A Friend in Need

Not quite three weeks ago (Wednesday, April 9, the day before my birthday), Kit and I stopped by the local hospital to visit a friend. James, a fellow medic, and sometimes firefighter, was also from California, evidenced by his online handle, “FFEMT1A” (a California designation: Firefighter-Emergency Medical Technician-1A; I was a plain old EMT-1A myself at first, the A designating Ambulance duty certification, which added some elements beyond the non-transporting FF designation. He had both, and was extremely proud that he dedicated most of his life to helping others in need.)

And help people in need he did: his wife says that on their first date, they were going down a dark road when James suddenly pulled over and jumped out of the car. She had no idea what was going on until another car drove by, and she could see in its headlights that there was a car on the other side of the road with a flat tire. James had spotted it, and was changing the tire for the stranded elderly couple.

Wait… What?

When we arrived at his room, we were surprised that it was empty. An employee saw our surprise and told us, “He was discharged home.” Ah! Great! I texted him (being a younger guy, he preferred texts, but he also “did” email: after all, he was a Premium This is True subscriber!)

But rather than replying by text, my phone rang: Caller-ID showed he was calling. “Please come right over,” he said. Easy, since he lived just a few blocks from the hospital. When we arrived, he reached out to shake my hand, and his voice cracked as he said, “Cancer won.”

A woman I didn’t know was sitting in the livingroom with James and his wife: she was a hospice nurse, doing intake paperwork. The doctors had told him he had “weeks to months” to live. He had been fighting it since last summer.

The Fight

In the meantime, he had probably been in the hospital as much as home. He was a huge, strapping man. Hell, I’m 6-ft. 3-in., but he made me look small! My hand was buried in his when we shook hands. Yet he had a side business installing emergency equipment in response vehicles — including mine, installing my lights, siren, and radio equipment so neatly that the wires don’t even show. Despite his size, he could get under the dash, dig under the hood or in the headliner, wiring things up and leaving no evidence of his presence.

But there was a lot of evidence of presence in his personal life. There are few photos of him on Facebook without his arm around some friend — though, unfortunately, we never got one of us together. This is one with a mutual friend, Steve, a volunteer firefighter for the fire district my house is in. Even though James (on the right in the photo) didn’t live in the district, he volunteered there too for some time, since the district he lived in was a paid department, and they weren’t hiring. That’s how I met him.

James finally got a great job, working as security and first-responder medic at one of Colorado’s many mines. Luckily, that came with great health insurance, so once his cancer was discovered he got excellent care.

They didn’t say “inoperable,” but once they opened him up to see it, they closed him back up without removing it. Chemo slowed it down, but as we visited him again and again, this big bear of a man kept getting smaller and smaller: by the time we were in his livingroom with the hospice nurse, he was down 160 pounds.

Keeping in Humor

One quick story to show James’ sense of humor: Kit and I were visiting him in the hospital recently. He was heavily drugged, drifting between sleep and semi-awake, and hooked up to a lot of wires and tubes. He had to pee, but getting out of bed and to the restroom was quite a trial, so his wife handed him a urinal.

“I’ll leave the room,” Kit said. Knowing James as I do, I said, “You don’t have to leave the room, just don’t look.” But James immediately one-upped me: “You can look,” he said with a clear, strong voice, “just don’t point and laugh.”

There was one other thing he told Kit and me through tears: through all these months, despite having a lot of friends (and I mean a lot! — the outpouring on Facebook is crushing!), he said we were the only ones to visit and keep coming back. Cancer sucks: I almost think of it as malevolent, but it’s not contagious, dammit!

Yet people are so scared of it that they don’t even come and give moral support to their friends who are fighting it. It takes more than one visit to do that! Kit and I told him, and his wife, that we would be there for them, and we kept that promise. So did the hospice nurses: they came every day, and when there was a problem, they would quickly respond to a phone call.

But then, some of his friends didn’t know, or lived too far away. I got a message to Steve that James was in hospice care, and he came immediately — and when I left, he followed me out to get details because he had no idea what was going on, even though he had been in touch with James recently. James wasn’t hiding his fight, but Steve doesn’t “do” Facebook and hadn’t seen the posts about it, and James probably didn’t realize Steve didn’t know. Each time Steve came, he didn’t pat James on the shoulder and then leave, he stayed for hours.

Return Visits

Kit and I were there pretty much every day. I brought my laptop so that I could keep up with critical work, including writing. Yesterday, Sunday, was my writing day, and all of my writing was done at his home, so I could check on him frequently. The hospice nurse came too, and talked about what they would be doing “next week,” but it was clear the end was near.

Kit went home to feed the cats, but I called her back: I didn’t think he would live until morning. She came back, and we both sat with the family, watching over him, each getting little naps here and there.

As the night wore on, I could hardly believe he had the energy to keep going: hour upon hour, he was breathing 40+ times a minute (his pulse was 140+), but he kept going. His wife spent the entire night sitting next to him, holding his hand.

Kit and I, and his two adult children, all took turns tending to him, pulling him up in bed, or getting him medications. As dawn broke his breathing slowed …and slowed …until it hit zero. I didn’t find a pulse, but I had brought my stethoscope, and listened to his heart. It was silent. I looked at my watch: it was 6:27 this morning. James was 43 years old.

