My best friend is dying.
It’s strange, seeing the statement written down. For one, its tautological properties are taunting: everyone, by virtue of being alive, eventually dies. For another, I’ve refused to stack rank my friends since at least middle school, so even the thought of a “best” friend is foreign to me. But alas, for all its perniciousness, the spectre of death does tend to bring about clarity.
He was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer a few months ago. Despite world-class treatment, the prognosis is not good.
At this point in my life, it’s not like I still retain the immortal conceptions of youth. Death isn’t a mere abstraction to any of us. Alcohol took its toll on a few friends and acquaintances in high school and college, and grandparents have passed away. Friends have lost family to terrorist attacks, acquaintances have died in war, or murdered their family, or taken their own lives. But brain cancer, at our age, against one of the most keen and ambitious people I know, only confirms that fate is a motherfucker.
We all know that we’ll die at some point, but I think it’s among the most instinctively repulsive things to conceive of one’s own death. And we try, consciously or not, to push it down, brush it away. We’ve read about the ways that the great intellectuals of the past viewed it:
Epicurus: “Death means nothing to us…when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.”
Tolstoy: “The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
It’s funny: both of us were in a freshman college class called “Visions of Mortality”, where we read those texts above. That class, I think, had a pretty direct link to my emotional depression throughout college, but I still consider it as one of the most worthwhile courses I’ve taken. Yet no matter how much you twist and turn it in an intellectual exercise, when finally you stare at it, you can’t help but feel that rationality is toothless against death. What good are the quotes and experiences of others when we confront this fear for ourselves? These impregnable logical barriers are houses of straw.
He and his wife are among the most strong and resilient people I know, so it’s taken with a bit of grim irony that it’s been he who has been trying to comfort me about his situation. I’ve never been so much at a loss for words.
He recommended me to read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a short, powerful memoir of a neurosurgeon who succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 36. As a fellow Stanford alum, the book resonated with me in expected and unexpected ways. Here was a work written by someone whom I felt an intellectual peer, someone who thought through the same complex issues, approached life with the same driving philosophy. Someone who — just like my best friend — by mere contrast illuminates all the deficiencies of my own life. And anyone who uses T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” as the recitation text for determining sanity of mind: that’s a “you had me at hello” sort of moment. (Incidentally, I was gifted “The Wasteland” by my teaching assistant for “Visions of Mortality”, a gesture which to this day I still ponder.)
Kalanithi describes the maddening uncertainty of cancer. Before, you knew you would die at some unknown point in the future; after, you still know you will die at some unknown point in the future, but that point is just closer. Yes, you can look at the probabilities, the Kaplan-Meier survival curves, but each observation is a life, unique among the rest. If you knew with certainty how long you had to live, you could plan things out. And how do you live a meaningful life? What actions would be different if it’s 2 months vs. 2 years (or 20 or 200 years)?
What consolation is it to a dying man that he has lived a meaningful, fulfilling life? We learn such hard lessons about how to live our lives, but so little about how to accept our deaths.
I very recently watched through the Harry Potter films. There, too, the faintest glimmers of answers, here and gone.
For the past few months, I’ve been trying in vain to craft a letter to my friend. Each time I try to start writing again, I cry and stop. All I have is this:
I’m sorry that even if you lived to 133, I may still not have found someone to reciprocate the favor of having you as my best man.
I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I do know this: that any heaven will welcome you with open arms.
This is something that I’ve been thinking about for the past few years: I don’t know if you ever drew space-time diagrams in physics, usually with the speed of light being a 45-degree line. I’ve been thinking about how all our lives are these slow, sinuous lines that weave along space and time. Even though all our lines are finite, we all are woven into this fabric of the universe. Yours has touched people more than you know.
I love you, man.