What Can You Say to a Terminally Ill Person…?


Guest Post this week from my friend,

Pete Rosky

I had a friend.  His name was Dave.  We worked together.  The year was 1992.  I had just started dating someone, and we both agreed that getting tested for Aids was important before having sex.  I was telling Dave that I got my results back, and whew, they were negative.   Dave smiled, nodded, and told me he was HIV positive.  Had been for a number of years.   I was shocked to hear this.  It was a death sentence.   I thanked him for sharing something so personal, but didn’t really know what else to say.

A month or so later, Dave quit.  He told me he had to get out of Oregon.  I wished him well, and we promised to keep in touch, but didn’t.   To be honest, I didn’t think about him that much, until a year later, when he called me to tell me he had moved back home, with his mom and step-dad.   When I asked him what prompted the move, he told me that he was no longer HIV positive, but now had full blown AIDS.

I didn’t know what to say.  Who does in this situation?  I can’t even tell you what we talked about next.  I can tell you that I drove to his mom’s house that night, and we drank beers and talked.  And talked, and talked.  At first it was small talk.  We talked about his travels.  He asked about my life, and I told him about my job change, and the status of my relationship.   I asked him about Christine.  Christine was the person who introduced me to Dave.   She got him the job at the call centre where we all worked together.  I had left there about 6 months prior, so I asked how she was.  Dave said he didn’t know.  He said they didn’t talk anymore.   This surprised me, as they were best friends, who had gone to school together, worked together, and when you met them, you would swear they were brother and sister, they were so close.

Dave then proceeded to tell me that Christine stopped talking to him not long after he told her that he had full blown Aids.  See, it was 1993.   People were scared of Aids.  It was incurable.  It had only been around a little over 10 years, and people didn’t trust the science that told them you couldn’t get it just from being around someone who had it.   She had panicked and shunned her best friend.  When he probably needed her most.  She wasn’t the only one.  Dave told me that almost everyone he knew was the same.  They were afraid of getting sick.  They were young, they wanted to party, they didn’t understand.  They had a million excuses, most of them bullshit.  The reality was, Dave’s friends, both gay and straight, abandoned him.

And Dave was getting sicker.  Have you seen the movie Philadelphia?  Remember when Tom Hanks character got the skin blotches and went blind?  This was Dave’s future.  This was what he was facing.  Mostly alone.

I decided that night, that I wouldn’t abandon Dave.  I would be his friend.  I would visit him.  I would talk to him.  I would be there if he needed me. Please understand, I’m no saint, and this story is not about me.  I split up with my wife when my son was 2 years old, and missed seeing him grow up.  I’ve done a lot of shit I’m not proud of.

As I drove home that night, I started thinking about what conversations would be like when I talked with Dave.  What do I know about being terminally ill?  What could I offer?  Would I say the wrong thing?

I went back to Dave’s house a few days later.   He was sick at this point, but not bed ridden.  We sat on the veranda, and got stoned.  And we talked.  And we talked.  Not about dying.  Not about living.  Not about anything really.   We just talked.  We laughed.  We did normal shit.

As I drove home that night (yes, I drove stoned, sorry), I thought about how easy it was to just talk with Dave.  There was no expectation on his part.  I sensed he was just happy to have someone besides his parents to talk with.

For the next 11 months, this became routine.  I would go to Dave’s house, we would talk, sometimes get stoned, sometimes not, and I would go home.   He would ask about my day.  I would ask about his.  He would tell me of his medical appointments.   He would tell me stories about his past.  I would share stories of my past with him.  To be honest, when this started, Dave was more of an acquaintance, but we became friends.  In hindsight, I wonder if I would choose to become friends with someone who was dying?  I’m not sure I had thought this through.  I just felt he had reached out to me, and I felt I couldn’t say no.

I remember early in the piece, we had the conversation about dying.  I asked him if he wanted to go through the pain he knew was coming, or if he’d rather just leave this world without all that pain.  He said he didn’t want to go through it.  If he was going to die, he just wanted to die peacefully.  We didn’t talk about suicide directly, but we both agreed that if it came down to it, it would be better to kill ourselves, than to endure the pain that was sure to come with Aids.

