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What does it mean when a friend gets sick?


THE OPEN BOAT My friend is sick with cancer, and he may not survive. What am I to make of this? I don’t believe his sickness is part of some god’s plan. I don’t believe it is his destiny. I don’t believe he did something to deserve it. He is an extraordinarily nice, humble, considerate man. He has wonderful grown children and a terrific wife. He takes care of himself, is extraordinarily fit, doesn’t drink or smoke, and eats a vegetarian diet. For him to get stomach cancer makes no sense. It’s just plain bad luck. All I can think is that one of the zillions of invisible neutrinos zinging through space hit one of his genes at just the wrong angle at some moment in his life, maybe while he was talking with one of his sons on the phone, and here he is, terribly sick and having to eat through intravenous tubes. Needless to say, it could happen to any of us. For ten years, I have played tennis at least twice a week with my friend, who has never given me a bad line call, gloated when he won, or made excuses when he lost. We discuss politics after we play, and of course, since he agrees with me and I agree with him, I think he is a particularly astute analyzer of national and international affairs. He lent me a book to read that looks at American history from our particular political perspective and that I have not yet finished reading. I think I need to return it to him. My friend doesn’t want visitors or phone calls while he’s sick. I understand that. He has work to do--the work of getting well--and he doesn’t need distractions from that work. He is also a proud man; it probably embarrasses him to be sick in front of other people, and he doesn’t want to be smothered in sympathy, which can be both humiliating ("Poor you!") and depressing ("You’re in really bad shape!"). All I can do for my friend is hope--hope really hard--that he gets better. Not everyone wants company in times of pain. The desire to get through sickness alone is something else he and I share. Since I live in my own body and am the central character of my own life, I of course find myself wondering what I should do with the information about my friend’s sickness. What does it mean for me? After the normal sadness and anger, my reaction is what it always is when I know someone who is sick: a feeling of increased pleasure in my own health. (I would say "gratitude" in addition to pleasure, but I don’t know anyone to be grateful to for my being well. I don’t believe in gods. It’s just luck that I’m healthy.) I once knew a man who had broken his neck in a diving accident. He had no use of his legs and very limited use of his arms. Despite this, from his wheelchair, he was a successful university professor. I admired this man, but my more permanent response to him was this: Ever since I met him, every time I find myself carrying five grocery bags at once, two in my arms, two gripped in my fingers, another under my armpit, I immediately think of my friend in the wheelchair and remember how extraordinary and pleasant it is for a human being to be able to carry five grocery bags at once, and how lucky I am to be able to do what he could never do. I promise you, I think of my professor friend every time I carry five grocery bags at once. Likewise, a few years back, a colleague of mine came down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis--ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Gradually, over two years, he lost his ability to talk or walk or pick up his three-year-old son. A delightful man, my colleague had been a fine golfer in his health. My response to his sickness was similar to my response to my friend in the wheelchair: Every time I play golf now, I think of my friend with ALS and feel how extraordinarily lucky I am to be able to walk a golf course. Because he was sick, I take greater pleasure in my own life. Now I have a friend who has stomach cancer and is eating out of IV tubes. The next time I eat a meal, chewing and tasting and swallowing and digesting, I will take extra pleasure in the very fact and act of doing those things. So my friends’ sicknesses have, perversely, heightened the pleasure I take in my own health. This seems a horribly selfish reaction, but I can’t help it. Some people would say that that should be a consolation to those who are sick, that it gives their sickness some meaning: Their plight has increased others’ pleasure and appreciation of life’s joys. If I were sick, I wouldn’t find much consolation in that, and I certainly wouldn’t believe that my sickness was necessary for others to appreciate life. Let them appreciate it on their own, which is perfectly possible to do if they are simply awake enough. I had another friend die, unexpectedly, a few years ago. My reaction to his death was simply to realize, a bit more vividly, that the trapdoor could open under any of us at any time, so we’d better concentrate a little harder on the living part of being alive. His death made me more alive to my own life, it added intensity and piquancy to my own life, but I still wish he hadn’t died. It wasn't worth it. I suppose having friends get sick from heart disease or cancer or ALS should spur me to give money to research in those diseases. But every disease has its victims, and I try to give money to research into lots of diseases. I don’t choose which ones based on whether they hit close to my own home. I’m convinced that where bad luck hits is just that: bad luck. I remember Stephen Crane’s famous short story "The Open Boat." In it, a group of men are in a lifeboat, their ship having sunk. They’re trying to row to shore in a storm. Some are strong, some are weak, some are competent, some are incompetent. In the story, we are never told which men are good, if any, and which are bad, if any. In the end, they must chance the breakers and the rocks to reach safety. Some make it and live. Some drown. Strong, weak, good, bad, competent, incompetent--in Crane’s story there is no sense, no logic to who survives and who doesn’t. Nature, says Crane, doesn’t really give a damn about human beings. It’s all a crapshoot. I’m 57 years old and have been healthy my whole life. I’ve never been hungry or unsheltered or poor. What little pain I’ve experienced has been short-lived. If I get sick tomorrow, no one can take that 57 years of health and comfort away from me. It’s not fair that I’ve gotten 57 years like that while billions--literally billions--of people in the world have never had one year like that. It makes no sense. There is no justice in it. Once, when I was unhappy over something, I complained to a philosopher I know that I hadn’t done anything to deserve that unhappiness. He looked at me over his beer and snorted, "You think only bad people get hit by trucks?" Okay, so good people get hit by trucks, too. And by cancer. I can live with that. Yes, I’m happy and sad to say, I can live with that.

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