With my phone call, the hospice nurse was there within 20 minutes and took care of things: cleaning him up, getting the medical equipment out of the house, calling the mortuary to come get him, offering counseling. Detail after detail. Ironically, one of the hospice chaplains lives next door to them, so I went over and got him.

A Clear Picture

I’ll always remember James, and what I’ll remember most isn’t the cancer, or how it turned a big man with a big heart into a gaunt old man over just a few months. Rather, I’ll remember how he would spend his energy to kiss his wife and tell her he loved her. And how she would do the same, again and again and again.

Her employer fired her because she insisted on keeping her cell phone with her on the job (against company rules!), and she said that if he or the hospital called, she would answer. There’s not really any recourse for being fired for such a reason: Colorado is an “at will employment” state, and employers can fire anyone at any time for any reason. “Too bad, so sad” was the corporate attitude — but she rose above that: she was there for him, and the loving care she gave him 24×7 humbled us.

The Take-Away

If this story has touched you, I ask you for two things rather than sending me a condolence message: First, if you have a friend who is forced down this path (no one chooses cancer or other nasty diseases), please be there for them. You don’t have to put your entire life on hold, but if they’re nearby, you can be there now and then. Yeah, it’s awfully unsettling to see someone decline, but you know, death is a part of life: we’re all going to be there someday, and how can you really relish the great parts of life if you turn your back to the bad parts? James was a lucky, lucky man to have such a supportive family, but he could have used more friends this past year.

Second, if you can afford it, support the great people of hospice. They do a very difficult job and really support the families, not just the dying patients. Our local hospice, HopeWest, is one fantastic resource, and I hope you have one like them near you. If so, please donate to them — time or money. If not, or you want to give in James’ memory, send a check made out to HopeWest Hospice to me (PO Box 666, Ridgway CO 81432) and I’ll forward it to them in James’ name, along with a check from Kit and me. Thanks.

Donation Total

Thanks to the several readers who sent donations for HopeWest — in addition to what I hope was many donations to readers’ local hospices. I took HopeWest a stack of checks totaling $950. They were very grateful for the contributions. If any more come in, I was certainly pass them along and update this page.

Related: A Short Personal Note.

Wait… an Update?! (June 2022)

Yeah, you wouldn’t think there’d be an update on what’s essentially an obituary, but here you go: after he died, James’ wife handed me a hard drive. It was from his computer, and it wouldn’t boot up anymore. The problem: it had all of their videos and photos (kids growing up, etc.), and their music. I tried putting it in my desktop computer as a second drive, but no go.

I put it aside, hoping that at some point I might have better hardware that could access it. I recently got some hardware to pull up some lost data from an old drive myself, and James’ drive came to mind. I grabbed it, hooked it up, and sure enough …I started getting errors. But I also got a directory listing! I opened a folder and clicked a photo to see if it would come up. It did: James’ son, during his pre-teen years.

Quickly putting a folder on my Desktop, I started copying files over from the disk, not knowing if I’d continue to have access. As nearly a terabyte of videos, photos, and music started streaming onto my computer, I messaged his wife with a “Guess what?”, and of course she’s ecstatic.

This data represents a big chunk of a family’s life — a family I know. They had already lost a dad, so losing their memories too really stung. It took awhile (8 years), but I was able to give them that back.

The take-away: be sure you have a backup of everything on your computer and phone. An external drive you can hold and protect yourself is a great start, but these days “cloud” backup is pretty easy and is a good additional option. As my buddy Leo says, “If it’s only in one place, it’s not backed up.”

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49 Comments on “A Friend in Need

  1. I just hope when mine gets to the end stages I have friends like you to come visit me. My biggest fear is I will have no visitors and will die alone. My family has not spoken to me in over 10 years. Your friend was richer than most. God bless all of you.

    You can’t choose your family, but you can choose friends. I hope you have good ones. Take care, and best of luck to you. -rc

  2. Many +1’s on the comments regarding Hospice. They were an amazing and amazingly supportive resource when my mom passed away at home just over a decade ago. They don’t get nearly the accolades that they deserve — and they deserve a lot.

    My deepest condolences on the loss of your friend. Seems like the kinda guy I would have enjoyed meeting.

  3. As a cancer survivor, I will add one more ‘ask’. If you are diagnosed with any serious illness, please don’t keep it to yourself. Share your bad news with your friends and family just as you would your good news. People that care about you want to know what’s going on so that they can support you for both the good and the bad times. Don’t hesitate to ask for help the way that you need it. Only by learning from their requests will we know how to provide support to others and eventually overcome the “I don’t know what to do” feeling that keeps us away. Staying in touch with my friends and family was hugely important for me through my illness, and their support made me a better person for the experience.

    Great advice, Mary. Thanks. -rc

  4. I was with my sister when she passed from a brain tumor. And the hospice people were wonderful responding that last day, as she wanted no one but family with her. It is tribute to you and Kit that you were there for your friend.

  5. I, too, have held a hand as they passed — my Dad’s. It was 17 years ago this fall but I remember it like it was yesterday. Currently, we are going through the same struggles with a young mother and fellow choir member as she battles brain cancer. She made it to 51 yesterday. With her 2 kids still in HS, we try to support them as much as possible by attending school events. I echo Randy’s plea to support the family by “being there”. It doesn’t cost anything and time with friends is precious. Bless you and Kit for being a true friend. Instead of condolences, may your memories comfort you all.

