What I Learned About Life From A Man Who Was Dying

Not all terminally ill patients come to terms with their disease.

One of my greatest fears, even more than the insurmountable uncertainty of the certainty of death, is the possibility that I will know I'm going to die before I do. And I won't be able to do a damn thing about it. This is a fear many people have, I'm sure. But if they're like me, they push the heart-slowing thought out of their heads, save for the nights when they're alone in their bed, in the state between drunk and sober, when thoughts spill over one another like the foam from a waterfall.

Earlier this year, I had to face this thought head on. Not for myself, but when my mother's cousin Frankie got pancreatic cancer. I remember when she called me on the phone to relay the news. The first thing I said was something along the lines of "he's done." The furthest I got in regards to the sciences in college was "Bio 2," but I was informed enough to know that pancreatic cancer is the sh*ttiest of the cancers, because it's the most fatal. With other cancers, there's always that sliver of hope to hold onto. There's the possibility of remission. But with this cancer, there is no way out. No silver lining. At that moment on the phone, I knew he was going to die.

The first time I saw Frankie since hearing of his diagnosis was at Thanksgiving last year. He had aged a bit since I saw him last, which was a year or so prior and normal for us.

I'd see Frankie here and there growing up, either at family events or tagging along with my grandfather on side construction projects he'd enlist his help for. He was always tall to me, a bit lanky but not skinny, either. His voice was his most distinctive feature — it had a slightly raspy quality to it, but wasn't all that deep. From what I've heard from my parents, he had a drug problem. But aside from the fact I didn't know a damn thing about what junkies look like I don't think I'd be able to tell anyway. He was always happy and to me, at the time at least, happy people weren't drug addicts.

But the happy-go-lucky man I grew to know was gone. He was graying and looked quite frail. Sitting next to him, I felt my heart sink deeper within my chest cavity. It was the second time I had come face to face with someone who was dying, but I didn’t take on the “live life to the fullest!” attitude I thought I’d have.

" I didn’t know what to say to someone whose time was running out."

 

Instead, I sat there, and aside from a few quick “how are yous,” watched him eat his plate of rice and pernil, traditional Spanish dishes he’d had all his life, in silence. I didn’t know what to say to someone whose time was running out. So I watched him scoop the food slowly into his mouth, thinking the same thing he probably was: wondering if this plate of food would be one of his last.

When I think of Frankie, I usually only think about him in the context of a time when I was not alive. This is because my mom would tell me stories about him from when they were younger. Before real life set in, as did the reality of accepting someone despite their much different lifestyle. To me, Frankie was her cool, older cousin who also acted like a protective big brother. He looked after her and even DJed her Sweet 16. They knew similar people, which wasn't uncommon given that they grew up in the same area in Philadelphia.

As they got older, however, their paths diverged. My mom graduated college, had me, got married, got divorced, got remarried, moved to the suburbs, worked as a counselor, and — considering she's a Puerto Rican woman who had a baby when she was 21 with a Puerto Rican boy from the ghetto — went on to live a pretty vanilla (read: successful) life. Frankie, on the other hand, struggled with addiction. He never went to college and he never had any kids. His mother, my mother's aunt whom everyone called "Titi" (Spanish for "aunt") was all he had. When she died everyone worried what would become of him. But he managed to continue on.

Even beside his mother's death bed, his optimism was unmatched. My mother and I arrived at the hospital room just in time for him to greet us at the door. He embraced us with a smile that read "at a family reunion" more than "in mourning." His mother was dying, but he relished in seeing family members come out to support him. It made the pain subside, if only for a little while.

Over the year Frankie was sick I had come to accept the uncomfortable feeling that came over me when I thought of what he was going through — being sick, but still trying to live life anyway — a task I considered to be somewhat Herculean.

At least, I thought I had come to accept it, when my mom asked if I'd go with her to visit him in hospice. I said yes, but as I approached the lonely Victorian-style house filled with people who were about to no longer be, my mind began to race.

What do I say?

Do I pretend like everything is normal?

How must it feel to be in the place you know you'll take your last breaths?

The hospice building sat right outside the city, had two floors, a large dining room, and living room area and bedrooms upstairs. The stairwell had a railing with an electric motorized chair attached that reminded me of the creepy contraption Kat from the movie Casper rode to the basement. In any other situation, the house might have seemed quaint — cozy if I'm being generous. But as soon as I stepped inside, all I could think about was death.

My aunt Sandy greeted my mom and I when we stepped inside.

