My friend Andrew can no longer speak. So how is it that he is able to tell me so many things? Twice a week or so we go out for a walk together and not a word passes from his lips. Still, he has taught me an enormous amount about acceptance and grace. Andrew is the perfect companion at the moment. Silent and steadfast. We stroll and often, as happens most days lately, a wave of anguish rises and I cry. Some days we just walk quietly and some days I tell him my sorrows. Once in a while I ask him the questions that gerbil around obsessively in my head. Mostly the ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’ questions. You know the ones. He listens intently and never comments. He can’t, but that is not the point. This is exactly what I need. There is no awkwardness, no advice or sympathy. There is no answer. Just that firm, solid grip of his big hand around mine and the steady cadence of one foot being laboriously placed in front of the other. We carry on. We have no choice the two of us.
This is a man who not very long ago would aggressively charge into the lead and ski the the most treacherous runs on any mountain without a second thought. He was what you would call an elegant skier. You could always spot Andrew from a long way off, his smooth movements carving down the slope with his signature rhythmic, fluid style. Powerfully athletic and softly graceful at the same time. Andrew would race his motorboat across the lake in the early dawn light towing his boys on one ski or two passing on his flair for athletics and love of speed. He would zoom around in his fancy car and gladly share a beer and a laugh with his many friends while loyally cheering for the downtrodden Leafs. He would golf and run and party. He was a successful businessman, an engaged father, a loving husband and a dynamic friend. Most of that has been taken from him and more, but he carries on…doing what he can.
Andrew has taught me that we are all disappearing. Some of us slowly, some suddenly. This is an undeniable truth. Eventually all of our bodies will be gone. There is no point in fighting it. This diminishing of our physical selves is our shared destiny and though we may think we are at the wheel, we really can’t control the speed. What if we try this treatment? What if we eat every organic plant known to man and banish plastics from our home? What about this doctor or that potion? It may help for a while but eventually we all meet at the same bus stop. As one brilliant friend told me recently “those ‘what if questions’ only imply that we ever had any control.” We don’t. The very idea of control is an illusion. If you are lucky enough to be physically and mentally healthy, good for you! If not, it’s not your fault.
When I am feeling sorry for myself, in those moments of deepest despair and grief, I look over at Andrew. He never complains that he is now trapped in his once vital body. There is no bitterness or apparent rage at the shitty hand he has been dealt. One day as we rounded the bend in the road at the baseball diamond, our half way point, and headed for home I asked him if he was angry at the horrible disease that has so mercilessly taken him captive? Actually, what I said was “Andrew, are you pissed off about all of this?” Now, diplomacy was never Andrew’s strong suit. He is one of those very intense A-type people who gets things done directly and doesn’t tippy toe around anyone’s fragile emotions. This has made him very successful in business. But to the question of blame he answered with two squeezes of his hand and a rather intense stare, “no.” Grace personified. His strength is astonishing.
If you saw us shuffling slowly along the edge of the road you may assume that I am helping him in some way. To balance or to find his way. You would be mistaken. The opposite is true. He is helping me. To balance and to find my way. Helping me accept that sometimes we don’t get to choose what happens in life. We can only choose how we conduct ourselves in the aftermath. How we decide to walk through the slash and burn. Andrew walks, as best he can, with his thinning shoulders high and his Whitecaps baseball hat pulled snuggly down over his forehead. There is no need to hide from this. I hope to one day be as brave.
As we move along arm in arm like that familiar old couple waltzing together at a wedding, we can’t help but witness the unceasing evolutions of our existence. The vibrant fall leaves softly detach, flutter and float down to earth. Their glorious season now over. We note the first snowfall on the North Shore Mountains and reminisce about our love of those crystal clean fresh tracks of winter. We keep tabs on the many new homes being built in our once sleepy neighbourhood. Some we admire, others…not so much. He may be slowing but Andrew is not without opinions. We track the crazed squirrels immersed in their annual food gathering frenzy. They too prepare for the natural change in the weather. We stop to greet the countless number of wriggling new puppies that have invaded our area these last few months, each one cuter than the last, for now. We nod at striding seniors who were once the same adorable pre-schoolers we see stomping along attached together like laundry on the line. We have watched shorts turn to long pants, bare arms become hidden under expensive looking puffy coats and the Halloween decorations come and go. Lately we are starting to see Christmas lights begin to twinkle on tree branches and doorways. Our existence on this spinning planet has its beginnings and its endings. The momentum will not slow just because tragic things have happened to honourable people. Bad things happen to good people all the time. The progress of this heavy lumbering train does not falter to acknowledge our mutual pain and suffering. Pain has always existed, just not for us. And now it does.
So, if all we can do for now is walk to the baseball diamond and back. Then, that is what we will do.
Thank you Andrew. My dear friend.