    So many have been touched by this terrible disease. I knew a lot of readers could relate. Thanks, Charles. -rc

  6. James was a one-of-a-kind guy. We first met in the Volunteer Fire Department and he already knew most things and would tell you about it. He fixed Fire Trucks that did not run, emergency lighting that was not ’emergent’ enough and always was on the move helping out where he could. James worked for me for a year or two in my marble and granite business also. I really did not need a fork lift while he was around. He fixed stuff for me also.

    One day I asked him if he had ever heard of the band “Blue October.” He borrowed a CD that my cousin gave me a few months earlier and returned with a big smile and asking…”Wow, they are your cousins? Let’s go to a concert!” I met James in Denver a few times to observe the Blue October phenomenon and he was always a day early, first in line and right up front at every concert. The guys in the band knew his face and referred to him as their biggest Colorado fan! I guess their music gave James a place to vent as well as realize all people have similar unspoken issues and will eventually move past them to a better place.

    James was friends with many B.O. fans and kept in touch with then often. “It was like a big ole family”, James once stated. He was r-e-a-l-l-y into it. During James’ final days I was honored to be with him several times, hold his now weak hand and we spoke briefly. He was wearing a Blue October shirt.

    I firmly believe my life is better for knowing James.

    I will miss you…..Friend.

    Steve is the Steve in the first photo, above. -rc

  7. I’ve often felt guilty that I was only able to go and visit him once when he was in the hospital here in Denver. I tried to make it several other times but various circumstances prevented it (both on his health’s side and on my personal responsibilities side). The one time I was able to make it, I brought another of our good friends along. We stayed for awhile and chatted for a bit while he had energy, and talked with both his wife and mom.

    It’s so difficult to see someone you love and care about dearly whittling away so much. Someone who had such a big presence, both physically and spiritually (so to speak), seemed so small. It was incredibly disconcerting, but we made the most of it.

    Eventually, he was better enough to be moved back home for further treatment. I still kept in contact with him, as well as his wife and sister. When I heard that he’d taken such a strong, and somewhat unexpected, turn for the worse, I was heartbroken — not just for me, though I felt it incredibly, but for his family and friends, the lives he touched around the world.

    I want to rail against the world and yell and scream about how unfair it is that someone so loving and caring could be taken from us in such a way… but then I have to ask myself, “What good would that do?” None, other than maybe getting some emotions out myself, but there are other (and probably wiser) ways to do that.

    Thank you for writing about him, and thank you for updating us on Facebook this morning. In closing, I would like to share a dream I had about him just last night.

    Myself and another mutual friend went to visit him in his home, in what we felt/knew would be a last goodbye. I got there first and he was asleep. His wife told us that he hadn’t been conscious for some time. Soon, our friend arrived, and we stood around talking. Then, out of nowhere, we hear James’ voice: “Hey guys, I’m shocked you came all the way out here just to see me.” We both whipped our heads around to see him and he was smiling, just as big of a smile as he used to always have when we’d be together. And then he said, “Hey, no pain!” I looked at my friend with a big smile… and then I woke up.

    I don’t know if that was premonitory or not, but it was a nice and somewhat comforting dream. He will always live on in our hearts. His beautiful and bright soul just couldn’t be contained in one body.

    Please feel free to share his Star Page for the Star I had named for him — FFEMT1A aka James. Now we know exactly where to look in the Heavens to find him: https://stars.osr.org/ffemt1a-aka-james

    I saw that on James’ Facebook page this morning, Michelle. It’s a nice tribute. -rc

  8. I so wish I could have gotten over to see him, he was always a great friend to me, always there for me and I will miss him greatly. I hated that I could not visit him, I do not drive and am going through a lot of health issues (looking at kidney dialysis and transplant in my future, James was the first to tell me he wanted to be tested for compatibility, and then cancer struck and all i wanted was him to get better and beat it.)

    I visited him as often as I could while he was in the hospital here in Denver. James was the most wonderful, caring, awesome man I ever had the privilege to meet and love. The world lost a great great man, Heaven gained a perfect Angel.

    I’m so glad he had friends in the Front Range to visit him over there, since I couldn’t make that trip myself. Thanks, Carmen. -rc

  9. Thanks for your encouragement to “be there” when cancer, or any other serious disease, affects those we care about. One of the guys who works for my company is battling this horrible disease at age 24. Never one to draw attention to himself, he asked for some space initially, but now wants his friends and co-workers to visit with him, even in the hospital while he is dealing with the side effects of chemo that isn’t working. Cancer sucks any way you look at it! Prayers, good thoughts, healing vibes, positive energy, etc. can only go so far. You’re correct, “being there” for our friends when they are fighting this battle is so important — to them and to us.

    My condolences on the loss of your friend. But thank you for telling us about him. I’m going to see my friend tomorrow, and “be there” for him.

    Thanks for doing that. -rc

  10. Thank you Randy,

    This is a beautiful and important story of love and true friendship. I’m filled with gratitude and praise for how you and Kit honored your friend James, in life and in death. I cried reading this story, thinking back to death of my parents.

