August 23, 2016

What a Last Conversation with a Dying friend left Me With.

death deathbed family sick mourning

“Why am I still here?” Jeffrey’s words came out choppy as he peered over in my general direction.

He wasn’t trying to just hold back sobs—he was physically struggling to form and articulate those words.

I paused, frantically searching for the right way to answer him. I sensed what he was really asking: Why was he still alive? Why was he still suffering?

Over the past two years, the glioblastoma multiforme tumor (GBM) in his brain had taken most of his sight and some essential motor functions. He was in extraordinary pain. His last hope—the experimental treatments at the National Institutes of Health (NI)—had failed. He was degrading, fast. GBM is a highly malignant and aggressive cancer with no cure; the median survival for adult patients is about 14.6 months and two-year survival is 30 percent.

I felt off-kilter; I’d only known him and his family in those 18 months since his illness, and mostly in my role as a mentor providing emotional support for his daughters. I knew he deeply believed in God—more so than I could ever understand—and yet here he was, clearly grappling with something.

His wife had asked me to come over because he wanted to speak with me. This was it.

He asked again, this time his voice higher pitched as tears ran down his face.

This was so hard. He was in so much pain, and I didn’t want to add to his burden.

Come on, answer him!

I had to trust that the right words would come.

“Maybe there’s a reason you’re still meant to be here, something more you’re meant to do. Maybe it’s because there’s still more that others can learn from you,” I offered.

“What?!” Jeffrey cried out. “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in closer. “You have fought so hard to be here for your girls. You’ve put yourself through hell with those experimental treatments. You’ve tried everything and none of it’s worked, but you’ve shown your girls how much you love them and how determined you are to fight to be in their lives.”

His body stilled. I hoped the words were sinking in. After a few beats of silence, he whispered, a little less urgently, “Why am I still here?”

“It’s not just what you’ve shown and taught your daughters,” I said as tears pressed at the back of my eyes. “The courage and love you’ve shown is an example for all of us, and it can help us. We can learn from your example.”

That seemed to take him off-guard.

“Have I helped you?” he asked.

For the first time during that entire stressful medical battle where I’d watched mostly from the outside looking in, I let myself really feel it all—from my heart—and I couldn’t help but sob.

“Yes,” I said, not bothering to wipe the tears gushing down my face. “You’ve taught me what true, unconditional love is like from a father. I didn’t have that growing up from my parents and a part of me didn’t believe a bond like that was possible. Because of you, I believe it’s possible. I have seen the power of your love for your daughters and the lengths you would go to be there for them. Seeing all that first hand has helped me to let go of some of that anger and disappointment that I’ve been carrying with me all these years. Thank you. There aren’t words for me to say how much you’ve helped me and I’m positive that others would also say that you’ve helped them.”

Nodding his head, he murmured thank you. As he leaned back on the sofa cushions, his eyes drifted away and that lucid moment was gone. I sat there in the basement keeping him company with the weight of crushing sadness bearing down.

And yet, somehow I felt a little lighter.

That’s just another gift from a man I call a friend and teacher. That was my last meaningful conversation with him, as he died a few months later in hospice; the anniversary of his passing is three years ago this August.

His memory endures.

Through sharing this story, I hope to inspire others to live with an indomitable spirit and to love wholeheartedly and unconditionally like Jeffrey did.

Not only that, I want to remind everyone to not be afraid to open your heart to those in your life and talk about the hard stuff. Share what someone means to you and the impact they’ve had in your life now before it’s too late.

It has the power to set us free.


Author’s note: One day after this story is published, I will read an excerpt from this story on Facebook Live; please check out the timeline of my Facebook account to watch live or afterwards. I’d love to hear your reactions or thoughts about this story. Sometimes it’s not easy to know how to interact with or talk to a family member or friend who is terminal. Do you have a similar moment you’d like to share?

*All details in this story were published with the permission of Jeffrey’s widow, Gretchen Duffett.




Author: Parisa Jade Vinzant

Image: Timothy Armstrong at Flickr 

Editor: Renée Picard

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