40 years I’ve known George. That’s a long time to stay friends with anyone, let alone someone you only met in your late teens. I have friends that I grew up with and still keep in touch with even today and even though 6000 miles separate us, but to meet someone in a different country, befriend them and stay in touch for such a long period of time, well that’s unusual. George lives in China, Hong Kong to be precise and for the past year or so, he’s been fighting lung cancer. He never smoked, rarely drank and did all sorts of things to promote good health and longevity. His mother and father died of lung cancer, and his brother was cured of lung cancer, but George, being the workaholic that he is, never went for regular check ups, never went for blood work and never had the slightest incline that he had tumors until one day, walking up a flight of stairs, the same ones he’d walked up many hundreds of times previously, he was cut down with shortness of breath. A soccer player, and fitness fanatic, George thought he was having some sort of coronary episode, but after a few simple tests, tests he should have taken years ago, the news was brutal and final. And so his battle began. 7 chemo sessions, radiotherapy, drugs et al. Over the past five or so months George has tried them all. They’ve taken 5 liters of fluid from his lungs three times. They have prodded, pulled and pushed his body to its limits. They have given him good news, bad news and more news that’s in between. None of it now matters, because George now lies in the Queen Mary hospital in Aberdeen Hong Kong, gasping for breath as this horrible disease spreads into his other organs. Not the happiest blog I have ever written but one which adequately describes in the briefest of terms how it feels to watch and listen and digest death as it overwhelms ever so slowly, a friend or loved one who you can only remember as being fit and healthy normal human being.
Which brings me to the title of this particular blog. Why is it so hard to say goodbye?
I intend to fly out to visit with George tomorrow, just as I would do with any other of my friends who needed support or encouragement should they ever find themselves in such dire straights. The issue is, what exactly do you say to someone who knows they don’t have long to live and someone who you’ve shared good times and bad times with for so many years? Someone you’ve laughed with, cried with, traveled with and dined with. Do you act like nothing’s going on? Do you bring up the tragedy of it all? Do you ignore their pain and make them feel loved and try to bring them a moment or two of laughter? What I’ve learned in the past when confronted by similar situations is that most of the people I’ve known with a similar plight never actually believe there is anything wrong with them. When quizzed, they all, perhaps through that inevitable fear of death, brush aside any thoughts of demise and insist that recovery is just around that never-ending corner. We could call that optimism or perhaps the last threads of our own being. No matter the situation, when faced with the prospects of confronting a dying friend for the very last time, it’s hard not to bring up the past, bring up the present and not look forwards to a future that you know they will never be a part of.
When I get to HK on Sunday I fully intend to show George this picture, the one above. That was a stellar day not so long ago. A day we spent in Monterey CA together, looking at 17 mile drive, Fisherman’s wharf and then ending up at the BBQ joint in Seaside where they were having a bikini car wash for charity and all the ladies washing cars took and instant fancy to George. That was a fun day and that’s a day never to forget. We all have lots of days like that, but too many of us choose to recall bad times or wallow in the grief that follows the good, hoping perhaps for a little more sympathy or a way to make self-pity our final prayer. No matter what, life is short, and saying goodbye shouldn’t be a chore, after all, it might not be goodbye for too long, none of us rally know. We all hope, but we don’t know.
While writing this, I know George is still alive and fighting. Perhaps it will be weeks, perhaps months or perhaps days, but in the end, George will complete the process which will eventually transform his being into the next world, a world that maybe, just maybe, is better than this one and a world where saying goodbye is only the beginning.