I watched Dave as he got sicker.  It was sad.  It was horrible.  It was soul destroying at times to watch someone I had grown to care for get so sick.  He lost so much weight he couldn’t walk.  He got the skin blotches.  He went blind.

As he got sicker, visits got tougher.  It was obvious Dave was dying.  One night, about 6 months later,  we re-visited the ‘would you go through the pain scenario’.   The answer was completely different.  Dave no longer cared about the pain.  He wanted to stay with his family.  He wanted to enjoy every minute of his life.   No matter how painful.

I would show up at Dave’s house, and be greeted by his mother, or his step father, who would give me the run down on his condition.  They looked so sad.  So worn out.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were the ones who needed medical attention.  Hell, they probably did.

Dave’s mother was a wonderful woman.  Dave told me she knew he was gay, long before he came out to her.  She was totally accepting and supportive.  His step father on the other hand, had a hard time with Dave’s sexuality.  He had been in Dave’s life since Dave was 8 years old.  He was a truck driver.  A man’s man.  He didn’t know how to deal with Dave and his lifestyle.  Dave told me this was part of the reason he moved away.

I got to know his mother and step father during this time.  Not well.   More superficially.  They were nice people, and they were dealing with a terrible situation.  They were watching their child die before they did.  As a parent, I can’t even fathom the pain this must cause.

I got a call from Dave’s step father on a Tuesday morning to tell me that Dave had died the night before.  I was devastated.  I had been there on Sunday night, and Dave was really sick.  He had that death rattle in his chest.  It was the first time I’d experienced that.  Sadly, not the last.  He was in and out of consciousness.  Still, hearing the words, he’s gone, was a shock to my system.  I think I thanked his dad for calling, and then I cried for a long time.

A week later, I was back at Dave’s house.  I was there to celebrate Dave’s life with his family and friends.  Mostly family.  His mother had made a poster that had all of Dave’s school pictures from K-12.  I met his sisters.  I met aunts and uncles.  I don’t know who else.  It was a blur.  It seemed unreal.  It was so sad.  His sisters, whom I hadn’t met before, thanked me for coming, and one of them said that Dave had told her nice things about me.  A few family members got up and spoke about Dave, some stories were shared, and there was smiling and crying and sadness and laughter.   As a non-family member, I felt a bit awkward at best, but wanted to be there to honour Dave.

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When it was time to go, I said goodbye to everyone and started to leave.  Dave’s step father walked with me down the side of the house.  As we walked he thanked me for being there for Dave.  He told me how much he appreciated it.  And how much Dave appreciated it.  I told him that I was just doing what was right, and that he was the one who was there for Dave.  That Dave knew how hard it was for him to deal with everything.  And that Dave had told me he loved him.  Dave’s stepfather, the most stoic man I have ever met, burst into tears.  He hugged me hard for a long time, while he cried.  Neither of us said a word.  Then he thanked me, and I thanked him, and I left.

I never went back to Dave’s house.  Sure, it might be a better story if I became friends with his family, and we started a foundation, and gave away scholarships, but that isn’t reality.  Reality is, our link was Dave.  And he was gone.

I was so worried about what to say to him when I found out he was dying.  But, that was never a problem.  Never.  Sometimes we forget how social we are.  How much we need others to be there to interact with us.  Especially in an awkward situation.  Like when someone is dying.  We don’t think we know what to say.  We don’t want to mess up and say the wrong thing.  So, we say nothing.  We do nothing.  We walk away.  I hope if you get anything out of this story, it’s the message that there is no wrong thing to say.  The truth is, we need each other.  We need to feel that human connection.  We need people to listen to us.  So, smile at your fellow human.  Talk with people.  Sure, it’s hard.  You might fuck up.  But, walking away is even worse.

Pete Rosky is Comic, Professional Master Of Ceremonies, and Real Estate Executive living in Brisbane, Queensland AU

peterosky2012

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