Two Men Dying

Eighteen to 24 months. That’s what Chris’s doctor told him exactly 26 months ago tomorrow. This thing had snuck up on everyone. At 45 years of age, no one was really looking for it. My brother-in-law went through some weight loss, he figured he’d been watching his diet better lately, but no. Tumors. Lots of them. And all over.

The funny thing about two years is that it’s both a long time, and not a long time. It’s like driving through the desert toward a far-off mountain. You keep driving for hours, but the mountain doesn’t seem to be getting closer until finally it does. Because the desert offers you little perspective, the mountain looks big from a distance, and then suddenly it looms over you when you finally do approach.

Here we are two months past expiration, and the doctors sent him home from the hospital. “There’s nothing more we can do,” they said. “Liver failure is imminent.” The mountain now looms heavy above us.

For the last two days he’s been lying in a hospital bed rented for his bedroom at home. His skin and eyes are yellow from jaundice, but in the afternoon sunlight he looks golden. I know this color is unnatural for a human, but I start to look at Chris differently now. Like a glowing spirit is ready to break out of the confines of his too-frail body.

An oxygen machine offers a low hum, a steady rhythm to the room that’s broken up by his occasional awkward breaths. His lips and mouth are dry, making speaking difficult. But still we talk. For three hours we talk.

For the last two years Chris has been reduced to numbers. “These markers are up, so we’re adding this medication,” he would tell us. “This cell count is down, we’re cutting back on chemo,” he might say. Because death is so uncomfortable for everyone, we focus on the numbers, the data. We look only at the disease, because the person reminds us how fragile we are. How it could be us.

We cheer for news that tumors aren’t growing, we allow heavy sighs of sorrow to come out when we learn that the chemo keeping him alive is also destroying his body.

With organs failing, he was admitted to the hospital again last week. He already has multiple tubes surgically implanted in his abdomen to drain fluids his liver and kidneys can no longer process, but even those tubes and surgeries aren’t keeping up anymore.

I received a text from Chris last week. “Do you have time to talk this morning? I don’t know anyone else I can talk to about this,” it read.

That morning we talked on the phone for a while about some out-of-body experiences Chris has had almost every night since last week. The first one scared him—only because he was so high up he felt he would fall. (Plus, he confides, he’s always had a fear of heights.) But the second experience, that was incredible. He couldn’t control his movement, but he was aware of being out of his body. He said it felt both electric and free.

It was this week that Chris made peace with what’s happening to him.

Death is the first promise the universe makes to a newborn babe. “No matter what, death is coming for you, little one.”

For most of us, a visit from death happens in an instant. You’re here. You’re gone. A car accident, a heart attack, going to bed one night and not waking up, there are many ways death surprises us. But Chris… Chris got intimate with death. For Chris, this has been a long courtship, a slow dance with the inevitable.

Chris and death cohabitated. They got to know each other. In a way, it’s a precious gift.

For three hours today we talked about life, about death, and about this profound human experience he’s going through. Chris is no longer numbers or test results, he’s definitely no longer a disease. He’s a person again. A golden person ready to disembark on a new adventure.

Now that he’s home, he’s still leaving his body. He tells me he’s seen his grandmother. He’s seen his old cat. He makes of point of saying he makes no attempt to control these adventures, he views them as a gift, and he’s intent on allowing whatever is supposed to come through to enter.

As a stream of visitors pours through his doors in these, his final days, Chris has a gift for each of them. He is blessed in a sense that he is attending his own wake fully conscious. His friends and family get to tell him kind words. He graciously accepts them. There’s no need for any grudges anymore. Any issues or grievances make no sense in this moment. There’s no need for anything but kindness and love.

I sit there in awe of the conversation. I too am dying. I have been since the day I was born. Though I’m in good health right now, I can’t know if there’s some runaway truck out there waiting for me on the highway of life. Or if one of my own routine doctor visits will turn into a death sentence.

Today I received an abundance of gifts and blessings from Chris. Not just talking and connecting to a fellow human being, he reminded me that though I’m not counting my final hours, I’m still dying. Like him there’s no need for me to shut people out who may want to visit in whatever capacity. I learned this from a golden man whose spirit is already practicing to leave his body for his next journey.