    I lost my mother to cancer when I was 13. This was in the 1970’s in New York City, and people were even more afraid of cancer then than they are now. My father died 12 years later, also from cancer. If there is a positive thing to claimed from losing my parents young, it’s that I learned early how to make a difference in the face of sickness, death, and hospitalization.

    Like James, both of my parents were exceptionally popular, and both had large funerals — filled with people from far and wide, and long ago. And still, my sister and I heard all the familiar excuses for why people couldn’t visit them when they were in the hospital or in hospice.

    I came to appreciate the honest people who just said they couldn’t handle it, or that they wanted to remember them as happy and healthy. Promising, and then being an excuse-making no-show, is truly awful. Please, just spare everyone that extra bit of pain.
    IF human presence is wanted, and you really can’t be there, remember there are so very many ways to still make a difference: Use technology to visit, make it possible for others to visit, make sure that all the people who aren’t on social media are in the loop and have the information so that maybe they can visit, and so on.

    So very glad for James, his wife, and his kids, that you and Kit are who you are, and that you did what you did. And I’m very happy you used your publishing platforms to encourage people to lovingly embrace really being there during these difficult times.

  11. I think this should be sent to James’ wife’s employer who fired her for having her cell phone w her! 😛

    It’s a smallish town. It’ll get back to them. -rc

  12. In January of 2012, I lost a good friend to cancer. She lived in Michigan, I lived in Pennsylvania, so the only way to keep in touch was via phone and computer. Skype kept us in touch, and kept her going. On the New Year’s Eve before she died, I and her daughter arranged a special Skype call. All of her friends from Pennsylvania gathered together at a the home of another of her friends, all of her friends from Michigan gathered at her hospice, and we did a 3 hour call using laptops and conference room mics. We spent the time reminiscing and laughing. I am so glad that is my last memory of Mary. Laughing is something she did a lot. She died 10 days after our call, and her daughter said she was still smiling over it.

    Two weeks after losing her, I myself was diagnosed with cancer. I am now at the end of my first cancer free year, and am hoping to continue to be cancer free. However, I had a good example in Mary. She faced it with a laugh, and never lost her sense of humor even though her cancer was extremely virulent and took her quickly. She died 9 months after being diagnosed.

    Not all cancer outcomes can be helped by a good attitude, but some can. And a good attitude sure can’t hurt! -rc

  13. Your tribute to James is about the best Honorary Unsubscribe I’ve ever seen (in over fifteen years of reading True). James is the kind of friend I would have cherished. You and Kit, Steve, and many others were clearly blessed by having him in your lives.

    I’m retired and getting older and I’ve come to realize that the true cost of living is that we lose friends and loved-ones — faster every year we stay around. I, too, am very blessed by the people I have in my life and I thank God for them every day.

    Thanks, Randy, for reaching out and touching my heart (and many!) with James’s story.

  14. I’m so sorry for your loss. You were a true friend to James. I don’t understand people who ‘can’t face’ seeing sick friends in hospital or at home. Like you said, cancer isn’t contagious and the boost that a visit from a friend can give is priceless.

    I lost my best mate years ago, but I still remember visiting her every time she went in for Chemo. We’d sit together on her bed and we’d fill in her menu card. Such a simple thing, but it meant she’d eat a decent meal. Also, I’d go with her and hold her hand while she had her blood tests. She never got a bruise, after I started to go with her.

    These things and cheering her up, making her laugh. Those were my contributions to help my friend. It’s not so hard to make a difference, people. Just turn up and chat. You’ll be amazed how much it can help.

    Thanks for being there with your friend. I know it helped her. -rc

  15. A number of years ago a friend’s mother had cancer, and for whatever reason she decided that she didn’t want her friends to see her ill and helpless, or perhaps didn’t want to stress them with her condition. For the last year and a half she cut herself off from all but immediate family. So very sad; she went down that path for the best of intentions, but ended up missing out on the comfort of friends at the end of her life.

    On the flip side, this post hit very close to home for me — my sister is dying of cancer. Because of other issues she has been estranged from her friends and support network for many years; there are just a few people to visit her.

    Connection to family and friends is such a big part of what makes us human, what makes life worth living. James was so very lucky that he had even a few good friends who were willing to get past the awkwardness and pain of being with the dying.

    It’s sad that so many let vanity get in the way — the “I don’t want them to see me like this” thing. I would think that dying alone would be worse than anything she was afraid of. -rc

  16. I had a friend who passed away from brain cancer several years ago. As you said, it is hard to know what to do and how to help. It is very awkward to say, “What do you need, what can I do?”

    So I took him out for lunch and asked some specific questions. I knew he wasn’t rich, so I told him I would like to pay his mortgage payment for a month.

    I don’t want you to think I am tooting my own horn about my generosity with dollars instead of time. My point is that when there is nothing you can do to make him healthy again, there are things you can do to help. You may have to think up something specific that you can offer. Sometimes an offer of, “Let me know what I can do to help.” is pretty hollow.

    One of the best things to offer is your time, as Randy demonstrated in his case. In my case, my friend moved his family to another state to better set them up financially after he passed. That makes an offer of time more difficult.

    But the key, in the end, is to offer your love. Generously. Whether that involves time, money, work, cleaning up bodily fluids, losing sleep, expensive long distance phone calls. . . and losing a job (she is a hero, too!!).

