The Long Goodbye

When someone you love has a terminal illness in middle age, it leaves you grasping for answers.


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When a friend dies before the age of 60, you are wholly unprepared.

You set up a meal train when you learn that he is sick, and dozens of people compete to make dinners that they hope will have meaning and leave them in the cooler on the porch between 5 and 6 p.m. for the wife and children and visiting relatives to share. You don’t know if your friend can eat any of it. You do not ring the doorbell. You include a bottle of wine.

You set up a Facebook group and invite people who also love your friend to join it so there is one place to get updates and share memories and diverting stories. On the days your friend feels well enough, he reads the posts himself. On the days he doesn’t, his wife reads the posts aloud.

You post a funny video of a baby to the group just to make your friend laugh and then wonder if that was a bad idea because maybe babies will remind him of the grandchildren he will never meet.

You just want someone to tell you what to do, knowing that the only thing your friend needs is something you can’t give him, which is more time. You try to help in every way you can while suspecting that what you are doing may mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

You talk to a mutual friend and in the space of 45 seconds you cry with despair and then gossip about the ­tragedy-magnet acquaintance who keeps texting for updates even though she barely knows your dying friend. You are grateful that even though the sadness is overwhelming, there is still room for bitchiness, because sometimes bitchiness makes you forget the real stuff.

You want an etiquette book. There is no etiquette book.

You wonder how it is that your friend is dying when people who are truly horrible get to stay alive. Why is it that this man, who is kind and generous and never stops smiling, who is a coach and a teammate and a husband, brother, father, beloved by all — why is it that he is dying in his 50s and Whitey Bulger got to live so long?

You think about your friend when you meditate and as soon as you wake up and when you are looking at the trees in your backyard and at the way the clouds move across the sky. You think about him lying in the hospital on morphine and the fact that, although he has told his wife that he wants to take every measure possible to prolong his life, maybe he has reached the point when he just wants it to be over.

You are confused when he is released from the hospital after a scary two-week stay that looked like the end. Does this mean he is … all better? You trick your brain into thinking that the illness is behind him. That it was all some sort of cruel test, and he has passed.

You simply have no idea what’s best for anyone involved. When your son, who is 21 and thinks he is immortal, informs you that he is going skydiving with the son of your dying friend, you are flummoxed. The fact that skydiving by anyone’s son is a terrible idea seems beside the point. Surely your friend’s son, who is also 21, longs for things that are distracting and life-affirming. You get it. But skydiving! Your husband cautions you about getting involved, being a busybody. But tell that to your imagination. Is a skydiving accident really what your friend’s family needs right now? You lobby other mothers behind the scenes to put the kibosh on these plans, not sure if you are doing the right thing.

Your friend’s story is no longer his own. His body is no longer his own. You and too many others to count now know about his kidneys and liver and prostate, his heart and lungs, his pain threshold and bowel function. You wonder if he cares that everyone knows these things and at what stage a person is beyond caring.

You think that dying this way — with one dehumanizing test after another as you shuffle off this mortal coil — seems unbearable and wrong. You compose a text to a mutual friend telling her that if you ever get that sick, she should push you in front of a train. But then you delete the text because it seems so insensitive, not to mention false.

You bring another friend up to speed and each time you finish a sentence she replies, “Oh no.”

You take a business trip to Texas and have dinner with a college friend who is an oncologist. He listens impassively as you talk about your dying friend. He does not say “Oh no.” And he corrects you when you use the word disease. “Cancer is not a disease,” he says. “Cancer is a process.”

You wonder how and when the process will end, and then you feel awful for ­wondering.

You hear there is a woman at a local nail salon who makes house calls. Would it be weird to send her over to your friend’s wife, who rarely leaves his side? Life must go on — isn’t that what they say? Does life going on include pedicures?

You marvel at the fact that after the doctors tell your friend there is no longer anything they can do, he simply goes home to wait. While he is waiting, he receives visitors, and he laughs his big regular laugh and gets in and out of the hospital bed and exhibits so many of his normal personality traits that you just know human life is so strange. How can he be so himself and yet so close to not existing altogether?

You try to remember the times in your life when you were waiting for a significant event with an uncertain ETA. Waiting to hear whether you got the job. Waiting to hear if the seller has accepted your offer. Waiting to go into labor. What must it be like, you wonder, to wait for death? You know that you too are waiting for death and that every day your wait is incrementally shortened. But what can it possibly be like to lie there waiting? Do you get one final moment of awareness, and do you recognize it when it comes?

You travel through your days, doing the quotidian things you always do, knowing now that life is both much more beautiful and much more awful than you ever ­suspected.

You paddle a kayak into the middle of a lake on a warm August day and you feel guilty, watching your paddle dip in and out of the sparkling water, because you know your friend is lying in a hospital bed in his living room, with a pain pump.

You pour yourself a glass of white wine and it is golden and beautiful in the afternoon light and you feel guilty taking that first sip, because you know your friend cannot do the same.

You walk down a busy street in Manhattan, passing people who are wearing sunglasses and wondering what to have for lunch, traveling in pairs or talking on the phone, smiling and laughing, making plans for the weekend, and you feel guilty.

You think that you are constantly dwelling on the fact that your friend is dying, so imagine how he feels.

You force your own son to listen to updates, even though he doesn’t want to think about it, because you believe it’s important that he understand. You wonder if that is the right choice, to make him confront this.

He absolutely does not want to discuss it. But when you tell him he needs to go buy a suit that fits properly so he can wear it to the funeral, he does not protest.

You don’t ever use the word death. No one ever uses the word, at least not while your friend is still alive.

You wonder if a body can ever run out of tears.

You have a business lunch with a new professional acquaintance, and, because you are a fool, you allow the topic of your dying friend to come up. And then you start to cry. This new acquaintance reaches across the table and grasps your arm and says she is so sorry, but you know she’s really thinking that you might be deranged.

You read the texts and e-mails and Facebook posts and Caring Bridge messages over and over. There are so many, from people who have loved your friend at every stage of his life, because when you die in your 50s, most of the people who have loved you are still alive. The words are moving and eloquent and you imagine each message is a cupped pair of hands, trying to hold on to your friend as he slips through like water.

You read a description of death in the newspaper, that death is “the last friend.” You wonder if that’s true.

When your friend dies, on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday evening, you still feel shocked.

As if you didn’t understand that this was where things were headed all along.

You wake up before dawn one day and remember a poem by Patrick Phillips that you saw on a subway years ago:



It will be the past

And we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

But as it is remembered.

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past. And it will last forever.


And you hope for your friend, and for yourself, and more than anything else that Patrick Phillips is right.


Kristin van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom and former editor-in-chief of Real Simple magazine. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications.

Excerpted from the book Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

This article is featured in the May/June 2023 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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  1. An unimaginable situation where both life and death are equally sad and frightening at the same time.


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