What (not) to Say to a Dying Guy

My dear friend’s husband is dying. He’s also my husband’s closest friend, and a bit of a difficult guy, but affable and generous, fun and flattering by turns.

A few years ago, after I cut my hair short and dyed it platinum blonde, he won my undying affection for comparing me to Charlize Theron on Dancing With the Stars. The flattery went to my head, and I had the poor judgement to repeat it to a co-worker at REI, a brotherly friend.

Oh, he said, really? She’s one of the most beautiful women on the planet… I think you look more like Annie Lennox.

Another co-worker told me he liked my hair better once the white-blonde dye job grew out some and dark roots grounded it. Before that, he said, I looked like Bart Simpson.

When I repeated this in the break room to another younger co-worker, asking, Would you ever say that to a woman? he responded, No, I’d have said David Bowie.

I loved David Bowie. I’ve also been told I look like Jamie Lee Curtis. And when she was still alive, Lady Di. Apparently, I have a fairly eclectic look. Maybe I missed my calling and should’ve been an impersonator. It’s all in the haircut.

But back to my friend’s hub. I am not sure what to say this dear, dying man on Valentine’s Day when we go visit. I’m not sure if I should rearrange my generally optimistic face to reflect a dying sadness; certainly there is some melancholy around leaving this world for the unknown, but I am a person of faith who feels certain the best is yet to come. So maybe I’m too effusive; I try to temper it by asking about his hospital stay when he brings it up. Because of infection and other complications, he was in the hospital for over a month.

They turn you into a vegetable, he says.

I love vegetables, and have always thought the comparison to inanimate life unfortunate. Vegetables are my friends in the struggle to maintain a healthy body. I ask, What kind of a vegetable do you think you became? knowing I’m a bit out on a limb with this line of questioning.

He stares and I add, Like a turnip? The limb bends as turnips tend toward bitterness.

I think I’d be a beet, I add. I love beets. They’re so vibrant and earthy. They’re also sweet. I am still not sure how this is going, but a faint turn at the corner of his mouth gives me hope, and then he says, I’d like to be a beet.

My 12 year-old daughter adds, Or jicama. We’ve just been talking about the wonders of jicama, with a bit of chili lime, or dipped in hummus.

Or celery, I say, getting carried away, because I have this tendency. I can imagine myself as a long, tall stalk of celery.

I veer in and out of the conversation, leaving my husband to visit with his friend much of the time. When my husband goes to the bathroom I move in and take our friend’s hand. I tell him how much his friendship has meant to my hub, that he’s really his only close friend. Maybe I eliminate the word close. I’m trying to make the point that he’s chosen. But it comes out sounding like my husband is pathetic at making or keeping friends. I tell him we both love him and I lean over to kiss his forehead, this man who has compared me to one of the most beautiful women on earth. But this triggers something, and he tells me to get back, that I have no boundaries.

I think he’s joking, but it turns out I’m invading his space. He pushes his palm out and I move back, mimicking his hand motion, my hand outstretched, a few inches from his, not touching, but seeking connection. I’m smiling as tears build. And maybe it is this show of sympathy and sadness that launches us into a different land, revealing another side.

He tells me that the reason my husband has no friends is because of me.

My face is still laughing, both lit and doused. It begins to burn. I lean back and land in the seat where my husband sat. His friend points and tells me I can’t sit there, to move back to the seat I was in, further from him. This must be part of the game, changing chairs, no music. A dying man. A healthy woman. I’ve been out skate skiing and my face is flushed with the rays of sun on snow, the all out human effort of ascending hills and careening down forested trails, alone and free in no man’s land.

He’s going on about me, and I’m sinking into melting snow, even though I can feel my face still turned in a smile, my head shaking, my body lifting from the chair and moving toward the kitchen, for water, for air.

My husband comes up beside me. I look at him and wonder, if it weren’t for me, would you have more friends?

It is both true and false. But in this moment, it digs like an ugly truth, and either one or both of us are pathetic people. I push it away and grab onto it as I blurt out one hoarse sentence, then break in an attempt at quiet.

It’s not true, is it? I ask. And, loyal person that he is, he shakes his head without hesitation.

Later, I will look again, look for what is and isn’t true.

Before we came, my hub told me how long he wanted to stay, and what time we should leave. It is now 30 minutes past this time. We have clearly overstayed our welcome. The difficulty of good-bye. A last good-bye.

His friend calls me back over, extends his hand, and I take it.

He pulls me toward him and says, This is what an invitation looks like.

It feels condescending, and I’m crying when I tell him he’s wrong. He says he hopes so. And we say good-bye.

On the three hour drive back home, I work on getting it; I think we’re all pissed off about dying and a lot of other terrible stuff.

But the thing I ponder most is how it might be true that my husband doesn’t have many friends because of me.

We’ve raised six children together, are still raising the youngest one. We met these friends when we were new to the state and community, and my hub was a recently retired fire captain. I was waiting to be hired at the community college, and took up skate skiing, where I met my friend. We introduced our husbands, who started mountain biking and brewing beer together, and doing volunteer work in the community. We had four children still at home, still needing to be driven places and educated, cared for. I took a job with REI and when the college had an opening, I worked both jobs. It wasn’t quite the right retirement mix; eventually my husband got a job with an airline, and I quit teaching to write, but I kept my job with the co-op for benefits. In all these transitions, friend-time sometimes suffered.

One day, when I was still working two jobs, I got a call at work. Our youngest daughter, in first grade, hadn’t been picked up from school. My husband didn’t answer his phone. I knew he’d spent the morning working with his friend at Habitat for Humanity. They usually had lunch at a pub afterwards. But then they’d gone to the friend’s house to watch a show, and drink another beer. And my hub forgot about his daughter.

Juggling love, marriage, family, work, community, and friends is a hefty human trick. Soon we will move beyond the immediacy of family life, and my hub will retire again. I’ll be happy to see him go spend more time with friends, leave me alone to write, come back together to discuss our days.

Our friend will be gone by then. It is my fault they didn’t get to spend more time together before we moved three hours away, and before our friend found out he was dying. I’m covetous of time with my husband, both for me and for our children. But my husband sees the choice and makes it, and is not unhappy about choosing us, choosing me. So our dying friend is right; I’m the reason my husband doesn’t have more friends. And he’s fine with it. Even if I don’t exactly resemble Charlize Theron.