    Some great examples of what to do. Thanks, Glenn, for that, and for being there for your friend. -rc

  17. My mother passed away March 27th after a year in a nursing home. She and I had lived together since January, 2002. Except for about 18 days or so, I was there with her for part of every day. It was the most difficult thing I ever did, but it was also the most rewarding. Most people just avoid nursing homes, but they don’t realize how much a visit would be appreciated. Visitors make daily life in these institutional settings bearable. If you enjoy your friendship with someone, why would you abandon them just when they need you the most? Yet, most visitors are family members — the same ones all the time. A visit brings joy to the resident and happiness to the visitor. How can you not go home feeling good when you have just made someone else happy? This also applies when the sick person is at home or in the hospital. When you show you care by spending your time with a friend, it lifts their spirits and helps them cope with their challenges.

    I agree with everything that was said about Hospice. When my father was dying from mesothelioma and colon cancer, Hospice took care of all the medical issues and my mother could spend quality personal time with Dad. They even provided a grief counselor who came every week to talk to Mother. Even though Dad lived 20 months longer than was expected, Hospice was always faithful, respectful, and supportive.

  18. What a wonderful tribute to your friend James. I did not know him but now do through you. I hope that when my time comes I have friends such as you. I am pretty sure I do.

    One question I have is the name of the company who fired his wife for having her cell phone nearby. I want to make sure I never, ever do business that company!

    Sorry, but I’m not publishing it. -rc

  19. A very touching story. I can echo what you and Leo said about Hospice; my sister had an in-hospital Hospice male nurse when her care was changed to palliative, and he was incredible in her last few days.

    For part of the time, James was in the one room at our local hospital designated for hospice care. It is a beautiful, large room (plenty big for plenty of family), at the end of a hallway (read: quiet), with a decent view out the window. I’m really proud of our hospital for having it. -rc

  20. Thanks for the story of James, and I’m so very sorry for your loss. I think it’s so good for people to hear about hospice and also of love that lasts through to the very end. Thank you for staying with James and his family. Hugs to you all.

    I am now in remission from breast cancer and you’re right: it’s not contagious, but people fear it (and you!) as if it is. Yes, cancer is damned malevolent. I go to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and they can do things for cancer patients (stem cell transplants and more) that local or even regional physicians cannot. They include nutrition and naturopathy and other therapies (acupuncture even; spirituality for those who benefit from that) to build one up. But — oh! — the disease-stricken people who go there! It’s chilling — heart-breaking — eye-opening — to see. Makes me grateful that I “only” have breast cancer, and I’m going to live.

    Researchers need lots of money for a cure, but in the meantime, the CTCA is achieving remissions for people who come there from everywhere. And I will take that!! And I would have referred James there.

    My cousin’s wife had breast cancer and I begged her to go to the CTCA for a 2nd opinion, which she did, thank God. They found that she had bone cancer in her femur which was a much more urgent issue than her breast cancer. If she had not gone to CTCA, her local doctor would have treated only her breast cancer, and she’d be dead by now.

    My co-worker was diagnosed with uterine cancer, the aggressive form, and I convinced her to go there for a 2nd opinion, and where they did her major surgery within about 10 days, even having to remove the abdominal fat pad (I don’t pretend to understand it all). She will soon achieve full remission (5 years cancer-free), and said that the CTCA understood the many intricacies of her condition much more fully than her local surgeon, who was nevertheless willing to operate.

    You can’t believe how much the CTCA in Zion, IL is growing. The building and parking lot are constantly under construction, and they still cannot keep up with the need.

    Now I’m in the breast reconstruction phase — ugh! But it’s a much happier place to be!

    I so wish that your friend, James, didn’t have to die, and certainly not so young. He sounded like a great person: a real asset to humanity. I regret his loss to our world. And to you, Randy.

  21. I had a couple relatives that were in Hospice here in Ohio. Your statement about Hospice is accurate. They have fantastic people that deal with death and dying daily (not many, if any, get out of Hospice alive). I don’t think I could do their job very long — my hat is off to all of the Hospice workers. I support them locally and I was glad to see your support in the newsletter.

  22. My experience with terminal patients, though limited, has been that they are far more relaxed and accepting of their situation once into it than their visitors — and they often feel they need to cheer the visitors up (otherwise it’s too depressing.)

    Dying people are just people — we’re all dying at some rate or another, some of us just know more about when and how.

    So treat them like you would otherwise to the extent that their condition allows.

    Lying around everyday without contact with those you know, sucks.

  23. You’re so right about visiting your sick friends. My dad had a serious stroke just before Christmas 2011. My dad had lots of friends from work, all retired within a few years of him and all no more than 20 minutes away. His best friend’s wife (widow, our two families were very close growing up) lives less than 2 miles away. She never went to the hospital to see him until I swung by and kidnapped her on my way for a visit. I did that about 3 times while he was in the hospital and rehab — but then after he came home she never even went up to his house.

    I ran into her at a store near her house and she (lamely) said that she assumed he wouldn’t know if she’d been there or not. I cleared that up and told her that he knew she hadn’t been up to see him. When I asked him next he said that she’d been there but I don’t think she went back a second time. His other friends see him rarely.

