That was the fastest visit outside the territory I have had since moving up here and it would have been quicker if it’d been possible. More than anything I could think of, I wanted to be home, with Pete.
Years ago, when Debra was killed and we went together to her funeral, we vowed we would not attend another such event. What we would do, we agreed, would be to spend more time and energy on the people we cared for while they were alive. In that spirit, I visited Andrew soon after he moved home again with his lung cancer.
Other than me feeling the oddness of his being on the farm now that Juan has taken his place, I found Andrew seemingly changed. Well, he’d lost some weight, and he wasn’t smoking pot, but he didn’t seem to be all that ill. He certainly wasn’t displaying any signs of feeling awkward at his new circumstances in his old household. I even thought, briefly, that he might be faking just so he could move home again. When I got back up north I told Pete that Andrew looked as though he was going to be around for a long time, even though you told me his prognosis was immutable.
Nothing could have prepared me for Andrew now. Of course I knew he was dying. I knew I didn’t want to be there for the End; I just wanted to see him one more time before he left. I read the Kubler Ross book On Death And Dying before I left; in fact I finished it on the plane. I thought I was prepared, but I guess there was nothing that could have readied me for the sight of him lying propped up in that railed bed with a tube taped up his nose and nothing left of him but bones and big teeth. Only after letting go of the doorjamb, straightening my knees, mopping off my face, wiping my nose, taking great gulps of air could I approach him. Hugging seemed out of the question; I was certain he would simply crumble in my arms, hence the tentative touch of the fingertips to his shoulder.
It was a source of amazement to me that you were all so calm. I know you care for him; how can you not be weeping and rending your garments? I wanted to fling myself down beside his bed, howling and beating my fists on the floor instead of sitting on the chair trying not to look at what is left of one of my dearest and oldest friends. My Kubler Ross prep was useless; Andrew had already reached acceptance. I guess he’d done all the other stages before I got there.
Thank you, and Juan, Sara and Jason, for your understanding of the shortness of my visit. I am not a nurse sort of person and it appears there was no need anyway for another person to soothe, massage, feed, bathe, and change him. You were gracious in your assurance that my mere presence meant something to him; I will take your word for it, but there is no comfort there. What I have is a horrible feeling of having failed Andrew and disappointed everyone around him. I ought to have at least stayed longer and tried to do something; maybe make a soup, or pick flowers, but there were so many people there, and they seemed to have everything under control. I felt superfluous, like there was nothing I could offer him, or anyone else.
Pete met me in Whitehorse and I started crying from the moment I saw him. I cried all the way to the hotel and through most of the wretched night. In the end, it’s all about me. Andrew is going to be dead soon, and out of everything, but we are all left to suffer our own inadequacies and inevitably, to look at ourselves and our lives in a new, harsh light.
I ought to have stayed for you, Uma, and for the kids. Knowing you aren’t angry or hurt about my departure only makes me feel worse. I feel like everyone involved is a better person than I; more loving, more accepting, and for sure more useful. There is always a lesson to be learned and this is my first one concerning close-up dying. I swear I will be better next time, and we know for certain there will be a next time, and a next and a next till it’s our turn.
Another thing that keeps haunting me is how little I really knew of Andrew, and now it is too late. All those years, and I don’t even know his favourite colour, let alone how he felt about his running off with whatshername; what was going on with him that led to such an action. And how did he feel about being sick, and finding out it was terminal? His girlfriend leaving him, unable to deal with his illness, and his move back into his old home with his old wife and her new lover, must have been unimaginably difficult. I hope someone talked to him about these things.
These are obviously issues a true friend would have brought up with him; showing interest in how he was really doing and what he was really feeling. Andrew was one of those rare men who was entirely comfortable with talking about his feelings; he would have welcomed these inquiries, giving them the careful consideration that was so much a part of who and how he was in the world. Whenever he and I found ourselves alone together, he asked those questions of me, listening with attention to my eager and thorough responses, and happily engaging in lengthy discussion about my thoughts and feelings. I loved that about him, but I rarely gave that sort of attention back to him. You and I talked about the men in our lives; there was no need, it seemed, to ask the men themselves how they felt when we’d already determined that to our satisfaction.
Oh god, Uma. It is making me sick remembering what I did with my first visit after Andrew’s return. Not one time in that 10 days did I make time to be with him, just us. Not once. Instead I hung out with you and Juan and the horses, or with Jason and Sara in the garden. I visited other friends in Santa Barbara. The only times I was even near Andrew was for mealtimes; those lovely, lively al fresco feasts when everything seemed so normal, so happy.
Now I am wondering if I was the only one who was enjoying myself; everyone else must have been feeling some strain and stress from Andrew’s presence, and his imminent death. Do you all think I am so shallow and/or fragile that I need to be protected from genuine emotions? I really want to know; was that 10 days a big effort on everyone’s part to ensure I had a good time while they suffered in silence, pretending everything was fine? Or maybe everyone had worked their way through to the acceptance phase before Andrew really showed his cancer.
What I want to tell you is how angry I am feeling, in case you haven’t guessed. I am mad at Andrew for dying and I am mad at all of you for seeming to be so resigned to his going. I am mad at myself for leaving too late the chance to know him better.
In this new light, my life shines with health, love, pleasure, and lots of moments of pure joy. I have not been unaware, or ungrateful of my good fortune; no one who has lived in a poor country can take for granted the riches of this one, but I think I need to live a bit harder, and take on some new challenges. I’ve been feeling a need to have less; to make more effort to spread the bounty to others. There are probably lots of people who feel this way, and we are all faced with the question of how to go about it; how to share our abundance in a meaningful way.
Meanwhile, I have been so freshly appreciative of Pete that he is worn out. He suggested I move on soon to sharing our abundance while he is still able to sign a cheque.
Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.