One of my greatest fears, even more than the certainty of death, is knowing I'm going to die before I do. This is a fear many people have, but they, like me, push the heart-slowing thought out of their heads.
Almost two years ago, I had to face this thought head-on when my mother's cousin, Frankie, developed Pancreatic cancer. I remember when she called me on the phone to relay the news.
"He's done" was the first thing I said. Pancreatic cancer is the shittiest of the cancers because it's the most fatal. There's always a sliver of hope with other cancers, but not with Pancreatic. There's no possibility of remission. There's no silver lining. At that moment, I knew he was going to die.
I finally saw Frankie again last Thanksgiving. He had aged a bit — and seemed completely different than how I remembered him.
I saw Frankie here and there growing up, either at family events or when I tagged along with my grandfather on construction projects. He was tall, a bit lanky, and had a very distinctive voice — it had a slightly raspy quality to it, but wasn't that deep. Though my parents said he had a drug problem, he always appeared happy.
He also had unparalleled optimism, even as he sat beside his mother's death bed. He greeted us at her hospital room door with a smile that read "at a family reunion" more than "in mourning." Even though he knew his mother would die, he relished in his family members coming to support him. It made his pain subside, if only for a little while.
But the happy-go-lucky man I knew was gone. He looked quite frail and he'd begun to gray. I felt my heart sink as I sat next to him. It was the second time I had come face-to-face with someone who was dying, but I didn't have the "live life to the fullest!" attitude I thought I would. Instead, I watched him eat his plate of rice and pernil, traditional Spanish dishes he'd had all his life, in silence.
I didn't know what to say to someone whose time was running out. So I watched him scoop the food slowly into his mouth, and wondered if this plate of food would be one of his last.
Frankie battled Pancreatic cancer for a year. An uncomfortable feeling would come over me when I thought about him being sick, but trying to live anyway — a task I considered Herculean.
I thought I'd accepted this feeling until my mom asked if I’d go with her to visit Frankie in hospice. I said yes, but my mind began to race as I approached the Victorian-style house filled with people who would no longer be.
What do I say?
Do I pretend like everything is normal?
How does it feel to be in the place you know you'll take your last breaths?
The hospice building had two floors, a large dining room and living room area, and bedrooms upstairs. The stairwell's railing had an electric motorized chair attached, which reminded me of the creepy contraption Kat rode to the basement in "Casper."
In any other situation, the house might have seemed quaint — and even cozy, if I'm being generous. But all I could think about was death.
My aunt Sandy greeted me and my mom when we stepped inside.
"He's upstairs," she told us as she led us toward his room.
We found Frankie sitting on the edge of his bed. He shared a bedroom with an older man who was sleeping when we arrived.
He quickly sat up, and gave us tight hugs.
"What's new?" I asked, thinking of an article I read about terminally ill people. The article said it's better to ask what's new instead of how are you feeling, because it's obvious that someone dying of cancer is feeling shitty. But I immediately regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth.
He laughed and uttered a "not much" with the same raspy voice I'd always known him to have.
After making small talk, Frankie asked to smoke a cigarette. We all ventured down the stairs, save for Frankie, who had been strapped into the stair-chair apparatus.
Once he met us in the living room area, we ventured to the backyard, with Frankie walking slowly, but steadily, toward the door. As he approached the stairs that led outside, the nurse told my aunt and mother to hold each of his arms for support. He insisted he could walk alone, but his knees buckles as he descended the steps. He fell, knocking his head on the concrete and rolling on to the patio.
My mom let out a scream and contorted her face in a way I'd never seen before.
I quickly rushed to help him up, as everyone else froze in shock.
"Walk it off, walk it off," I said casually, like a T-ball coach helping a toddler. But my words of encouragement came too late.
Frankie sat defeated on a backyard bench. "I don't get it," he said. "My legs don't work."
We tried to distract him, as if making conversation would deter him the reality that he was withering away.
"It happens to all of us," my aunt conceded.
Back inside, we sat on the sofas chatting about our other family members and laughing about the days he and my mother had in the past. He told me he wanted to start writing a novel, and nearly cried when I told him I'd buy him a Microsoft tablet and edit the book.
But as my aunt and mother chatted further, I watched him drift away, captive to the thoughts in his head. Sometimes, he'd stare out into space, wondering just how he got to this point. Even though he agreed to hospice, it became clear that he hadn't come to terms with dying. And if he had, he certainly couldn't understand why.
He even wondered aloud how he could be a healthy 40-something reduced to a mere skeleton. He shook his head slowly, as if he were trying to solve an advanced-level crossword puzzle.
At that moment, the fear went away and I offered the one thing I knew I would want to hear if I were in his shoes: "There has to be somewhere better than this."
When I said this, he grabbed my hand and gave me a look that seemed to thank me for finding a sliver of hope in a hopeless situation.
We stayed for two more hours. When it was time for us to go, I watched Frankie ride the stair-chair back to his bedroom. I soaked his wave good-bye, his eyes, and his smile into my memory. I knew this would be the last time I saw him.
Frankie passed away on September 24, 2015. And only when my time comes will I know for sure if there really is somewhere better than this. I sure hope so, especially for someone, like Frankie, whose light shined through the darkest hours.
Until then, I'll stay fearful of the unknown. As I learned from Frankie, fearing death does't make us weak. It means we're human, and have lived lives so full of love we can't imagine letting go.