Jim Chastain and I sat across the table from one another at Metro Wine Bar and Grill sharing lunch last week. Jim is a young man in his 40’s who has been told his cancer is terminal. His physicians tell him he has months, not years.
We talked about his dying like some people talk about the weather. We didn’t dwell on it, but we both acknowledged it and then intentionally turned our attention to the day at hand.
All of us live, love, hurt, change, age, and die. Knowing that however doesn’t mean we have to like it and I can assure you, Jim Chastain is not at all crazy about the idea of dying before the year comes to a close.
He is an attorney with a promising career, a writer, a poet, a man with a great group of close friends, a husband who adores his wife, and two teenagers, for whom he’d give his life in a heartbeat if it would save theirs.
He is having a difficult time, however, trying to make sense of how his death at this age would benefit anyone in his family. He doesn’t want to miss growing older with his wife. He doesn’t want to miss watching his teenagers grow into adulthood. He doesn’t want to miss birthdays, graduations, career choices, weddings or grandchildren. He wants to write more poems. He wants to live to be old and wrinkled and bald. Losing his hair to chemotherapy is just not the same.
I watch this man as he mentally struggles to back away from the precipice of the “what if’s” and return to this day and what he can do now. He puts it down on paper – in a journal or in the form of a poem. You can read over his shoulder as he writes what may be his final chapter on The Oklahoman website: www.newsok.com/jimchastain.
His willingness to share his thoughts, feelings and daily choices of how he spends his time is a gift to the rest of us. While someone with terminal cancer is told they have a limited amount of time to live, in reality that is true for each of us. Happily ever after is only in fairy tales.
Whether I live one more year or twenty, I am learning from Jim that the antidote to the fear of death is to embrace the possibilities of where I am now.
Perhaps you, too, would like to join me in pondering, “If this was the last year of my life, what are the choices I would want to be making?” Mine are: to listen deeply, love without limits, and live with intention – like Jim.
FROM JANUARY 22 COLUMN
I asked Deloris for permission to share her thoughts on this blog. After reading Jim’s story in The Oklahoman on Sunday, January 11, she emailed me to say her husband died of cancer in December of ’08 and like many of us, she learned from that experience about the coping skills people have when faced with that kind of health crisis.
Born and raised as a farmer, her husband was a man who did not give up even if the hail storm destroyed everything he had and even if he had to go in debt to keep going. He’d always get up and plant again. And in the same way, she watched him go through his bout with cancer.
She wrote: As I observed my husband and other cancer patients, the strengths they had formed from prior challenges they had met in everyday living – and then used them as a learning tool – were able to handle the cancer challenge better.
She also spoke of her husband’s faith that gave him comfort in knowing he was not alone and she is aware this positive attitude and will to live will get her through the challenges of life that she now faces.
She also sees in Jim’s story that he and his family will live life fully for as long as it lasts and believes he is truly blessed that he can express himself in so many ways to give understanding to others facing similar challenges, and says she will follow Jim’s example.
Writing a note to someone with cancer is a good thing to do - as long as we pay attention to the words we use. What you say, of course, depends on how close you are to the person to whom you’re writing and how open that one is about what is happening to them. Many people prefer to keep their health issues private for professional or personal reasons and that needs to be respected. If you’re not sure, perhaps you could ask someone close to them.
For someone you don’t know well or someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you might write, “I heard you were in the hospital. I don’t know the details, but I just want you to know I wish you well.”
If you know the person and the prognosis is optimistic, it could be as simple as “Hope all goes well at the hospital. I look forward to see you as soon as you’re ready for visitors.”
To someone you know well who has had a diagnosis of breast cancer and for whom the prognosis is optimistic, something like, “When I heard your news, I was devastated, then I think of all the women I see going on with their lives and doing well. I hope you’ll be joining that club.”
Always check your note for any hint of a ”should”. A statement like “You have to beat this” may mean well, but it actually puts pressure and responsibility on the patient. If they don’t get well, they can easily feel like they’ve let you down. One lung cancer patient said, “Don’t call me a fighter. That means if I don’t win, I’m a loser.”
Another reason to avoid shoulds is they can shut off communication by sending the message that you don’t want to hear anything negative. So instead of “shoulds” stick to “I”. “I think.” “I feel.” “I feel you are going to beat this.” You might even say, “If it were me, I’d be a nervous wreck.”
Address the treatment, rather than what the outcome might be. “I hope this chemotherapy/radiation period will go quickly.” “I’m not sure if you want visitors or not. Would you like me to come over? I’ll bring the dessert or do you feel like going out?” Remember anyone who isn’t feeling well, has no energy to entertain you and it is always thoughtful to add, “If you don’t feel like going out or having company, that’s okay, too. Just know I am thinking about you.”
