I cringe when I think about the moment when Jeff’s doctor told him he was dying. But not for the reason you might think. It’s not because of the doctor’s words or Jeff’s response that this memory brings me discomfort. No, it’s because of my own response that I recoil.
In retrospect, the doctor was doing Jeff a great kindness by levelling with him so clearly, and so directly. Though diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer three months earlier, we had never used the words death or dying.
But this doctor looked Jeff straight in the eyes and introduced a new and looming possibility into that suffocating hospital room. Her voice was soft but her eyes were firm when she said:
“I’m afraid that we are losing control of this. I think you are dying.”
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I was stunned into medically-induced silence. Sure, we knew things were bad. But dying? He was so strong. So young. It couldn’t be. My brain would not process this. No, I insisted to myself. Everything would be OK.
It is the only memory I have of Jeff where his eyes appear blue. He responded with his usual pragmaticism to that first use of the word “dying.” Speaking clearly despite the shine of unshed tears disguising his hazel eyes, he asked:
“How long are we talking here. How long do I have?”
It would turn out to be days rather than weeks. But that didn’t stop my campaign of fierce denial.
The moment that the doctor left the room I told Jeff that she was wrong. I promised him that he would live. Holding tightly to his hands, I willed him to believe my next words:
“You are going to be OK,” I insisted. “We are going to beat this.”
He nodded. Quiet. Thinking. Absorbing the doctor’s words and already sorting out how he would make the best of his last days. A tear escaped his eye and slid down his cheek.
He knew that he was not OK.