Having the Talk

When a loved one is dying, it’s vital to find the courage to say, ‘I love you and good-bye.’

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At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic I received a text from a high school friend: “Just FYI, my mother is in the hospital in NYC with a positive virus diagnosis. Not doing especially well but not unexpected at 87 years old.” What he meant was this: She’s dying.

I asked if I could call her, since she had been best friends with my mother for a lifetime. “She’s pretty weak, but I’m sure she would find talking with you heartening,” he replied. One minute later I called his mother, who coughed her way through a 90-second conversation, her lungs and airways choking with mucus, while I listened. Then I spoke. After, I texted my friend back: “I had a beautiful conversation with your mom. She said goodbye. I said goodbye. I am heartbroken for you and your sibs, but like my mother she is indelible. And will always be with us.”

“I love you … goodbye.” Not many of us want to have that talk. It’s a collective denial of death, especially among the baby boomers who still feel immortal, sprinting and swimming like there’s no tomorrow. The one thing they — um, we — can’t acknowledge is that, eventually, there really is no tomorrow. (You see how hard this still is for me.)

Christopher Hitchens, the essayist and social critic, didn’t shy away from having “the talk,” which he described so vividly in his last book, Mortality, a collection of essays about dying that was published posthumously. During his brief but awful illness, Hitchens realized people need prompts on how to talk about illness and death. After what he described as a “surprisingly exhausting encounter” with a stranger who wished him well with all the wrong words, Hitchens wrote, “It made me wonder if perhaps there was room for a shorthand book of cancer etiquette” for both “sufferers” and “sympathizers.”

Think about how hard it is for most of us to write a “simple” condolence note. We stammer and stall, finally put pen to paper, and then rip it all up to start again. But to confront the dying in real time, with our words and hearts … oh, my. I remember vividly the first time my mother acknowledged that she was dying: “Will it be painful?” she asked me. Unable to have the conversation, I pivoted to a safe topic: “What would you like for dinner tonight?”

“I don’t have a whole lot of regrets in life,” my longtime collaborator Roseann Henry told me, “but one of the big ones is not saying goodbye to a friend who was dying of cancer. She had stopped all treatment and was clearly approaching the end of her life, so my wife and I flew to Los Angeles for one last visit. We spent the afternoon talking about old times, current events, and the upcoming adoption of our second child. But when it came time to leave, I just couldn’t bear to acknowledge the elephant in the room. All I could say was, ‘Just think, next time we come back we’ll have another baby with us!’ We all knew we wouldn’t see each other again, and in fact, the next time we went to L.A. was for her memorial service. I will always regret not saying I love you, and goodbye.”

Later I told Roseann, “Sometimes we don’t need words to express ourselves. No one can misinterpret the impact of showing up. You flew 2,500 miles to visit her one last time. You did say goodbye.”

During my mom’s lengthy illness, I closely followed NPR’s Scott Simon, who tweeted his end-of-life conversations with his mother to his 2.5 million followers — one of whom was me. (He later turned this chapter of his life into a bestselling memoir, Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime, which is both a love story and a how-to manual for saying goodbye in the digital age.) Simon stayed at his mother’s bedside — sometimes in her hospital bed — comforting her, having frank conversations, until the end. In a phone conversation, Simon told me, “A gentleman always sees a lady to the door” — in this case, her final door. This is one of the lessons he says his mother taught him.

“I understand there are people who think they can’t bring themselves to do it,” he added, “but it becomes an utterly natural thing. My mother said to me at one point, ‘Will this go on forever?’ I said, ‘No, it won’t go on forever.’ She said, ‘You and me, we’ll go on forever?’ I just said, ‘Yes.’”

But how do you know when to have this talk, especially when we’re holding on to the last flicker of hope? If a loved one has a protracted illness, having the conversation too soon could be awkward — if not downright ghoulish. Too late, however — well, that’s a bigger problem. Even though I couldn’t acknowledge it at the time, my mom opened the door for me when she asked, “Will dying be painful?” Fortunately, in the weeks that she had left, I found myself able to step through the open door to be with her.

