On March 22nd, it'll be two years since my friend Joe lost his multi-year battle with cancer and a host of other maladies.
What was most striking about him is that as far as I experienced him, he never complained about the four years he spent bouncing back and forth between a couple of Brooklyn nursing homes and the hospital. He always spoke of "when" he got out, not "if". He was always looking at what the future would hold, where he would live, and what trips he'd be taking. I wanted to believe him, of course, but it didn't dawn on me for some time that he was almost certainly never going to live on his own again.
He had been a occasional visitor to Bingo and, through friends, had requested that I come to visit. I was terrified. I hated hospitals and nursing homes and didn't really know him all that well - but I agreed.
We had such a great time that first day that I ended up visiting him quite regularly throughout 2013 and 2014 but only could call him in 2015 as my work life had gone off the rails and the stress had made me continuously sick. Once that job was gone, I recovered quickly, but it would turn out that I only had three months to "catch up" in person before he left.
I've said it before, I'm sure I'll say it again - had I continued to work in that job, I would have missed those final times with him. And I surely would not have been able to pick up and rush to Brooklyn when his caregiver called to tell me that he was about to die.
When I first went to visit him in 2013, walking into the nursing home felt like Dorothy walking down the long hall to see the Wizard - I was terrified, I hated hospitals and nursing homes. These are the places where people go to die. This is the kind of place where my grandfather spent his last years - alone and stricken with a crippling disease unable to remember anyone especially his son (my dad). This is the kind of place where, five years later, my dad spent a few months in before dying of cancer. These places smell of disinfectant and misery.
On that final day, on March 22, 2016, as I approached the nursing home, the song that randomly came up on my ishuffle, was "Allelujah" in Italian by a recording artist friend of mine. I found myself with purpose - to overcome my own petty fear and be there for Joe and for Keith. I marched in without hesitation and got on the elevator and walked into his room knowing full well what I was going to see: Joe had died just minutes before and before me lay his lifeless body, gnarled and boney. It was literally the very thing that I was most afraid of and yet... I was there, I had made it. I had made it, for my friends.
I helped Keith pack up Joe's things and then we sat around and talked a bit. There were a couple of Joe's other friends already there and, after a little visit, they needed to leave. When Keith walked them out, I stayed behind to spend a moment with Joe alone.
In that moment, that incredible moment, my terror of death was gone, or at least, muted. It was replaced by an intense love for this guy that had struggled so valiantly for so long.
I felt an odd gratefulness that he was out of his suffering and the combination of circumstances (my job loss) that allowed me to be free to be there in the first place. Had I let my fear override my decision to visit on that first day in 2013, I would not have had the pleasure of becoming close friends with this delightful, quirky, amazing person. I would not have fallen in 'friend' with him. And, weeks later, I would not have had the honor of speaking at his memorial at Keith's house.
So, I guess the lessons are:
1. say yes to everyone/everything.
2. be open to unexpected friendships.
3. find the silver linings when things go awry.
and oh, 4. never ever let your fear stop you from being there for someone. (Trust me on this one, I know from experience.)