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Where the birds wait and the tall grasses wave

August 6, 2009

Spending time with someone who is dying is a profoundly intimate experience. And I will admit, I’m not all that comfortable with intimacy.

Yesterday, AJ’s friend G called to see if he could play with AJ. G has been in AJ’s class since kindergarten. He lives in our neighborhood. His mother, J, is dying of ovarian cancer. She wasn’t expected to make it through the summer, but she’s still hanging on.

AJ wasn’t home, but he called him back this morning and we invited G over for lunch and to play for a while. When I went to pick him up, G answered the door, closely followed by his grandmother — his father’s mother. J’s mother is dying of cancer too, and neither can help the other in the time when I’m sure they’d like to lean on each other. I asked the grandmother when I should bring G back home and she went to relay the question to J. When she came back, she said J wanted to talk to me. So I followed the instructions to get through the winding hallways of the house and found J sitting in an armchair next to her bed, looking pretty good considering, especially if you didn’t notice the colostomy bag under her shirt. But when she began to talk, the deterioration was more apparent. She holds herself oddly, all uncomfortable angles. And she, always an incredibly articulate, outspoken and intelligent person, grasps for the words she wants, her brain addled by chemo.

In this situation, the ordinary fallbacks of conversation seem starkly inappropriate. “How are you doing?” I ask, really wanting to know. “I’m fine. How about you?” she returns completely appropriately and yet…not. But then she began to talk. She is sitting in a dimly lit room. She can’t read or concentrate for long. She is alone a lot of the time. She is frustrated with the colostomy bag, which leaks sometimes, but she can’t feel it until she’s drenched and embarrassed. She is missing things. She asked all about Cub Scout camp, which I worked at because I had to, but she used to help organize and loved it more than anyone. We talked about the boys and what they were doing. She said G didn’t have many friends in the neighborhood besides AJ. “So many of the kids are so…wild. And G’s not a wild kid.” True. Neither is AJ, although AJ, because he’s not naturally wild, is totally fascinated by those that are and often wants to be like them. But G knows himself a little better, I think, and has less patience. He and AJ play quietly when they are here, but with lots of giggling.

I ask her if she needs anything and she says no. But I bet she needs someone to talk and listen sometimes. I want to ask her if she gets tired of everyone tiptoeing around her, because I’m pretty sure that would drive me crazy. And I want to ask how she can stop worrying about her boys, G and his older brother D, even for a minute. Because if there is anything that would tear me apart about dying, that would be it.

But of course I ask none of these things. I stand up to go. The boys have been sitting in the car for a long time. But I worry if I’ve left too abruptly and I wonder if I can come back and how to broach it. Because I think she might like it.

It’s hard because we have been, at best, passing acquaintances. Two mothers with boys in the same class who are not best friends but who like to play together sometimes. J was never quite on the inside of the playground group and we bonded a little over feeling like outsiders. But she was always more outside than I was. She’s one of those outspoken people who acts on what she thinks, who puts her money where her mouth is. She is the one who says what everyone is thinking but no one wants to hear. She has a tendency to make people a little uncomfortable. She made overtures of friendship to me before, asking if I wanted to walk with her regularly, for instance. Except I like walking alone — it’s partly why I do it. So I sidestepped the question. And now, of course, I feel guilty that I didn’t reach out to help her then. I didn’t know what was going on then. And maybe she didn’t yet either. Then again, maybe she did.

And I want to help now. I really do. But at the same time, anything I think to do feels false, because it’s not an extension of our previous relationship, which wasn’t much of a relationship at all. And it seems like the wrong time to invest further in a friendship that will not last long. And then I feel guilty for making it all about me and my own lake of maturity to handle this situation and my own fears.

At night, when I hear sirens, always listen to make sure they’re not coming by my house on the way to J’s. I’m never certain.

AJ and G spent the first hour at our house playing a video game I didn’t even know we had where each was trying to blow up the tank of the other. Every other word out of their mouths was “died” or “dead.” Because that is what the game is about. And they are laughing and laughing. And I am uncomfortable and make them turn of the tv and come eat some lunch, a nice innocuous peanut butter and jelly sandwich that never hurt anyone.

After lunch I kick them outside for a while into the sunshine, which is beautiful. And then we take G home and watch him, all smiles and freckles, disappear inside the door, wondering what is going on in his house and what he sees of it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2009 8:06 pm

    Oh, ouch.

    You know – I think (I’m about to give unsolicited advice – ignore me if you don’t want it) if I were in her shoes, I would love it if someone said, “You know – I’ve always liked you. You’re fearless and outspoken, and I think I’ve missed out because I preferred to take my walks alone. But I would like to know you better. Can I visit you regularly (or be of help or whatever it is that you want to do)?

    Don’t let politeness get in the way. Politeness can grease wheels in ordinary circumstances, but it can also throw sand in them when events are less certain. This is one of those times.

  2. crankygirl permalink
    August 7, 2009 6:38 am

    I always get stuck–what’s the right answer in this situation. But then there are only my ideas, which are always trite and uninspired. Poor G and D.

  3. August 7, 2009 7:36 am

    I’d get stuck in it too, and altho the other Jill’s ideas are great, I don’t know if I’d do it. I’d think I *should* but I doubt I would.

  4. August 7, 2009 8:27 am

    What a terrible situation. I think the first Jill is right, though. You always think you have plenty of time to get to know someone when the time is right.

  5. August 7, 2009 11:08 am

    I agree that it would be hard to get invested in a friendship with the mother right now. You could tell her you’ll make a special effort to have the boys do things together regularly, so her son has that continuity in his life.

  6. The Lass permalink
    August 7, 2009 8:30 pm

    If you want to befriend her because you really want to befriend her, do it. Anything else will be seen as false – people in her condition, in my experience, seem to gain xray vision into the souls of others.

    I like Jeanne’s idea…especially since it goes to what the mom said to you about AJ being one of her son’s only neighborhood friends…it may put her mind at ease.

    Just my lame two cents.

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