At the time of this writing, my good friend is dealing with a dire prognosis.
She is a brave woman, although she would be reluctant to call herself brave. When she first received the bad news about her health, she reacted like most of us would: first came shock, then denial. When she realized the inevitability of her prognosis, she hoped that inner strength might delay the outcome. We laughed together when she described a conversation with her doctor.
“My doctor asked how much I was sleeping during the day. When I said I slept most of the time, he predicted that I didn’t have much time left. He told me I should get my affairs in order. So yesterday, I made myself stay awake for most of the morning and the afternoon. That’ll show him!”
Don’t we all want control over an uncontrollable situation? And yet when we near the end of our lives, perhaps giving up control becomes synonymous with finding peace.
I’m not a philosopher, nor am I particularly wise, but I’ve lived with someone who accepted his fate almost the instant he received his diagnosis of stage four cancer. My late husband Bill died 10 years ago. He was a busy cardiac surgeon dealing with life and death almost daily and likely that was a factor in how he dealt with his own impending death. But Bill was quick to point out that it was his spirituality as a committed Jew that gave him a sense of peace as the end of his life drew near.
My friend recalls a remarkable dinner the four of us (she, her husband, Bill, and I) had about a year before Bill died. We joined our friends at a restaurant in Ancaster for what they assumed would be an uneventful night out. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to them to turn a social occasion into the revelation of Bill’s terminal diagnosis. Towards the end of our dinner, Bill matter-of-factly broke the news that he was dying. There was no mention of fighting the cancer and “winning the battle.” Bill hated the concept of winning and losing when it came to disease. He discussed his cancer in detail, making it clear that there was no chance he would be cured. In recent days, as my friend struggles with her illness, she often says she admires the strength Bill seemed to have.
I tell my friend that she is strong in so many ways. I’ve always admired her. She is warm and giving. She is a retired educator, an intellectually curious woman with a sharp, analytical mind. She is confident and well spoken. She doesn’t hold back when she thinks a wrong needs to be righted. She’s the person you want on your side when the going gets tough.
And now, the going is tough for her and her wonderful family. I want to do what I can to help her through this time, but I’m not her husband, nor one of her daughters, nor one of her cherished granddaughters. I’m just a friend. I wonder if she realizes how much she means to me.
My friend has written: “Our family is not only Jewish, but it has felt Jewish to its core.” I hope that, as with Bill, their Jewish identity translates into spirituality that can uplift, support, guide them, and as well, give them a sense of peace.
Phyllis's friend died shortly before publication of this issue of the HJN.
Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of four.