Two weeks ago a friend of mine passed, unexpectedly, in her southern California home. According to her wife, my friend was diagnosed with an aggressive and extensive cancer and she fought for a month and a half.
When I say she was a friend, I mean she was a Facebook friend. True, we had attended the same junior high and high schools, and were in the same class, but we didn’t move in the same circles and I don’t recollect speaking with her much. Facebook changed that. After accepting her request, she became an uncommonly warm online friend. She invited me in. Literally. In fact, we’d been out of touch recently, and I was just sitting down to message her when I saw the news.
The whole time we were out of touch she was fighting for her life.
It’s an unfair and terrifying prospect: While I’m fighting in life, as everyone does all the time everywhere, in the span of a month and a half my friend goes from perfect vibrancy to her grave.
This seems too random to pry a fresh perspective from. There’s no fulcrum–only a vacancy, and its accompanying sadness.
Contrast this with the experience of Joe Roth, an All-American quarterback at Berkeley in the mid 1970s. Roth survived melanoma at the age of 19. In remission, he transferred to Cal and lead the Bears to a 1975 Pac-8 co-championship. But just before his senior year the disease returned in force. Roth told nobody. He went to class. He went to practice. He studied. He socialized. He played quarterback. He played in three all-star games after the 1976 season, dying in February of the following year.
Of course the medicos knew of Roth’s predicament. His friends and team mates did not. Why? I don’t think he wanted to burden anyone. And it was irrelevant. Why?
Because Joe Roth was going to be Joe Roth no matter what. Certainly no medical condition was going to keep him from living his chosen life to the fullest. Here’s an example: Knowing he was not long for this earth, he nevertheless handed in a last term paper.
I don’t think many people would be bothered to complete a paper, not feeling so physically lowly as Roth was at the time. But it makes sense if your response to a life-threatening condition is to live your chosen life to the fullest.
There remains every season at Berkeley a Joe Roth Memorial Game. And his number, 12, is the only jersey ever retired in the history of Bears football.
I know my friend lived her chosen life to the fullest, and that is some consolation.
But it doesn’t help. Nothing ever does, when you lose someone you love. It never improves. There is always a sad vacancy that eventually becomes a dull ache. It’s constant. You learn to live with a limp, say, or some other inconvenience.
It’s akin to ageing, as I’m experiencing it. There goes reading the fine print. There goes the heavy lift. There goes the easy gift of being comfortable in my own skin. There goes my very digestion. It becomes a part of who you are.
And you don’t have a choice other than to accept it.
After some time, sure, there are the stories and memories and sharing them with others. But the despair merely eases.
You may have to live with it, but you don’t have to abide by it. You can combat it. How? I think you already know.
Live your chosen life to the fullest.