Just before Christmas my wife and I received some out-of-the-blue news from a friend. The lady concerned is not what we would regard as a close friend, but she's a simple (and by that I don't mean lacking in intelligence), troubled soul who lives alone and very self-sufficiently. Despite what seems to have been a difficult journey, she has made a pleasant life for herself. Until recently. Some months ago she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and she has kept the news to herself for the intervening period (indeed, she had dropped off the map to some degree, but we respect her wishes and hadn't prodded or poked her) before deciding to let her friends know last week.
To hear that she's been told to prepare for death was the kind of news that stops the day. The effect upon me was of course, in comparison to her situation, extremely minor and in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. For her, the situation is - in more ways than one - life-changing, and I have been thinking long and hard about how it must be for her. It's hard to imagine facing the finality of impending death, and I must admit to that knowledge being one of my personal dreads: I know I must eventually die, but I don't want to die before I'm a very old man, and I don't want to know when it's likely to happen. Hearing this news, I found myself completely unpreparaed about how to react.
Liz (not her real name) is the kind of person we see only occasionally; she's wary of men in general and so I usually try to shrink a little bit and try not to look intimidating (as I am told I tend to do) while remaining open and friendly. LIz is a fun person while not being gregarious: at times she dresses in clothes that raise the eyebrows, she indulges her love of dogs by routinely being surrounded by her own pack (which rather cheekily thumbs a nose at the local bye-law which prohibits more than three dogs per household), and she has a circle of friends who appreciate, like and love her for who she is. In short, she is an open book, and what you see is what you get. Liz sometimes takes a little time to warm up, but once she starts smiling or laughing, it takes her a long time to stop. It's difficult not to like her (not that I've tried).
To hear, then, from someone such as this that she expects to die in the not too distant future, brings to a halt all the pleasantly burbling, happy thoughts of her that I usually associate with her name. The fun, the laughter, the natural generosity which characterize her in my mind, are all suddenly swept from the table and replaced by sadness. Sadness about her situation; pity (if I'm blunt, and I'm not so sure that 'pity' is really a dirty word) for her inevitable sense of shock and loss, fear for what she faces in the near future and - again, being horribly honest with myself - a sudden fear that this really can happen to anybody, including me.
Faced with thoughts such as this - not all of which I am proud of - I thought about how best to be a friend for her. I thought about how to contact her with my best wishes, how to not subconsciously express my own selfish feelings about her situation, how not to make plain my own ill-informed assumptions - all of which might themselves cause pain or discomfort, sadness or fear. I am familiar with dealing with death - but (my father aside) usually that of strangers. I'm not used to someone telling me that they are dying, and it's given me pause for thought. I don't know what's the most appropriate thing to say.
For a while I felt that if I was struggling to say what I felt was the best thing, I would say nothing. But then, not so very long ago, I came to my senses. I owe my friend more than that. We have not shared a great deal in the comparatively short time we have known one another, but what we have shared has been characterized by smiles and laughter. Liz is a good person. She deserves more than my pathetic floundering - my speechlessness does her no honour and belittles my own existence. So I've written to her, just being me and not trying to 'be' anyone or anything else. I hope that is what she would wish for. I don't know how she will receive what I've said (I have used some of my old hypnotherapy and NLP training to try to plant some very positive suggestions in her subconscious), but I know that she deserves the best that I can offer her.
I haven't tried to be inspirational or even overly sympathetic; in contrast my aim has been to rally her fighting, stubborn, bloody-mindedness which comes to the surface when faced with a challenge. She has made a success of her life and has become used to making things work. She doesn't yet know - for we have not been close - that she can rely on me if she needs to, but I know that she can. In whatever capacity, I hope to be able to help her.
I'll stay in touch with her if it is what she wishes; if not she will have no difficulty saying so, and I'll respect and understand that. What's important, I hope to her as much as it has become to me, is that I am trying (without trying too hard or forcing 'help' upon her), which is, I think, the meat 'n potatoes of being a real friend.
When we come towards the end of our lives, the stuff we have accumulated means nothing, but the people in our lives mean everything, and the way in which we deal with the deaths of those people whose lives have touched our own can be as important for ourselves as for those whom we reach out to. Liz doesn't know it - and there's no reason why she would think of her situation in this way - but even now she is teaching me about life and living.