"He's upstairs," she told us as she led us farther away from the comfort of the outside word.

At that moment, I felt like running back to the car. But it was too late. I blinked and the nurse had greeted us, and my aunt had already shepherded my mom and I up the stairs. Frankie shared a bedroom with an older man who was asleep, but appeared to already be dead.

Aunt Sandy is the eldest of my mother's siblings and the default caretaker of adults in my family who are sick. Or that's how it seemed. She was the first in command when my grandmother was dying of cancer, she currently takes care of my grandfather (namely reading his mail for him and making sure he doesn't get himself into trouble with that big mouth of his), and then Frankie. I don't recall the two being particularly close when he was well, but my aunt promised my grandmother she'd take look out for us all after she passed, and Frankie fell under that jurisdiction.

We found him sitting on the edge of his bed.

He quickly sat up, as quickly as he could at least, and gave us tight hugs.

"What's new?" I asked, thinking of an article I read once about terminally ill people. The book said it was better to ask what's new instead of how are you feeling, because it's obvious someone dying of cancer is feeling sh*tty. But as soon as the words left my mouth, I immediately regretted it.

He laughed pretty audibly and uttered a "not much" with his same raspy voice I've always known him to have. He looked around the room as if to offer that what I saw was what I got. And it wasn't much.

After making small talk Frankie asked to smoke a cigarette, because when you're going to die, the hell with what you put in your lungs. We all ventured down the stairs, save for Frankie, who had been strapped into the stair-chair apparatus.

Once he met us in the living room area we ventured through the house to get to the backyard, with Frankie walking slowly but steadily toward to door. As he approached the stairs leading down from the house, the nurse cautioned my aunt and my mother to grab ahold of each of his arms to support him. He insisted he was fine, but as he descended down the steps, his knees buckled. He fell, knocking the side of his head on the concrete and rolling onto the patio.

My mom let out a scream and I watched her face contort in a way that I've never seen before.

Everyone seemed to freeze in shock, so I quickly rushed to help him up.

"Walk it off, walk it off," I said casually like a tee ball coach would to a toddler with a boo-boo to make him forget about what just happened. But it was too late.

Frankie made it to the backyard bench and sat defeated.

"I don't get it," he said. "My legs don't work."

We tried to distract him, as if making conversation could deter someone from facing the reality that their body is withering away, but we tried anyway.

"It happens to all of us," my aunt conceded.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “My legs don’t work.”

 

Once he met us in the living room area we ventured through the house to get to the backyard, with Frankie walking slowly but steadily toward to door. As he approached the stairs leading down from the house, the nurse cautioned my aunt and my mother to grab ahold of each of his arms to support him. He insisted he was fine, but as he descended down the steps, his knees buckled. He fell, knocking the side of his head on the concrete and rolling onto the patio.

Back inside post-cigarette, we sat on the sofas chatting about our other family members and laughing about the days he and my mother had the same group of friends. He told me how he wanted to finally start his novel and nearly cried when I told him I'd not only buy him the Microsoft tablet for him to do it, but edit it as well.

But as my aunt and mother chatted further about whatever was happening in their lives, I watched him drift away, captive to the thoughts in his head. Some moments, he'd stare out into space, wondering just how he got to this point. Even though he agreed to hospice, it was clear he still hadn't come to terms with the fact he was going to die. And if he had, he certainly couldn't understand why.

After moments of silence, he wondered out loud how he could be a healthy fortysomething and then be reduced to a mere skeleton just a year later. He'd shake his head slowly as if he were trying to solve an advanced-level crossword puzzle to no avail, shattering the notion that all people with terminal illnesses are able to come to terms with their disease. Thinking that they do makes healthy people feel better. But Frankie wasn't one for smokescreens.

At that moment, the fear went away and I offered the one thing I knew I would want to hear if I was in his shoes:

"There has to be somewhere better than this."

When I said this, he grabbed my hand and gave me a look that seemed to be thanking me for finding the sliver of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. I solved the puzzle.

Two more hours went by and it was time to go home. Time to return to be with people who had their whole lives before them. I watched him ride the stair-chair back to his bedroom, making sure not to look away. I took in his wave good-bye, his eyes, his smile, soaking them into my memory as this time doing so would surely be my last. And it was.

On September 24, 2015, Frankie passed away. And only when my time comes will I truly know if what I said was true, if there really is somewhere better than this. For someone whose light shone even through the darkest of hours, I sure hope so.

Only then will there be hope for the rest of us.