My great aunt Fran called me frantically last weekend. The doctors had found a large tumor in her husband Eddy’s lung, and she was unclear on what exactly was going on. I rented a car and drove out to Jersey the next day to help her navigate his diagnosis and treatment. When I arrived, I spoke to the doctor, who was about to begin Eddy’s chemotherapy without consulting the family. Eddy has small cell lung cancer, which had metastasized to the liver. With very poor health, Eddy was estimated to have 3 months to live without chemo, maybe a year with chemotherapy, the majority of which he would receive in hospital — where he would presumably live and die in the remainder of his days.
Receiving this information, I had to tell Fran the nature of the Eddy’s prognosis. I had to call the social worker, and I had to arrange a meeting with the doctor who had zero bedside manner. I had to find the compassion that I had lacked for Eddy for so long during his life. I sat next to him in the hospital, this man who who bloated, without his dentures, track marks and bruises up and down his arms for the veins that were too weak to hold an IV. I patiently listened to him make racist comments to medical staff, yell at my aunt condescendingly, and tell longwinded stories that were or were not true. I wondered how it would feel to be dying without family or love, and to alienate every person who had ever tried to help you.
I hated Eddy for so much of my life, for his current person, and the things he had done in the past. Yet, here was this person who was a dying sack and skin and bones, facing his own mortality and the toll that his body that taken over years of abuse and emotional rot. It reminded me of my favorite episode of On Being with Brene Brown when Krista Tipett says, you know when you can see how people age — people who have never come to terms with their own shame and vulnerability? And here it was sitting before me.
I felt anger for the medical system, for the doctor operating in an American cultural context who insisted Eddy should receive chemotherapy rather than die. I felt guilty for feeling no love for this person in front of me. But I think for the first time in my life, I am beginning to learn — really learn — about the art of compassion, beyond the new agey glow of a word that hardly bears meaning anymore.
I am realizing that Eddy might never be able to leave this world in grace, and I think there are probably very few times in his life where he embodied grace. But I can find grace in this place, of telling Fran her husband of 55 years is going to die, to support Eddy’s right to choose how and when he dies. In some ways, the lack of love I feel for this man has been a passageway in understanding my comfort with death and dying, and sickness and the choices that we encounter as human beings. Compassion, I am realizing, isn’t pity or sympathy or necessarily any emotional connection at all to the dying. Rather, it is my ability to be present in the dotted boundaries between life and death. There is grace there, in acknowledging that I may not understand someone in life, but I can honor them in death, as they prepare for the journey back into the unknown.
*Photograph by Takashi Homma, 2015