Two men sitting, talking, and dying together.

 

His family has started a GoFundMe page to help raise money to offset the finanicial hardship they’ve gone through over the past two years: https://www.gofundme.com/3kfnv4mc

In loving memory of Christopher Quirk. February 28, 1969 – December 20, 2015

Jeff and Chris

Jeff and Chris

14 Comments

  1. Being Wiccan I believe in and our resting place before our next journey is Summerland.
    I believe that sometimes when we believe someone who is dying is hallucinating, they are really seeing something from their past. I lost my husband 2 yrs ago and he did hallucinate, about a cat in his room which I thought was a hallucination at first but then I realized after he passed that he said it was a white cat. The first cat we rescued together was a white cat. He did also tell my son that his father was there. His father passed when he was 17.
    Bless Chris and may he peacefully pass to the afterlife.

  2. Beautifully written, Jeff. I’m so so sorry for your family’s loss. These words are so powerful, so healing, so strong. Thank you for sharing them. He sounds like an incredible man and that he was able to share all of this with you is such a blessing.

  3. Sharon Brown

    I have no words other than Thank You .

  4. Maria Immediato

    Thank for sharing such precious moments in your life. Thank you for the reassurance that we are all human, confirmation that we all have this common experience, and the knowledge that we all have similar fears, tribulations and wonders.

  5. Lisa Heap

    Thank you, Jeff. This is beautifully written, so pure. Sorry for your loss.

  6. Lydia Klimczuk

    Thank you for that beautiful essay. Having lost my dear sister suddenly, my mother slowly yet in a coma, my ex-husband of 23 years, and my father many years ago, due to circumstances in which I was unable to talk to them about their pending death. I felt robbed of my “good-by”. Just recently I lost 2 friends and was able to tell one at least, what she meant to me and what a loss she was to the world. She was an animal rights activist who was tireless in her fight for animals, yet lost her fight with esophageal cancer. I felt I owed it to her to let her know what a huge impression she had made on me and motivated me to become active in cat rescue and animal rights. I had never spoken so honestly with someone dying before But I wanted her to know her life had had great value, it had made a real difference in the world and she would not be forgotten or replaced. I know she looked forward to seeing her old animals that had passed and after reading your essay, I believe that they may have come to escort her on her journey to Summerland (I am also Wiccan) or elsewhere. Again, thank you. And I’m sorry for your loss…Condolences to your sister and her children.

  7. This was intimate, this was close to home and I cannot thank you enough for sharing your, and Chris’, story.

  8. Debbie Manocchio

    Simply beautiful….

  9. I am the close to home that my sweet baby Sarah Soderland is speaking of . Two years ,hope ,faith prayers would not stop the journey . The endless doctors and stays at a hospitals was stealing away such precious time .Time for dancing ,which Greg loved to do . Fishing with the boy’s . I say God sent all of us that he touched two Saints ( Saint Gregory and Saint Michael ,but he needed them back . His time here was done ,his job was done and he could go on a beautiful new journey ,with no pain and all the love we could all send with him . I miss my big Silverback Gorilla

    Connie Bartley

  10. Beautifully written powerful thoughts. I’ve been there with similar experiences. You found the words when there are no words. I’d like to be there for you with prayers and good wishes.

  11. Gillian

    Absolutely beautiful. I believe you changed me.

  12. David Bird

    What a great article. Death is going to happen to all of us but I know there is a continuing of our spirit. You have glimpsed this next life more than most. Your friend fought a good fight with dignity. A hero. thanks for sharing. wow.

  13. Diana Maculan

    Thank you Jeff for sharing such intimate moments with Chris and…
    Thank you Chris for reassuring us all.

  14. Angie Colwell

    I needed this today. Every day, really. My son had his own intimate slow dance with death nearly two years ago. Stomach cancer. What otherwise healthy 23 year-old young man dies of stomach cancer!?! As his mom, I want to know that he is ok. Your words helped me to believe he is In fact he’s better than ok. He is free.

    Though-it would be nice if he would call his mom now and then. The voice recorders and REM Pods are frequently on.

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