In this month in which I apply for social security I am spending a lot of time thinking about a friend I have known for almost 40 years. We worked closely together on a team of 5 special subject teachers for 17 years. I still feel that “team bond” more than 20 years later. We are now physically separated by six states due to my move to Maine. She is my age, and she is terminally ill.
I am only just beginning to realize how emotionally complicated this situation is. Within that team bond, when we worked together, we celebrated with each other, we grieved with each other, and we were a professional and personal support system within the day to day joys and frustrations of job and life. I am not sure I know what to do with those “team bond” feelings as I watch the progression of her illness via a computer screen and email updates.
I don’t want to believe that she no longer has the ability to live and function as she once did – as a strong independent woman with a book always in her hand, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a desire to master techniques and skills in cooking and the many crafts that have been an integral part of her life. I don’t want to believe that she is losing ground physically and can no longer walk on her own. I don’t want to believe that she is losing memories. I don’t want to believe that the brain she nurtured her whole life is turning against her. I don’t want to believe that she has now moved to a long term care facility. If I am really honest, I don’t want to believe that I could be in the same situation. While some days I feel older than dirt…I am too young to be in that position… and so is she. That comes from the “perfect world” ideology ~ a world in which we can each define “fair” according to our liking. Alas, it is a world that does not, in reality, exist.
My mother spent my entire adulthood giving strict instructions, “if I ever get to the point where I can no longer care for myself, just shoot me, don’t ever put me in a ‘home.’” The period of decision making surrounding my mother’s care came two and a half years ago after months of hospital stays, rehabs and declining physical health. She willingly accepted the decision of long term care because she was exhausted from fighting illness. She spent the last five months of her life surrounded by gentle and compassionate care minus the fears that came from the “what ifs” that burdened her when she was home on her own.
I am realizing that with every update on my friend, I respond on two levels, one to my friend’s situation, and one to a level of empathy in which I respond from an egocentric gut level of “how would I feel if this were me.” It is a level of empathy that grows out of my own fears. In transferring those feelings to my friend I commit the sin of denying her physical and mental state in the here and now. Reality check, she is not capable of processing information and situations as I would. Nor, when she was, was she inclined to always agree with me.
Many days I receive reports of joy filled hours with visitors bringing little gifts and telling stories that bring much laughter. My insides are at peace on those days – she is okay, and I feel like someone will be there to bring me laughter and joy if I were in her place. Other days it appears to be a doomsday report. She’s not okay and I’m not okay. I do my best on days when, even if the physical report is not so good, the report sticks to the facts and refrains from an interpretation of the facts.
I am attempting to step back and separate my fears from her life and care. I am not the one who is on this difficult journey. I would be unfair to my friend and her family to assume I was and second guess the decisions that have truly been made with her best interest in mind. I am on a difficult journey too. My challenge is to take actions to remind her that I love her, attempt to bring some joy and smiles to her face and be prayerful and grateful for those who love her and are physically surrounding her without prejudice for decisions made that are not within their circle of control. Then I know she will be at peace and move forward in her journey embraced in the white light of love – she deserves no less. By taking myself and my personal fear out of the equation, I can hopefully, in some small way, help her on her journey.
The latest report received is that she continues to lose memories. She lives in the “here and now.” In many respects she is in a better place than the rest of us. I am assuming she is not comparing herself to who she used to be. She accepts each day gratefully even with the challenges that often accompany each day. That has been my prayer for her since her diagnosis. Hopefully, all of us who love her can do the same.