”Hello Jackie, lovely to see you."
We met in front of the newsagent’s shop and stopped to chat, exchanging the usual remarks one makes when running into an acquaintance with whom one is on excellent terms but rarely sees. Jackie is a painter, a delightful lady, very pretty, small and slim, invariably beautifully dressed. I envy her. Compared to her I am a clumsy tank.
She beamed at me.”You know, I haven’t seen you for absolute ages. How are you?”
I replied with the usual modified rapture, as most of us do. “Not too bad, mostly ‘-ish’. And you?”
Jackie’s smile disappeared. “Well, actually, I am not very happy at all. John’s been diagnosed with cancer.”
My face fell too. It turned out that her husband had been having ‘indigestion’, went to the doctor, had tests which proved inconclusive; had more tests, was told it didn’t look like cancer. One final test showed that, yes, it was cancer. Of the liver. Inoperable. With a life expectancy of one month.
“It’s quite unreal,” Jackie said. "After the initial shock we just went back to doing what we always do. It’s as if nothing has changed. John is spending time putting his house in order, dealing with banks, insurances, etc. but otherwise we act normal. we even laugh sometimes. It’s only at night that it hits me. I lie awake, staring into the darkness.”
I hugged her. There’s nothing much you can do.
I’ve always wanted to know the worst. It even said so in my hospital notes: ‘U. needs to be told.’ Every time I’ve been seriously ill, I’ve researched the illness, pressed the doctors for every bit of information, asked about treatments, possible outcomes, secondary effects. The lot, anything a lay person could grasp.
Would my need-to-know extend to foreknowledge of the date of my death, give or take a week? Once death becomes foreseeable, it is probably good to know how much time there is left to tidy up; the sort of jobs John’s taking care of now. It is universally accepted that nobody wants to know the date of their departure in advance, nobody wants to be ticking off the years, months, weeks, like pouring beans out of a jar. until there are none left.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, since I met Jackie. (It’s still raining hard.) Beloved and I have discussed it.
I think I am in favour of being told early enough to clear the decks (golly, all these euphemisms), to make good, to say good bye properly. Or possibly, just to live in peace with myself, maybe a little more aware. Like John and Jackie are doing now.
Getting old and knowing that life is running out is different from actually getting the date in the post. I cannot really imagine what that feels like.