In some instances, you can give a goal. “Our New Year’s Eve party will be complete if you can be there.” This gives a goal without imposing responsibility on the person. That is much more helpful than “You must be at our New Year’s Eve party.”
Just finding ways to say you care is what it’s all about. One lady wrote to a relative who had a mastectomy, “It hurts my heart to think of what a rough time you must be going through. I wish you healing ahead. You’re on my mind always.”
For a cousin who had a cancer recurrence, another wrote, “This isn’t fair. You’ve been through so much already. You’re in my prayers.”
When the outlook is bleak you don’t want to say, “I hope you’ll be back home quickly, but you can write notes like ”I know this is a difficult time. My thoughts are with you.” “You’ve touched my life.” “You’re my favorite neighbor – the best I could ask for. Please know I care.”
To a coworker, “I miss your particular brand of humor.”
To someone close to dying, you can relate a story about something special you’ve shared. “Today the hyacinths came up and I remember the day we planted the bulbs together.”
Maybe send an article, a story or a poem with a note, saying, “I’m not good with words, but this touched me. I wanted to share it with you.”
Offer help only if you really mean it and don’t promise more than you are willing to deliver. “I’ll call Saturday to see if I can drop off a pie that you or your visitors might enjoy.”
We always mean well, but sometimes we are thoughtless in our choice of words. Write carefully.
I’ve been out of pocket over the holidays and am finally getting back into the routine. I find however that even when I take “breaks”, life does not. It just keeps going. A long time friend has progessed in her Alzheimer’s disease, a son died and two special friends continue the challenges of living with cancer.
I learn from all of these folks – life is short, tend it well, and never, never, never, give up.
The dying experience can be a gift, regardless of the time of year because it makes one reflect on the brevity of life and what is really important. Over the years, people who found themselves in this experience have told me me they no longer saw life as something to be endured, but rather a pattern of experiences to savor.
What does that mean? It means it is time to use the good china and crystal any day, wear your good blazer to the grocery store, eliminate “someday” and “one of these days” from your vocabulary because if it is worth seeing or hearing or doing, see and hear and do it now.
From personal experience, I can tell you it is the little things left undone that will make you angry – those letters you intended to write, the apology you never got around to giving, not telling someone how much you truly loved them.
Don’t hold back or save anything that would add laughter and luster to your life now because the death rate is still 100 percent. We’re all going to die and perhaps the best gift we give ourselves and the people we love is to resolve to not squander any of our days.
When I first talked to Jim Chastain about chronicling this part of his life in a very public way, I was reminded of the story of an old man in ancient Israel who was planting a fig tree when a Roman general happened to pass by. The general said to the man, “Don’t you realize it will take twenty years before that tree will grow enough to give fruit, and you will be long dead by then?” The old man responded, “When I was a small child, I could eat fruit because those who came before me had planted trees. Am I not obliged to do the same for the next generation?”
Since every one of us is going to die, why should we not learn from those who are going through the experience – learn how to move through the dying time with dignity, but also learn how to live each day, until that happens, in a way that will provide “fruit” for the next generation.
Jim Chastain has a gift of poetry. He uses words to express his feelings and his experiences in a way that resonates with me. I want to learn from this man everything I can – and in his sharing of this experience, I am certain I will find it useful for myself and I will teach it to my children and grandchildren and in the doing of that, Jim’s life will bear fruit for the generations that follow.
Two small, short, easy-to-read books that I wish someone had given to my husband and to me after we were told he probably didn’t have more than 6 months to live, were books I found after the fact.
One You Love is Dying and When You Know You’re Dying written by James Miller are practical, useful, and will aid you in facing intelligently the reality that lies ahead. Each of them offers 12 thoughts to guide you on the journey.
Too often we treat death like we treat sex. We know it is there, but we don’t talk about it.
When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, first started her studies in this area, she recalls visiting doctors and nurses in a
“We don’t have any,” they said. Or, “You can’t talk to them because you’ll upset them if you as them any questions.”
When she finally got to the patients, over the opposition of the medical staff, she found they were hungry for someone to talk to and for someone who would listen to them.
Even though it is now “in” to be able to talk about dying, the reality is most of us don’t expect it to happen to our loved ones or to us.
The first time I became aware of how unprepared I was to walk someone I loved through the dying time was 1996. My husband Fred Lankard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of that year and 100 days later he died.
Looking back, I see that it was a time of great confusion and helplessness and isolation and bewilderment. No one looking at us from the outside would have possibly guessed the depth of that.
After Fred’s death, I came across a book titled Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning. I am not Jewish, but I found myself envious of their rituals and traditions that make clear what is to be done by those grieving as well as those who are caring for the grieving. By doing what the law requires, the community reaches out to embrace and say, “You are not alone, we care about you.”