A Thin Line

My good friend is in a fight for his life. Cancer. This is his second round. His first diagnosis came seven years ago.

Since his recovery, he has seen a few more sunrises, held a few more grandchildren, and blown out a few more birthday candles. He has fought depression and he has delved into the deepest recesses of his faith. I know this because we have talked about it in great detail.

In regard to round two he says, “I’m not complaining. I’ve had seven more wonderful years with no regrets. I’ve met a couple new grandbabies that I would have otherwise not met. That’s a good thing.”

If you met him, you would know soon enough that he is a man of God. I don’t mean that he wears a special collar or that he walks on water, or that he speaks with a holy accent. I simply mean that he and God take a lot of walks together. He studies the heart of God as he listens to the crunch of gravel beneath his feet and as he processes the wonder of breathing and exhaling. Something a cancer survivor doesn’t take for granted like I would do.

His perspective on life and death has been a great help to me in the time since I lost my wife. I had a lot of people tell me that I needed to check out some of the grief support groups just to make sure I was handling things okay. Instead, my friend and I sat in lawn chairs out front of my shop. Sometimes at sunset. Sometimes on a cool morning. But always in honest conversation about the mystery of life and the brutality of death.

I began to shape my loss and grief by listening to his story. His courage and clarity on life in the face of cancer helped me to see the point of living. Some days it is enough just to wake up and have another day.

“I’m just glad to be alive,” he said.

He began to feel some pain in his lower back last fall. His bloodwork had looked fine the last several weeks. The doctors were keeping close tabs on these things. But somehow the cancer had found a way back and had attached itself to his spine.

I won’t paint the entire picture, but he decided to try a radical experimental treatment at the advice of his doctor.

“This guy literally saved my life the first time,” he said. “What kind of an idiot would I be not to follow his advice this time?” Some things are just that simple.

He’s been at Emory in Atlanta for a long time now. I can’t remember the exact date, but he and his wife moved out of their home back in November thinking that they would be in treatment until the end of last year. It is now March and they have not come home yet.

I can’t even to begin to empathize fully with his plight. The doctor told him going into this treatment that it would be rough, that this body would be pushed to the limits of exhaustion, and that the plan was tenuous, at best.

He said to me with determination, “This is my best shot, and I’m a fighter. I’ve got people that want me to fight and I’m not about to lay down. I don’t mind dying. I mind not trying to live.”

Mostly through my communication with his wife, I know that he has been through a hellacious battle. Uncontrollable fever. Seizures. Vomiting. Periods of unconsciousness. Spikes in blood pressure. Dangerously high heart rates. Extreme fatigue. Short days of recovery and lucidness followed by more of the above.

In my own mind, I would think that a man might get comfortable with death at some point, or at least, come to terms with the possibility of it. When eternity is on a man’s mind, death is not the worst eventuality even when it’s not the desired destination.

But it is always the thought of what death means to those left in its wake that bothers us. That’s where I am and where my kids are these days. The vortex is passed. The thunder and gale force winds have long gone. But, even now, we still are picking up some of the pieces of our lives.

My youngest shared a quote the other day: If only I had one more day, even knowing that one more day would never be enough.

Death never leaves the living. As the Wisdom of old says, both those who face it head on and those who are left changed by it walk within its shadow.

My cousins and I were taking stock of these matters in a text exchange the other evening after finding out that one of our cousins had passed away on Saturday. In fact, two members of our family passed within one week of each other; and that within a short time after my sister had passed. We counted on. My wife died a year and a half ago; another cousin two years ago this month; a brother to them and a cousin to me the summer before.

“I’m not sure how much more of this I can take?” one of them wrote.

I am of an age now when I know that the count is only going to go up. That is a fact of living longer. And it is heartbreaking. No one has to tell me what it feels like to have an empty seat at the kitchen table or an unused pillow on the bed. I get that.

What I try to keep in mind is this. Death is not unique to me and my family. For every loss we have, there are others with a loss that cuts just as deep. The hospitals are full of children and parents counting every precious moment together. Somewhere, some son is holding his mother’s wrinkled hand for the last time.

Yet, I still live. And the life I have left I will live for those that love me and need me and I will try my best to do it in a way that honors what I valued most in the lives of those who have gone on. That is my gift to both the living and the dead.

I asked my friend the other night about his prospect for coming home from Emory. His recovery has been slow but promising these last few weeks.

“I am alive,” he said.

I think often of him way up there in Atlanta, a hundred miles away. In the winter I can see his house across the creek through the woods from my kitchen porch. For now, it sits vacant.

“You hold on,” I told him. “There’s a thin line between being alive and living.”

I have felt more and more these later years the fragile nature of life; how one can disappear without warning, and one lives on. That will never change on this side of the veil.

I don’t know if he will make it home or not, but I do know this.

He knows how to live. And that is enough for me.

One thought on “A Thin Line

  1. Beautiful and inspiring 🙌 I needed to hear that❤️

    Sent from my iPhone


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