    It’s not that much fun to visit him because the stroke quickened his dementia. He gets confused, he tells the same stories over and over and he thinks things that happened a long time ago just happened last week — even though he knows it’s 2014. His mind latches onto something and he won’t let it go for weeks. But he still remembers who everybody is, his speech is clear and he can hold a conversation for the most part. He really enjoys the visitors when they come. If I ask him on my Friday visits who visited him he doesn’t always remember the particulars, especially which day he had visitors, but he knows they were there and it helps break up his monotonous days. He’s cared for at home but it’s a chore to get him into the car so he doesn’t get out much.

    If only people realized that an hour and a half out of their day made so much difference to him they’d probably go see him more. I wish there was a polite way to suggest that they get their asses over there at least every other week!

    There is: “What would YOU want if you were the one who was ill?” The Golden Rule is pretty wise. -rc

  24. As always, thank you for a wonderful, thought provoking story. What a fine tribute to your friend.

    Regarding hospice, people need to understand that it is not there just for “the last days.” Once anyone is diagnosed with a terminal disease, they should contact hospice right away even if the patient is home and feeling fairly well. Hospice can offer many services that will make things go far more smoothly for the family and patient, from financial and emotional counseling, medical and pharmacy assistance, and different kinds of therapy. Get them involved at once! And believe me, it is always great to have as many people on the team as you can get.

    Even though many hospice organizations and insurance companies say that they will cover six months of care, as long as the Doctor confirms a terminal diagnosis, the care can go on indefinitely, at least that is my experience with my Mom in Michigan and in North Carolina where I live.

    Thank you for being part of our team by keeping up our spirits.

  25. Well, you know you are good when you can make them laugh and make them cry in the same performance.

    Every (well almost every) issue of TiT has something that makes me laugh — this is old news. But your account of the lengthy visit with your friend brought back the summer before last.

    Our mother had learned about hospice care while caring for Dad four years earlier; so the connections were already in place when her cancer returned, and metastasized, just after Mother’s Day. The family had learned the drill already, and we siblings made schedules to be with Mother for days or weekends, helped count the pills and peel the fentanyl patches, made food she could eat, and the part that meant the most to her — took her to Mass every morning. The hospice nurses did what you know they do: made it possible for all of us to keep something like a life in those circumstances. They schlepped the O2 tanks, called doctor’s offices, and all that.

    Eventually, Mother declared that she would not change her clothes any more; her breathing that night was labored, and two sisters took turns staying with her. The next morning with nine of her twelve children in the room, she left us. You know it wasn’t easy, but it was beautiful to be with her.

    Anyone who has had the help of a good hospice team knows that one cannot say enough good about them. I hope your eloquent tale of your good friend’s demise will encourage others to recognize what is available. We understand.

    I’m glad so many of your mom’s kids were with her. As your testimony shows, it’s powerful for all involved.

    As far as crying, I was actually doing OK until I did what I do with a lot of my writing: I read it aloud to my wife, which helps me catch errors or awkward phrasing. And damn it, it took me 15 minutes to read it to her, because I cried through the whole thing. -rc

  26. You and Kit were there for a friend. Love is part of friendship. James knew this when it mattered. May all of us share such a moment.

  27. Thank you for this touching story. It reminds me of all those who I have lost to Cancer and makes me sad that I was too far away at those times. You said that you had no energy to write your HU article for the week; it seems to me that you have. You and Kit are the kind of people we need more of in our society. Again, thank you for this story.

  28. We lost our daughter to non-Hodgkins lymphoma seven years ago. She was 38. It was diagnosed a year earlier and she spent months in hospital. My wife and I spent many days and nights with her. Her mother slept in a chair in her room and I dossed down on the floor in the visitor’s lounge.

    Family and friends came often and stayed long. That kept her spirits up and made it easier for her to cope with the ongoing treatments. Finally her mother and I, together with my wife’s brother and his wife, were with her when she quietly passed away in the middle of the night. She has left us two grand-children.

    My eyes are wet as I write this.

    I’ll bet! It was good that so many were there for her. -rc

  29. For as long as l can remember l’ve been a single mum, putting my son before ANY other man as it should be and have watched him grow into an Amazing young man and now a father to his own baby girl. The reason l’m writing is because he has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. I only learnt of this recently as he didn’t want to worry me but l’ve had to spur him on to fight this for both his daughter’s and my sake as his partner will be out of the picture soon and has never been supportive. I have already lost one son and can’t imagine saying goodbye to another. My heart goes out to you all and to James family. Though l’m not religious, strangely or not l do believe in reincarnation so my heart will wish to the stars for their safe harbour.

    Parents “shouldn’t” outlive their children. I’m sorry that it seems to be happening to you again. -rc

  30. Late last year, my Dad passed away of mesothelioma lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure when he was younger as an electrician when they would just drill through it without knowing. Towards the end, he went downhill fast.

    When I read about your friend, I was quite glad to hear that you and Kit stood by him when he needed it.

  31. My sympathies to James’ friends and family.

    His story reminded me that I read something recently about cancer rates in rescue personnel. I can’t find the article at the moment, but apparently there’s a higher rate of cancer and other illnesses among personnel exposed to smoke from fires, because of all the toxic chemicals that are released when the fires burn household chemicals and of course the materials that many walls, floors, rugs, etc. also contain many toxins. Even with respirators, the toxins will get onto clothing of course, so then people are literally covered in poisons, which they may or may not be able to remove without coming into contact with them.

