Twenty-three years ago today my father passed away. In one respect, there was nothing surprising about it. He’d dialyzed for over twenty years and been hospitalized in each of the two years before that with heart issues. Not to mention the twenty-plus surgeries, the two failed transplants, the quarter of a lung he lost, the two spinal fusions, etc.
But when the time actually came, it was a complete surprise. I’d just seen him a week before during my spring break. And I’d flown back to Houston fully expecting to see him again at the end of the school year.
Looking back now, I can see how ill he was. But he was always ill. For eighteen years of my life he was dying. For eighteen years every hospitalization, every illness, had the potential to be the one that ended things.
And yet he carried on. And he didn’t just carry on, he thrived. He was President of Kiwanis, the team little league coach, competed in chili cookoffs and chess tournaments, attended pretty much every one of my volleyball and basketball games and every one of my brother’s baseball games, went back for his college degree, ran a successful if not thriving business.
He was a good father. And a good man.
But he was always dying. There was never a question about him making it to old age. It was just a question of whether he’d be thirty or forty or fifty when the end finally came.
And now I have a dear friend in a similar situation. Metastatic melanoma. Tumors in his brain, on his lung, on a kidney. The first line treatment failed. They took out two tumors, treated him, and found three more. They’ve run scans, removed the offenders, but are making no efforts right now to stop more tumors from growing.
He is very likely going to die from this. And like my father, he continues to live his life the best he can knowing that dreams of what he’ll do twenty years from now aren’t realistic. That he has to stay close to his doctors and his home. No worldwide trips, no wild adventures.
Like my father, illness has taken from this once vigorous man part of who he was. It’s damaged his body. He can’t do now what he once could.
But it hasn’t stolen his mind. He’s still passionate, still driven. Still has the same wants and needs he did before illness struck.
But when? Who knows. Could be years still. Years of slow decline, fighting a battle he knows he’ll lose.
I want to say that space between diagnosis and death is like freefall, like you’re untethered and falling towards that inevitable end. But that’s not right at all.
I’ve been in freefall. And that space of time between knowing it’s going to happen and having it happen is nothing like freefall.
It’s more like that moment in a car accident between when it becomes inevitable and when you register the impact. That frozen point in time where everything seems to stop but you know it’s moving violently forward. Or maybe the moment right after impact when you’re in motion and things are breaking and shattering around you but the pain hasn’t yet registered.
That moment between can last months. Even years. A whole lifetime can be lived in that space between diagnosis and death.
Or it can be over in a moment.
You never know.
Because dying is a tricky business.