Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Marcus Brotherton.
How unexpected—and yet not—this late night phone call from Shannon, the wife of my close friend Paul. “Come to the hospital,” Shannon said. “Come say goodbye to your friend.”
Paul had already beaten cancer. He had gone through five rounds of chemo. After his hair fell out, after he had thrown up for months, after his fingers tingled with the aftershocks of radiation, doctors announced remission. Paul had won. But as soon as victory was claimed, an infection wormed its way into his body. It wouldn’t go away. It spread from his lungs through his kidneys and lodged in his brain.
I didn’t sleep after Shannon phoned. I felt scared, like a big exam was before me and I hadn’t studied. Early next morning I cancelled appointments, got on the freeway, and drove five hours to the hospital in their city.
The last time Paul and I had talked was three weeks earlier. On the phone he had taken shallow breaths between sentences, gasping like a fish on a riverbank, but his lung infection was only a setback, we all thought. When you’re sick for a long time you have your ups and downs. In the days that followed, Paul drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to communicate except to point at an alphabet. One of the last phrases he spelled was: “What’s happening to me?”
I walked into the intensive care unit where Paul lay. Shannon hugged me and helped me put on a gown. Paul’s body looked yellow and twisted with tubes running in and out. A ventilator was taped to his mouth. Other friends were there, Shannon’s sister, and her dad. “Take some time to say whatever you need,” Shannon said, and everybody filed out of the room except me.
Nothing prepares you for this. Nothing is rehearsed or written down. I sat on the edge of Paul’s bed and touched his arm. He didn’t move. Doctors didn’t know for sure what Paul was able to grasp by then. Maybe nothing. But they said hearing is often the last function to fail. So I spoke.
I asked Paul if he remembered being in college together, about the trip we took to the Grand Canyon just after graduation. I talked about motorbikes and music, things he loved. I told him all would be looked after; he had nothing to worry about. I said I loved him, and that I was proud of him.
The mechanical ventilator rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell.
We were alone for about 10 minutes before Shannon’s sister came in and asked me to come out into the hall. She needed to walk me through a decision the family had made. A few minutes later we went back inside and all gathered at Paul’s bedside. Shannon played a tape his young daughters had made for him. Little ones to him belong, sang his girls, and a nurse lowered Paul’s blood pressure medication. I stood near his shoulder, my hand stretched on his. It was over in minutes. Perhaps they fell, I don’t know, but Paul’s eyes drifted from his wife to me, then looked ahead. They never closed.
We stayed in the room for some time speaking in low voices, giving hugs, passing around tissues. There would be piles of get-well cards to box up, a wall of colored pictures to take down. But that would come later. Shannon cradled Paul’s head one last time, kissed him, and lifted a sheet over his face. He was 36.
What do you do?
How does a man handle the death of a close friend, particularly when the friend dies when he’s young? The processes I followed were neither straightforward nor tightly defined. Here are three things I did. Your experience will undoubtedly look different.
The evening after Paul died, I went to a marina and walked as long and vigorously as I could. His death was uncharted territory for me, his life so unfinished. For hours, it was just me walking in the dusky moonlight with wind and waves and a pile of emotions for which I had no words. I learned that physical exercise is imperative in grieving—and it wasn’t just for that one night. In the months that followed, I walked nearly every night. I ran. I jogged. I did push-ups. I went to the gym far more than usual. Instead of turning to a substance or harmful habit for relief, it’s necessary to go somewhere you can move. Let the emotion work itself out of your body.
At Paul’s funeral was a table with mementos from his life: his Martin guitar, a pair of Sperry Topsiders, Mt. Dew and Doritos, his favorites. Friends assembled a slide show—Paul at the beach, Paul on his wedding day, Paul with his children. As the slides ran, I had to consciously breathe to keep myself from falling apart. Ready, inhale, concentrate, exhale. Remembering was agonizing, and I didn’t want to go there, but I needed to. The memories were coming whether I wanted them to or not. In the weeks that followed, memories snuck up on me at the strangest times, at unexpected places. Months later in the middle of a workday I was driving down a road when memories hit me anew. I needed to pull to the shoulder and sob.
What I didn’t need to do was cheer up. What I didn’t need to do was look on the bright side of things. Rather, I needed to fully grasp that someone who meant much to me was no longer alive. I felt leveled, floored, struck by a bare fist. For months, I simply gave myself permission to ache.
Certainly there was more.
Many seasons passed before I arrived at any conclusions about Paul’s death. My questions were huge, and what finally made sense to me was this: I would stop trying to make sense of things. I would never know why Paul died as young as he did. Instead of asking questions, I would choose to believe reasons existed that I am not meant to know.
To this day, I hold Paul’s memory close. I honor the memory of a deep friendship now passed. I believe I will see him one day again in worlds beyond ours. And I choose to have faith.
Have you ever lost a friend? How did you handle it?
Last updated: January 27, 2016