In the last episode in these series, I promised to share my thoughts on the possible reasons of my obsession with death and dying. Here goes the first post. But be warned! It won’t be about more or less harmless rants on imagined tragedies. No. This time it’s about actual death and suffering. Enjoy if you dare, and begone if you don’t!
Still here? Very well, let’s go then. See that guy up there? We used to call him Mates. We were classmates at my Czech high school. Even after we graduated, we hanged out pretty often until I moved to Ireland. We were not what you would call best friends. I mean, we were good friends, but perhaps not the type that would be sharing the deepest secrets or fears. At least not on purpose and most certainly not too frequently. Yet we used to spend a great deal of time together. We went out for nature trips and played beach volleyball or futnet for hours on end every long summer in our city. We also enjoyed boozing together with other friends and getting engaged in long discussions on existentialist books, Tarantino movies, Polish punk, quantum chemistry, discrete mathematics and pretty much anything else in between. I still remember rather vividly how I enraged Mates by my reluctance to argue with him even when I obviously had a different opinion. But I didn’t mean it in a bad way. It was just my way of getting a revenge for his incessant ironic teases.
Yeah, one could say we were pretty close in some ways. But we never got too close with regards to what killed him in the end.
I think we were seventeen, maybe eighteen when Mates got diagnosed with cancer. It was no laughing matter all right, but I never considered death as a possible outcome of his illness. I suppose it’s hard to think about death seriously at that age. And Mates was making it even easier for me. He’d always been a great satirist. I remember him telling me a lengthy joke about a misplaced catheter that spewed his blood all over the white hospital sheets not so long after a sizable secondary tumour was removed from his lungs. It’s still one of the funniest grimly beautiful stories I have ever heard.
All in all, he seemed to dismiss his condition as some sort of a minor and most certainly temporary annoyance, and I happily behaved as if I agreed. It sure wasn’t as easy as Mates made it look, but he got cured pretty fast back then.
All was back to normal. The only mementos of his cancer were the thick scars on the washboard of his ribs. Too bad the remission only lasted for about six or seven years. He got ill again then, and it wasn’t all that smooth this time.
I wasn’t spending so much time with him anymore when it all started going south. I liked to think it was because I moved to Ireland, but that’s a lie and it’s high time to admit it. I could always come to meet him in hospital during my frequent visits back home. Only I never did that. I somehow preferred to meet him in our favourite pubs whenever he was fit enough to go out with his friends. No one has ever blamed me for that as far as I know. No one but me, deep inside for over a decade.
The last meeting with Mates was intense. I’d be hard pressed to find things that can burn brighter in my memory. The births of my children, maybe couple of other things, but that would be it.
It was some time in 2007. A lot of people came. There was Mates and his girlfriend, his brother with his dog, then a group of other friends like me. We ended up on a grassy slope by a baseball pitch, right on top of a hill with the best views of our city. It think it was summer, though I may be wrong. Anyway, the sun was out and it was nice and warm.
Mates was happy enough and easy with the people, but it was clear he was not in a good shape. He was way thinner than I remembered him from the last time. His freckled skin was tight and pallid on the skeletal frame. There was still that impish fire in his rusty brown eyes, but it was barely flickering within dark circles that seemed to spread across half his face. The worst thing were his tired smiles, though. The mischievous irony was all but gone, replaced by the growing shade of what was about to come.
I think everybody felt that cloud of death hanging about Mates, yet we all seemed to behave as if nothing was amiss. Maybe that was the best thing we could do, really. But I still find it hard not to hate myself for spending half of that afternoon by throwing a slimy tennis ball to the growling rottweiler of Mates’ brother.
He died alone in the middle of the night on the first December weekend in 2007. Few hours before it happened, I wished him a quick recovery from the most recent bout of complications (I think it was hypercalcemia but I may be wrong). In that text I sent him, I was also cheerfully suggesting a pub meeting during my upcoming Xmas break.
Not that it would really matter, but I hope he never read that message. It would be a pretty stupid last memory of me, though I may have as well deserved it.
So what’s the lesson learned this time? As incredibly difficult as it seemed to me back then, it’s all pretty simple again:
- If you ever have anyone dear to you who’s in as deep shit as my dead friend Mates, talk to them about what they’re going through in the first place, in as simple and sincere words as possible.
- Then just let them decide where they want to have you, and follow the routine. Plenty of great advice is available here. I wish I had read something like that back then.
- Whatever you do, don’t stress about the death, but don’t shy away from the topic either. It’s an inevitable part of life. For some of us it simply comes earlier than for others, and there is not much anyone can do about that.
- It is very easy to fail in any of the above, and even easier to think that you have failed. If that happens to you, try and forgive yourself just the way I’m doing it right now. Any other solution is not really going to help anyone down the line.
Now that this post is nearly over, you may wonder how does the death of Mates relate to the story of my madness. When (re)reading the previous posts, and especially this one, you might get an idea or two. If you’re still lost, don’t worry. I’ll tell you more. But that will only come later. First we’ll need to go through two more deaths that are another important part of this grievous puzzle.
The feature photo comes from a private archive of a common friend of me and Mates.