Praying for Perspective: Coming to terms

Writing too soon about the loss of a best friend

By George Valadie

I got the call on the 18th.

Pat’s younger brother was on the other end of the line. “Hey George, just wanted to let you know that Pat’s in the hospital. He wasn’t feeling that well and his doctor told him he really needed to get to the ER.”

Honestly, that didn’t shock me; I knew he’d been struggling a bit.

Turns out, though, his brother wasn’t quite finished: “But the initial X-rays are saying it might be cancer.”

That almost finished me.

Pat’s been my best friend since second grade. We had actually met the year before in Sister Mary Carlise’s first-grade class.

We thought she was the most beautiful nun we’d ever seen (though we were just 6). But it wasn’t until recently we revealed to each other that both of us had secretly hoped she would one day marry us.

First-grade rivals lobbying for the romantic love of a nun … you start telling those sorts of silly stories as the days wind down.

Two afternoons after that first phone call, and still not sure of his condition, I rolled into his hospital room joking about the gift shop downstairs, wondering aloud if the balloon or the bunny might make him feel best, only to find myself interrupting a doctor who they wished had been joking: “Incurable, non-operative, palliative, pancreatic cancer. Three to six months.”

She wasn’t.

While she wrapped up the details, I was doing the math. Halloween? Thanksgiving? Christmas? New Year’s?

Cancer. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have her job. Does she have more good days than bad? Or is science making a few inroads to lighten her load? And when a horrible day for you consists of making another’s life even more horrible – how do you move past such a thing?

Still, she was as kind as she could be. She answered his every question. She offered as much assistance as she could. She offered to come back. She offered hope, but not much.

She pretty much offered everything but what he and his family needed — a cure.

And then oddly, as she was leaving the room, she offered one last parting wish, “Have a good day!”

I’ve discovered through the years that each of us grieves in our own way — and I guess even doctors still don’t know quite what to say.

At 62 years of age, it was the first time I’d ever seen my friend cry. Not like this. I told him I’d have climbed under the bed, never to come out. So he was entitled.

But the sun had hardly settled on the day when he was already back to being the Pat I’d known all my life – laughing, telling old lies with older friends and looking ahead to getting started on whatever sort of chemo might turn one more Christmas into one more spring break.

Turns out … there’s not any.

I doubt there’s a single soul reading this who hasn’t been affected by some sort of cancer. Even the success stories have their miserable chapters.

So what can I add? Why would I try?

Billions of words have already been written about its causes, its cures, its dastardly effects. About the stages of patient decline and those that loved ones will endure.

And the answer is — I don’t really know why.

Except, as that first evening was wearing down, he looked at me and said, “… this will make a good column for you.”

I just didn’t want to write it this soon.

We all know them. We all try to be like them. The people on this planet who make it better for the rest of us. Pat was one of the good guys, and he made me better.

But that’s like saying Babe Ruth was a fair hitter.

He was best man in our wedding, godfather for one of our children, unofficial family member, with a reserved seat at every holiday meal, and Santa’s special elf (with real tools) without whom my children would have missed every Christmas.

A week after checking in, he was discharged to his sister’s home for whatever lay ahead. He envisioned that as getting stronger, following doctors’ orders, fighting.

He never got that far.

Oh for sure, there were some great days.

Friends and relatives came from across the country — and others called. We laughed, we teared up, we remembered.

On the not-so-good days, we sat in quiet.

Awkward though they were, I relished every moment.

As things got tougher, more than once he would ask, “Did you ever think you’d have to do all this gross stuff for me?”

My answer was easy — and sincere — “Well, I figured you were either gonna do it for me or I was gonna do it for you.”

The flip of the coin fell my way — though I’ll never know why.

A few weeks had passed when he was forced to return to the hospital, where the doctor took care of whatever hope was left: “So sorry, but there’s nothing left we can do. Here’s your pain pump, use it as often as you need.”

He wasn’t that terse of course, he wasn’t that cold either — but the words were.

And then I watched the best friend I’ve ever had thank nurses and techs for taking care of him. Who does that? They’d still be looking for me under a bed.

It was apparent that his hoped-for three-to-six months had been a pipe dream. His brain and his will certainly battled for it; only his body lost the fight in just 30 days. Pat got his call on the 18th.

Dear God — We pray and give thanks for all those who dedicate their lives to making it go away. Amen.

George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

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