How to Love a Dying Friend

HowtoLoveI met my friend – I will call her Gigi because she reminded me of a ‘60s actress – a little more than a year before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I actually do not remember how we met; just that it was through a mutual friend, Lydia. My first memory of Gigi is New Year’s Eve, 2010, when she, Lydia and I went out to a buffet at a semi-nice restaurant in town. We had no reservations for dinner, so we perched at the bar to eat.

Over the next months, though, Gigi and I became fast friends. She was one of those people I just quickly bonded to. Was it her love of the arts? Check. Her sardonic wit? Check. The way she could make thrift store finds look like a million dollars? Absolutely.

She was medium height, with wide-set blue eyes. She had a nose that I call pert, small and well formed with a slight upward tilt – the type of nose that people go under the knife for. Her hair was once blonde, but now was streaked with gray, and she wore it short, with bangs that skimmed her brows, and she was slender.

Gigi was always up to doing something. A play. A concert. A Greek festival. An art opening. A movie.

Lydia and I fell into a routine of meeting Gigi at her home Sunday afternoons after church. At first, we would go out: to a rustic restaurant in nearby Vermont, or a lakeside eatery where we would dine under a big canopied tent, and lie on wood lawn chairs, dipping our toes in the cold waters of the lake.

Gigi was always keenly interested in what was going on in Lydia’s and my life. She never allowed the presumed shortness of her own life stop her from “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

In July 2011, we planned a trip to a Vermont playhouse to see “Ain’t Misbehaving.” We sat knee to knee during the production, and when I glanced at her, she was clapping her hands and laughing like an excited child. That’s another thing I liked about her: the ability to live life in the present moment.

After, she had to use the restroom to clean her colposcopy bag. When she was diagnosed with cancer after many months of health complaints that were not taken seriously by her health providers, she had had to have several feet of intestines removed.

Yet, I never heard Gigi complain about wearing the bag, or for that matter, about having cancer.

Some people find it awkward to be around the dying. Words fail. You avoid talking about the future, thinking it will hurt them since they won’t be there. You feel uneasy around their suffering. And, yes, the dying sometimes make us uncomfortable because we are forced to contemplate our own mortality.

Lydia and I didn’t have that problem, largely because of Gigi’s great attitude. The three of us single women were always out and about – we called ourselves “the three Musketeers,” although my fiancé preferred to call us – in our mid-50s to 60s – the Golden Girls.

It helped that we all were Christians. Gigi was a Catholic who had had intense experiences with the Holy Spirit. She bought a white wedding gown to be buried in. She wore a silver ring with a cross on her left hand. She spoke longingly of heaven, and credited (or blamed) her Welsh blood for a lingering sense of melancholy that always seemed to hang over her like a veil.

Gigi had come into salvation as a young mother in a troubled marriage. One night, her heavy-drinking husband had disappeared, and she found herself at her wits end, prostrate on the floor, beseeching a deity she only knew at a distance. As she related later, she had a vision of Jesus standing before her, his arms open wide, and he spoke words of comfort to her. She and the husband later divorced, and she remarried and divorced again.

When I met Gigi, she seemed worn out and buffeted by life, although still only in middle age. Two bad marriages, the stresses of parenting a hard-rocking son, and some emotional issues had taken their toll. Many dreams, especially those of serving her Lord, seemed to have come to dust. She had taken chaplaincy courses, but that career never materialized. She had even dreamed of joining a convent.

She was a smart woman with a master’s degree, but before her diagnosis, she worked as a health aide in a nursing home “wiping people’s behinds,” as she wryly put it. The one job she had achieved commensurate with her skills – providing services to recent immigrants – had been short-lived due to a misunderstanding with a client.

The winter before she died, we went shopping for vacation clothes, as she would be spending several weeks in Florida with a cousin she had reconnected with. In the dressing room, watching her try on dresses with flouncy skirts, Lydia and I didn’t want to believe that Gigi didn’t have long to live.

“Nobody who’s that near death has that much interest in shopping!” Lydia had snorted, and I had agreed.

However, there was a turn for the worse when she returned from Florida. Lydia and I still went to Gigi’s, but we would sit around the kitchen and talk instead of going out. Sometimes we would get the “anointing oil,” a bottle of olive oil from the kitchen and pray. I remember that after an especially powerful time of prayer, Gigi called to thank me, saying that she felt, for a moment, the closeness that she had once felt with God. Since she was often wracked with severe anxiety besides the ever-present pain, it was hard for her to feel the presence of God, she’d said.

Two weeks before she died, fluid had surged in her lungs and she feared suffocation. She was rushed to the hospital. My fiancé Morgan and I visited her the next day.

By the time we arrived, she’d had several liters of liquid removed from her lungs. She was looking as pretty and pert as ever, in a satiny blue nightshirt. She told us, matter-of-factly, that the doctors had told her they could do nothing more to make her comfortable. She made Morgan promise that he would befriend her son.

I got the final call in the airport, at a stop between New York and Louisiana. I wept at the airport café table. As I stood in line to board the plane, the agent at the gate asked me what was wrong, and hearing my answer, she gave me a badge to board the plane with the people with special needs. I still remember the older man and his wife waiting there who comforted me.

What did I learn from Gigi? To never be afraid to love a dying friend.

The Bible says no matter how long, our very lives are like a vapor (James 4:14), or like the grass that is fresh and green in the morning, and ready to be thrown into the fire by evening (Mathew 6:30).

A dying friend needs the same thing that she needed when healthy; and that we all need: love, companionship and an ease in being with her. She needs you to listen when she’s anxious, and to laugh with her when she’s happy. She needs to be able to talk about what will happen when she’s no longer here, no matter how awkward or painful that may be to you. She needs you to be her friend in the same way you would were she well.

Gigi left two checks with her mother after her death – one for me and one for Lydia. I smiled when I cashed mine – for $150. I made an appointment to do my hair, bought some bright orange hoop earrings and a flat of flowers, and Lydia and I went out to an Irish restaurant on Gigi’s birthday and raised our glasses to our friend.

Befriending Gigi, and spending time with her during the last days of her life, was a priceless gift. As my friend Debby noted, it is a privilege to walk with someone up to the gates of eternity.