One of my friends from childhood has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the brain. A very large, very cancerous tumor was discovered and he has been given no more than a year to live. Perhaps even less than that. Each of us has, at some point, run across a friend or acquaintance who needs us more than we need them. With time, the two of us grew apart for no other reason than we took a different trajectory in personal development. This was nothing personal and I don't think he took offense. Or, if he did, he never vocalized it in my company.
From the time we met, as fourteen-year-olds with a difficult time making friends, he latched onto me like a burr to a woolen sock. I have resisted for years since then. He's a bit of a ne'er do well, something of a well-meaning buffoon, and ends up regularly coming off as slightly ridiculous. Sometimes I've had to shut my eyes and my ears when he is present. But the other side of it is that he has been, if nothing else, intensely loyal. In high school, when my own medical issues with depression were intense and pervasive, he kept tabs on me when no one else did. During frequent hospital stays, he showed up every day and stayed for hours. I feel obligated to stay in touch, even if part of me clamors for distance.
It has been difficult observing his health woes, even from the perspective of several hundred miles. He has not been especially rational about any aspect of his care, but this might be expected under the circumstances. As has often been the case in other contexts, he became over-optimistic when he weathered the first round of chemotherapy. Anyone who uses Charlie Sheen quotes to describe himself for any reason makes me squirm. This is where I began yet again to take some serious steps backwards. Once the first month had concluded, he claimed to have tiger blood and to have fully beat it somehow, though I knew his fight had only begun. I wasn't sure whether to humor him or to be the voice of tough love, though I opted for the former.
His cognitive skills have begun to deteriorate rapidly, which is what chemotherapy will do. Over the past couple of weeks, he's confused his evening medication with his morning medication, meaning that he's not sleeping much. This is something that can be rectified, but I am fairly certain there are other aspects in his life that are out of balance, too. He cannot rely upon family as he must. His father is an alcoholic with his own issues. His mother is not very affectionate or approachable; I suspect she has cut ties completely due to his past behavior. His older brother was always self-absorbed and caustically dismissive. He doesn't mention family much, and I don't ask.
What I am observing is a man in the process of dying. I can't linger in this space for long, and it makes me feel like a coward. He saw me go up and down. He saw me at my worst, but I can't extend the favor. The last time we talked, he mentioned how much of an impression it made upon him to see me struggling for my own life. I know it must be on his mind now, though the comparison leaves out many key differences.
I was eighteen then. The mostly silent anniversary of my most severe collapse is nearly here. It occurred shortly before Thanksgiving, during my senior year in high school. Twelve years ago. The depression was so intense that electroshock therapy was prescribed as a treatment of last resort. He came by the unit every day. Most of the time, he said I talked out of my head. What I said made absolutely no sense. The process itself has become more humane over time, but it is still somewhat crude and Byzantine. A strong electric current is applied to the brain, causing a deliberate seizure. One loses short term and long term memories. Some return, and some are lost forever.
With time, my condition improved. I've never been that depressed since, a fact I thank God for on a regular basis. The difference here is that my diagnosis was serious but not terminal, and he is staring death in the face. He has now begun to recognize that his days are increasingly numbered. As I suspected would be the case with time, he told me the other day that he is likely to die unless he takes immaculate care of himself. I will grant to him his hopeful caveat. What's the harm in entertaining a modest delusion?
He's never had the greatest luck. For whatever reason, he's always been a wandering soul. Six years after I obtained my undergraduate degree, he still has never completed the requisite coursework. For a time, he was an especially heavy drug user, the kind to drift from house to house in the bohemian part of town. When I first heard about his diagnosis, I wondered if perhaps somehow his chemical intake was partially to blame. It's a very unusual form for cancer to take, one usually found in men older than sixty-five. Or, it just could be, like my own physical difficulties, purely genetic.
I don't know how to be there for him. To some extent, I never have. Ever since we met in eighth grade, I have wondered if he really knows who I am. If he did, would he be so unflinchingly devoted? When so few other people have clung to me this tenaciously over the years, what makes him different? Now that the tables have been turned, I want to return the favor, even though my impulse is to keep him at arm's length. Every day is different. Maybe I'm doing all that I can.