What happens when you find out a loved one is dying
“I will call shortly”
The time stamp was for 4:24 p.m. on a Thursday. There was no punctuation. Dad has never been one to waste words; he’s a lawyer and an engineer, two professions that pride themselves on their succinctness. Still, I knew what his text meant, or I had an idea. In the twenty-first century, people don’t call to give good news.
I sat at a café in Manhattan, thousands of miles away from my family. Everyone around me sipped on their coffees around me. I was acutely aware of a few things: my feet hurt from too-high heels, I was cold, and I wanted a mug to occupy my hands so they wouldn’t shake.
My phone rang, obvious and shrill. It was my parents. There’s something to sharing tragedy in groups; after all, very few plays are monologues. Perhaps there’s catharsis in collectivity. At the very least, multiple messengers make them harder to shoot.
“Hey Princesa, how are you?” For having struggled through a day of tests, Dad seemed relatively chipper. In fact, he hadn’t sounded so peaceful in a while.
“I’m alright, just waiting for a friend for coffee. What did the doctors say?”
A pause, some stuttering, and the admission.
“The cancer’s spread, and they’ve decided that no conventional method of treatment — chemo, surgery, radiation — will help.” Mom and Dad split the words between them like they had joint custody.
“Oh.” I caught my breath. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s life.”
And I believed him. Part of life is death, withering away at the whim of mortality. Still, I don’t know if it’s possible to prepare yourself for a voice slithering over the receiver, foreshadowing the loss of a loved one. Our conversation was too hollow, and there were no arms to fall into while the tears washed down. So I didn’t cry. Instead, I said “goodbye” and “I love you” before ordering a green tea.
“Goodbye” is a strange word. It implies the sort of finality that excuses a future. There’s a reason why I often ramble off a “see you later,” or “goodnight,” or “sweet dreams” on the way out a door. Even if I never intend to see the person again, I want them to have the opportunity to exit and re-enter my life whenever they please. But with death, there is a final “goodbye” wafting in the air, promising pain.
My father seems to be dealing with his terminal cancer rather well. He’s been told he has six months to a year left. I can’t remember what all I’ve done in the past six months, but I’m sure that it hasn’t been enough to make up for 19 years of wasting time, worrying about the wrong things. I wonder how he feels after 53 years of taking care of his siblings, and me, and cats and dogs, and rarely himself.
I’d like to think that if I were dying, I’d do something remarkable with my last moments. I’d travel the world. I’d help somebody. I’d make people feel better about themselves through the smallest acts that added up so that if there were a heaven, I’d be guaranteed entry. But in reality, I know I’d do none of that.
I’d run. I’d run like Forrest Gump, faster and farther until my legs collapsed and my heart gave up. I’d run from that final “goodbye” with all of the energy I could manage. Accepting death is no great feat; we all die eventually. But the “goodbye” might just kill me.
I’d have to leave behind the way a square of dark Godiva chocolate with sea salt slides down my tongue and reminds me of lazy days. I’d look outside my window to see fluffy clouds like cotton candy at a carnival, and I’d think of children and smile. I’d wave to Klimt paintings at the MOMA and walk along Riverside Park. I’d recall the slide I swooshed down as a toddler, and I’d imagine the ocean, blue, sparkling, every second until my last.
But the most difficult goodbye wouldn’t be the things or the places, but the people. I would miss my loved ones so much — my best friends who made me who I am, my idols who raised me. I wouldn’t want to let them go, and I’d keep running faster and farther to evade the ultimate release.
My father is so brave. I can’t see his face from across the country, but I can hear in his voice that he has never loved so much, and I’m proud of him for being here — right here — while he can be. He’s not fighting or flying. He’s like Achilles, accepting his fate with integrity and enjoying the time he has.
I’m less accepting; in fact, I haven’t accepted the diagnosis at all. But I have learned something over the past few days of hiding and ignoring, pretending not to feel. We’re all so lucky to be here. We’re so lucky, and we’re even luckier to have each other. So if we’ve only got today, and tomorrow, and maybe a few more weeks or months or decades to be together, let’s make them mean something.
Inevitably, the goodbye will come. So the objective can’t be to outrun it, but to face it with no regrets. That won’t necessarily be accomplished by doing something remarkable — travel, selfless deeds. But if we surround ourselves by the people who are our world and tell them we love them any chance we get, then maybe when death pays a visit, we’ll be able to welcome him with a chipper “hello.”