Saying Goodbye: Last Words to a Dying Man

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Cancer sucks.

Hell, death sucks. All of the causes of it suck, too.

Let’s be honest:

Death may wait for all of us, just like taxes, but that doesn’t mean I have to feel a-okay about either one.

I lost a friend recently. After years of struggling with throat cancer that turned into lung cancer, he had a series of strokes. When they occurred, he had gone out of town for a few days; his medical teams in Houston and the hospital in Montana consulted and decided to transition him to end-of-life care—and to spare him the stresses of a transfer back to Houston.

Fair enough. Though travel in his last few days would have likely lessened his remaining time on Earth, a number of us would have liked to have seen him at the end. And knowing him—a social butterfly who loved people more than he could admit—he’d have appreciated seeing more of us right about then, too.

A couple friends, his son, and his mother made it to his bedside in the final days. The rest of us sent notes. Though lucid, he couldn’t talk easily. People could read to him, even if he had moments in which he couldn’t read for himself.

What to say?

I had limited time with which to come up with something. As I write plenty—at least, far more than most people—I should have had no problem, right?

And yet I had no words.

I didn’t want to use the past tense for someone still alive.

I didn’t want to evoke the afterlife or religion for a number of reasons, one of which being his lack of belief in either.

I didn’t want to wax maudlin or sappy or weepy. He’d never had much truck for purple prose—and even still, he knew the end had come. He knew he had a mere few days left. Facing mortality hurts. Why depress and sadden him more with pity-party language?

I didn’t want forced joviality. Pretending that nothing had changed and that he didn’t await the end rang false. Acting as though anything could get better if he just kept fighting felt disingenuous.

And so I wrote him memories. I told him stories of times we’d had together: Funny stories, sweet stories, gratitude stories, recountings of our conversations and my takeaways. I tried to make him smile while letting him know that we loved him, that I cared, and that he would live on in everyone he’d touched in his far-too-brief life.

Maybe I could or should have done something else, if only I’d had time for deeper consideration. As always happens when someone dies, I’ve thought of a few more things I would have liked to have said. Yet even if I’d written these things I’ve remembered to say now, other things would pop to mind.

What would you have said?