and planes to see him.
Nor was this death unexpected; our friend had been struck down six months earlier by a stroke caused by a brain tumor and had been in hospice care. We all visited, although not all of us lived nearby and had to take trains and planes to see him.
I’ve grieved after hearing about the deaths of friends and acquaintances I’ve known. I witnessed the worst kind of loss and grief when the young child of another friend died suddenly at age two.
No one your age should be dealing with the death of a friend, another friend told me when we spoke over the phone.
This death is so different for us to process. He was a close friend our own age who we loved, even if time and distance made contact irregular. Many of us have families, children who understandably distract us; my mother died from Alzheimer’s, another friend’s father had Parkinson’s. My deceased friend and his wife have a child with Asperger’s. I was laid off from two jobs during the Great Recession and retreated into myself for a few years. Everyone carries some kind of burden, good and bad, that takes up a lot of our energy.
It started in the fall when he had a stroke. I got an email about it. It turned out it be a brain tumor. I instantly worried it was a glioblastoma; another friend’s husband had died from this a couple of years earlier while still in his 40s. So had my father’s best friend. A glioblastoma took Sen. Ted Kennedy’s life. These tumors work fast. Few patients survive beyond a year.
My worst fears were correct. My friend, who had just turned 50, did have a glioblastoma. This is the most aggressive form of brain cancer and the most difficult to treat. Glioblastomas grow from a mix of different cell types and are “highly malignant,” according to the American Brain Tumor Association. They quickly spread into other regions of the brain, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove the entire tumor.
He had two surgeries, followed by radiation therapy. Nothing appeared to work. Still, he continued treatment because, as his wife recognized, he wasn’t ready to give up. “I really don’t think it’s helping,” she told me shortly before the doctors delivered the news that the treatments were useless. The best care he could get would be palliative. He was moved into a hospice unit, in a facility known for its excellent care and near his home.
I visited him and his family several weeks before he died. I have no doubt he knew what was going on. “Here for life, for life,” he cried to me.
Brain Tumors Aren’t the Same as Head Injuries
Brain tumors are weird. I expected my friend would function like a head injury patient but in many ways, he didn’t. The tumor and stroke didn’t affect his intellect or memory and not even his behavior all that much.
They did, understandably, wreak havoc on his moods. He was on an antidepressant, as far as I know for the first time in his life. A friend who visited him warned me to keep my hair pulled back; he had suddenly and inexplicably grabbed hers over lunch. It took two people to release his grip. And yet he was obviously glad to see her.Like many seriously ill patients, he frequently fell asleep for short periods of time.
A friend who visited him warned me to keep my hair pulled back; he had suddenly and inexplicably grabbed hers over lunch. It took two people to release his grip. And yet he was obviously glad to see her.Like many seriously ill patients, he frequently fell asleep for short periods of time.
Much of his physical functioning was destroyed. He was paralyzed on one side—cruelly, the left side of a famously (among friends) left-handed guy.
But while he struggled to speak, I understood almost everything he communicated. “Ruth Ann’s valuable,” he commented, looking at photos of my son. I reminded him about when he, his wife and their then-toddler daughter visited me the night my son was born and his eyes grew brighter at the memory.
“Second Tiananmen Square,” he said the next day as I paused from reading an article to him about North Korea. (Tell me that isn’t insightful thinking.)
I brought my laptop with me and played our favorite Springsteen tunes. He sang a couple of lines from Philadelphia, nearly pitch-perfect.
He remained physically strong almost to the very end, something many friends commented on. Several times during my visit, he rose from his wheelchair—we rushed to keep him steady on his paralyzed side—to hug his friends and his wife. It wasn’t as bone-crushing as the hugs I used to be a little wary of, but it was strong and we all felt his affection.
A few days before he died a friend who’d visited and sang as he lay in his bed, too weak to move, called me. “I don’t think he has much longer now,” she said.
Websites and Social Media Help Maintain Contact with Others and Arrange for Help
I used Caring Bridge to provide updates about my mother. I found it was as helpful to me as it was to our friends who wanted to remain in contact without making me return calls and emails during a stressful and sad time.
Local friends established an account on Helping Hands, a site for people who want to help families of dying patients. It lets people schedule visits and volunteer time to help with things like meals, driving the kids to various activities, and grocery shopping. It emailed out special requests and critical updates.
His wife sent out an email through the site the day after my friend sang to him. “He is nearing the end of his life.” She asked people to volunteer to sit with him before and after he died, following Jewish tradition to never leave a deceased person alone before burial.
“My heart is broken,” I wrote on Facebook the day he died.
I’m so sorry for your loss, a friend here in Arizona responded two minutes later. At the time, she was battling cancer herself and gave us updates on Facebook and group texts when she wasn’t exhausted from chemotherapy.
Facebook is how our middle-aged generation keeps in touch with friends who’ve dispersed across the nation and the world. It’s how we see how the kids grow up. It’s also how those who have lost a parent or grandparent can post the news. Friends who are near the bereaved can read when shivah is observed, when there will be a wake, funeral arrangements, and later, where to send donations in memory of the deceased.
I emailed my brothers who knew my friend from frequent visits over the years when he and I lived in the same city. “My condolences to his family and to you. I know for you he was like family,” one emailed back.
Eulogize a Friend in Public and Private
I wrote a eulogy. I didn’t know if I’d be asked to deliver one but there were things I needed to get down and record.
The weather didn’t cooperate; it was March and an ice storm hit the East Coast. There were no flights to take me to his funeral. I emailed the eulogy to a mutual friend, who urged me to send it to his wife. “I emailed this to the rabbi,” she emailed back. “I believe he will read some of it or incorporate parts of it during the service.” He did read it, in full. I am grateful.
I didn’t write much about his illness. Instead, I thanked all those people who helped his family and who visited him. I told his children that all that help and love were a tribute to their parents, who’d set a shining example of how to be a person easy to love and admire. And I reminded people about what a kind, funny, and really, really smart guy he was.
A Harvard Law graduate, he chose to work for the EPA rather than Wall Street. “He was polite,” I wrote, “he was considerate, without being a prude or anything. I really can’t think of anything negative I ever heard about him. No one rolled their eyes when his name came up, no one did anything but smile.”
“Let’s remember the huge plastic sneaker he inexplicably kept in his bachelor apartment living room, and his champion Whack-a-Mole moves,” I wrote. His description of the Bill Buckner error that led to the Mets winning the 1986 World Series was hilarious and legendary. Garrison Keillor has nothing on this guy.
“A life without him is a diminished one but he gave us a lot of wonderful memories that I cherish. I want to smile when I think about him and I’m sure he wants all of us to. So we should.
“Remember the man who loved strawberry daiquiris and happily ate quiche, who was always up for brunch, who embraced the Washington Nationals, who loved his family and his friends so much, and above all, lived a life of love and laughter. Nothing can be better than that.”
It’s my own advice and I work hard to remember it every day, and not just when his image pops into my head and I start to tear up. I try to follow it every time I find myself brooding about things I can’t control. Sometimes the best and hardest advice to follow comes from within us. But then I do think about how he made me laugh and the fun we had together at movies, at the beach, at Thanksgiving dinners and Halloween bar-hops some 25 years ago, and I can’t help but smile.