    We need to do something about better protecting the people who protect us.

    Indeed so. Firefighters often end up with bladder cancer, for instance. We need to make sure that we take care of responders with job-related illnesses. After all, they risk it all to take care of us. -rc

  32. Not trying to make light of a sad situation, I’m in one of my own. I noticed your PO box is 666 and you sell get out of hell cards. Wondering if this was on purpose or one of life’s cool little twists.

    I am sorry about your friend but like you said he had some really great people beside him and that’s always a good thing.

    See https://thisistrue.com/true_milestone_issue_666/#pobox for the story about my postal address. -rc

  33. When my brother had cancer, he was 1000 kilometres away. Every three weeks, I would drive 750 kilometres to my daughter’s place and then make sure that I spent a full day with my brother, even if he slept. Whilst he slept, I wrote about things we did as kids, my thoughts and news of the family, so that he would have something to read during his wakeful periods. In the week before he died, I took leave and visited him 5 times. I know he felt alone in palliative care. I think that I helped him with coming to grips with the reality of his death, this feedback came from the nursing staff. I note that his other sisters only visited him once and one was a lot closer than I was. Our parents only visited twice. Come on folks! The best you can do is not enough when a family member or friend is dying. Once gone, you can’t change anything, so think about them now.

    I’m sure you got a lot out of doing it too. Thanks for being there for your brother, Elizabeth. -rc

  34. Went through the same experience as you did with a close friend three years ago. He worked and withered away right up until the last week or two. It broke our hearts to watch him, but we did, and it made us stronger and more appreciative of life because of the experience. He too was a wonderful, brave, and insightful man. His death was our loss.

  35. I’ve had a few friends die recently of cancer. It’s a horrible way to go. Randy, I salute you for your dedication to your friend. I hope I don’t have to go through that again with another friend, but that seems unlikely. But if I do have to go through that again, I will use you as a model.

    Our dear next door neighbor died of cancer a couple of years ago and up until two weeks before she died, regardless of how she felt, she got up, put on nice clothes, makeup, etc. and did something with her day. I was and am amazed at her determination and I was enriched from knowing her.

    I imagine you felt the same way about James. I’m sure your devotion to him was a huge comfort to him and his wife. You have my admiration.

    It’s kind of sad that I should be so admired for a simple act of loyal friendship, but sadly I understand what you mean, since I’ve been so disappointed so many times by those I considered friends. -rc

  36. Let me say how sorry I am for the loss of your friend, who was obviously a great guy! My youngest sister passed away from breast cancer in 2000, after 18 months of a very hard fight to survive. Hospice was there at the end and they were wonderful. Not only did they do all they could to ease Dorothy’s discomfort, they kept our family informed on what to look for in the days preceding her death. The lividity in her legs, the pauses in her breathing, the noises she made…these were all explained to us. It was comforting in a way to know, almost to the hour, what to look for. It did not make losing her any easier, but it did prepare me for that moment.

    Sorry you had to go through it too, but I’m glad you were there for your sister. -rc

  37. I lost my wife of 30 years to breast cancer. It is hard to watch, and it tremendously hard for the loved ones; they have to live with the outcome.

    You covered it just about right:

    – Be there. Nothing takes the place of touch.
    – Come back. Often, time passes very slowly for the patient.
    – Support Hospice with your time and money. What they do is irreplaceable.

    The only things I’d add:

    – To ask about the medical stuff from the family, the patient wants to talk about *anything* else.
    – It is your presence that is needed; silence is ok, you don’t have to know what to say, entertainment is unnecessary, at best. Just be there.

    Excellent additions. -rc

  38. I lost a friend to cancer 8 days ago and I’m very sorry for your loss. I too, can attest to the compassion of Hospice workers. I’ve also been fortunate to see that same compassion in nursing home employees and good friends who step up in times like these. I have discovered that there are many ways to help with the cause. My church has just signed on to stock the communal kitchen of the local 8 bed Hospice House for one month a year. It’s a small thing to do but I’ve seen first hand the impact that it has on the sick, their families and the people that care for them. Hopefully your readers will take action as you have requested, and support Hospice in one way or another.

  39. I couldn’t agree more with the “Be There” suggestion.

    Besides being invaluable for the patient, it is often the only time that a spouse/partner can leave the room and fall apart for a little while.

    Once, when James was in the hospital, with his parents and other family there, we stayed away — until dinner time, when we showed up and told them all to go out to dinner and relax. And they did! I was glad to give them all a brief break. -rc

  40. Lost both parents within 15 months. No tragedy, Dad was a few weeks shy of being 90, Mom was 1 month from 89, and they just weren’t having much fun anymore; they were ready. About 6 months before mom passed peacefully, the tragedy was my little brother who died in an accidental fall. He was 52. Then again his life was somewhat tragic too, but he had a good heart.

    Anyone who has a friend or family member dying of old age or disease (in other words, everyone, eventually) should read Crossing The Creek by Michael Holmes, a retired hospice nurse. Good, honest information on end-of-life, dying process, delivered with a dose of spirituality (but not at all ‘preachy’). The ‘book’ is short, more of a treatise actually. He has some very good short essays linked at his web site too. Look him up on the web, you will be glad you did.