Crossing that threshold is a gift, albeit a painful one. Only a few days ago as I write this, I visited the Caring-Bridge website of my friend and ex-partner, Barry Owen, who had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer 12 months earlier. Now, he’d terminated treatment and was nearing the end of his life. Many of his dear friends openly expressed their love, and sadness at the impending loss. One of them posted, “I have seen deaths both sudden and drawn out. To my mind, if you can have some time when you know for sure you are dying but you are still in a state of consciousness to appreciate your loved ones, say what needs to be said, and then orient your heart and mind and spirit to the transition, that is a truly wonderful gift. So many people are denied that special time. I am so glad Barry and Dan [his husband] have this last phase together: holding you both deeply in my heart.” The rest of us, several dozen, hit the “love” icon to say, “I agree!”

In my last email to Barry, I’d written, “Let me close with this for now. I’m sure you remember my landlord-turned-friend Denise. About the time she turned 80, we began ending all of our conversations with ‘I love you.’ We continued that until she was 89, and two weeks before she died, we signed off on the phone with that mantra. ‘I love you, Barry.’ I hope to write that to you for eight more years.” Barry died three months later.

Actually, when it came to Denise, I have to admit I erred on the early side — by nearly a full decade. When she turned 90 in 2007, we both understood she’d entered “double overtime” (as she put it). She no longer lived in the San Francisco flat where I’d once been her tenant; she’d recently moved to a continuing care facility just across from the Golden Gate Bridge. On a long flight from the East Coast, I wrote Denise my goodbye letter. Just penning it brought back so many wonderful memories, like this one: For 25 years, we had our own secret monikers (like agents 86 and 99 on the classic TV show Get Smart). I called Denise “621,” and she referred to me as “548” — our phone exchanges when we first met. We’d always greet each other this way, pretending no one else knew our silly code names.

The afternoon of my visit, Denise made us some tea in her one-bedroom apartment and tore open a Trader Joe’s chocolate bar for us to share. We chatted for a while before I took out my letter, which I read aloud to her. It began with these words:

 Dear Denise,

…I’ve wanted to tell you everything you mean to me without sounding “too official, too final.” 

And ended with this: So, how to tell you what you mean to me? I can’t possibly. Suffice to say that your love and wisdom, your lightheartedness and frivolity, your passions and convictions, mean so much. I feel like I’ve known you my whole life and I know that I will love you, remember you, rejoice in you, and eat chocolate with you for all our days to come … and beyond. Love, Steven

Once I’d finished, Denise kissed me on the cheek, told me how much she loved me, and poured us another cup of tea.

As it turned out, we had each other for years to come. Toward the end of her life, when she had trouble recognizing my voice on the phone, I’d shout into the receiver: “621, it’s 548!” That did the trick; we were secret agents again — and forever.

When it finally came time to say goodbye to my mother a few years later, I’d had some practice. For the three years of Mom’s illness, I’d told her “I love you” every time we hung up the phone or said goodbye in person. As that last Christmas approached, Mom’s death was imminent. As her holiday gift, she’d asked all three of her kids to visit together. She didn’t say “one last time,” but we knew that’s what she meant.

On a snowy evening in early January 2017, my brother, sister, and I all came to see Mom, squeezing into the tiny apartment. Once she knew we were there, Mom slipped into unconsciousness, the state doctors call “unresponsive.” My sister Julie swears she saw Mom tear up when she said her final goodbye. As for me, I held Mom’s hands and told her repeatedly “I love you, Mommy,” just as I had as a child. Soon after midnight, with the snow coming down hard outside her bedroom window, our mother died, surrounded by love. I had no regrets.

 

From Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old by Steven Petrow. Copyright ©2021. Published by Kensington Publishing Corp. All Rights Reserved

Steven Petrow is an award-winning journalist and author best known for his Washington Post and New York Times essays on aging, health, and cancer. His work has been published in The Atlantic, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and The Advocate, among others.

This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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