  41. When my father died of breast cancer, in January of 94, hospice wasn’t a really common concept. Of course, men having breast cancer wasn’t a common concept, either.

    My father had friends visiting him regularly, as well as my sister who lived less than 20 miles away. Myself and one other sibling lived airplanes away, but we made time for the occasional phone call.

    The last time he went in, a neighbor had stopped by on his morning constitutional (his words, not mine). My father was sitting with a wood stove 3 feet to the left, a dog at his feet, and a 50 gal oxygen tank 5 feet to his right, reading the newspaper.

    During his week at the hospital, he had friends visiting him 8-12 hours a day. Playing cribbage, just sitting around shooting the bull…. The hospital wouldn’t allow beer, unfortunately. And at night, family would just be in the same room, taking shifts. I was the one there when he took the nasal cannula out and went to sleep.

    Power of Attorney, Durable Power Of Attorney, Health Directives — please fill them out, and let people know where they are. They weren’t very common back then — 20 years ago now! — but there’s no reason that someone above the age of majority now should be without them.

    And a will. -rc

  42. Well, I read the story a week late in my email today, and now I’m crying at work (have to hide that!). My 69-year-old mother died of chronic lymphocytic leukemia four days before Thanksgiving 2013. I was all alone with her for the last 8 hours of her life and did most of her care before that. I, and I alone (my father and brother and her sister and brother didn’t want to be there), had to watch her become incoherent, then unconscious, then gasp for air as her pulse ox went for 70 down to 35 (hemoglobin was 3.5 when we got to the ER). The last thing she said that made any sense was “Robyn, get me up.” She wanted to go home. Nobody wants to see that, watch that, death. I told them I didn’t feel I could just leave the hospital; I needed to bring mom home but she’s never coming home. And, that would make her mad as hell!

    No, no one “wants” to be there for death. They “should” want to be there for the person. You were selfless, being there for someone you loved. Your father, brother, and others rejected her at her greatest time of need, which is inhumanly selfish. Good for you, and shame on them. -rc

  43. I’m an RN, and worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital for cancer and allied diseases during the 70’s, becoming head nurse of the radiation therapy dept during that time. I know cancer from both work and friend/family aspects. Watching patients come back for treatment or followup appointments sicker and weaker was tough on the staff…there were many who imbibed too much in whatever got them thru the night, patients often talked about using pot to quell side effects from treatments…many had been thru chemo before coming for radiation therapy, and were all too familiar with unpleasant side effects. I still remember a few patients after all these years…some were children, others adults. Amazing how people can leave a heartprint after so many years.

    That last part is the best part. -rc

  44. I just read this story, I still have tears rolling down my cheeks. Thank you for sharing it. I finished chemo on February 21, 2014 and will be fine, I hope. My husband lost a good friend just a few days ago to stage 4 kidney cancer that took him after a few short months just shy of his 60th birthday.

    Your advice to visit and be with friends and loved ones as they go through cancer is spot on. I don’t know how I would have made it through chemo if I hadn’t had the support of my friends and family.

    God bless those who are fighting cancer and God Bless those who support & love them.

    That’s important testimony right there: support from friends could make the difference between the patient living or dying. A friend will try to do something to help! -rc

  45. My condolences to you and Kit and to James’s family.

    I have lost many people to cancer. (In one eighteen-month stretch, I lost 22 people, and 17 of the 22 were to cancer.) I was a caregiver to one friend, who was given chemo, then radiation. After radiation, a patient must apply lotion to the skin several times a day. My friend was weak and couldn’t do the applications herself, so I did it for her. Wonderingly, she said, “I thought you would have issues about putting lotion on me.” I said, “We both have the same parts, Cherrie. If you have something I don’t have, I’ll let you know.” She burst out laughing. (Sadly, she died at age 44.)

    Another friend who had had radiation told me her own daughter refused to apply lotion for her. Folks, this is a simple thing you can do for a loved one. Set aside your squeamishness and help a friend do something he or she cannot do on his or her own. Be a friend.

    Wow: 22 in 18 months is pretty tough, but shows the need for people to BE friends. -rc

  46. Just reading/rereading this. In one of your responses, you say “no one ‘wants’ to be there for death.” While, obviously, we don’t want our loved ones to die, I think we should want to be there when they do.

    My first wife died of cancer in 1984, before hospice was at all common. Her last 10 days were in Memorial Hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NYC. Luckily, she was in a private room, and with help from her parents, we were able to afford 24-hour private duty nurses. For her last few days she was not conscious, and for the last 72 hours I did not leave her side except to go to the bathroom.

    The day before she died, her breathing got very labored, and we were warned that death was probably very near. But her heart was very strong, and she kept going. The next night, I had gone to sleep on the cot in her room, reaching up to hold her hand, when the nurse woke me. As you described with James, her breath had begun to slow. I was standing at the head of the bed, stroking her forehead, as she took her last breath.

    She was 39, and we had been married for 5-1/2 years. It was my great privilege to able to be with her to the end.

    “No, no one ‘wants’ to be there for death,” I said in my comment, and continued: “They ‘should’ want to be there for the person.” You were there for your wife when she needed you. There’s no greater love. -rc


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