My friend's friend is quite possibly dying. E contracted a parasite of some kind several weeks ago. He's in his mid-30s, adventurous (especially when it comes to street taco stands), in great shape and then suddenly he's unable to keep anything down and is losing weight rapidly. Three weeks were required before doctors could identify what the problem was and attack it. Antibiotics -- two rounds -- were thought to help but in his weakened state he got slightly better only to get a lot worse. Last week the thought was that he might be rebounding. This week he's in ICU and the doctors say he's added meningitis and possibly pneumonia to his problems and the first batch of parasites have been replaced by something else.
His mother arrived from Mexico on Friday.
My friend is assisting as best he can, trying to be there for E, and at the same time trying to stay out of the way of the family. Since E has 11 brothers and a sister and they are all Spanish-speaking while my friend is not, that's not the easiest thing to do. Still he is there. He steps in when possible and, in the meantime, stands and waits for his turn to see the shadow of his lover.
E hasn't hidden any aspect of his life from his family. They've known since his youth that he plays hard. But in the last few years, he's traded much of his life on the edge for the pursuit of something longer-lasting. He's earned his GED, started work towards a college degree and held down a demanding position as the go-to guy with a catering company. All the while, he cajoles, jokes, and debates his way through conversations and relationships with a laugh that will make anyone forgive his unbridled fervor and, soon enough, applaud his desire to constantly be learning.
Extremely attractive and proud of it, E has retreated as the pounds and muscles fell away. Only family were allowed to care for him. He pulled away from my friend in a vain attempt to shield him from the sight of his deterioration. My friend took the retreat in stride, knowing that when E is determined, there's no option but to oblige him.
E gave his power of attorney to his brother this week. That's the last conscious act he's verbalized.
The brother now serves as gatekeeper to the ICU visits, hearer of the doctors' dire updates, and translator for family members and friends. Since our little chosen family focused on our friend the night before, praying with him, laughing with him, eliciting stories and tears, and then distracting him when he wanted, I decided the brother was my focus yesterday.
Tall, robust, long dark curls framing his face, the brother's obvious strength and love for E was evident from the first hello. Wrapped in a blanket from the night's vigil at his mother's side as she wept over her baby, he was holding on to the edges of both the material and his courageous facade. "I schedule time for crying," he said. "I'm the one my brother wanted to take care of things. Call me silly, but, I can't let them see me cry. That's my time. Last night, I didn't get it because I stayed with my mother. I'm in great need of tears at the moment."
I looked at those arms, the blanket, and eyes that implored the Universe to make this better somehow while every word indicated his resignation to what was to come. I knew in an instance what I wanted to do.
"Hon, I'm a little strange. I know you just met me. But I want to massage your hands. Do you like massage? Do you mind?"
"Are you kidding? Of course. Oh, you are incredible! Yes, yes."
We sat. We chatted. Then we talked, really talked. Mixed between the stories was laughter that sometimes surprised the other visitors in the waiting room. I looked up once to see a woman watching with what looked to be envy and a smile in her eyes. I envisioned that she wanted what we were sharing -- the freedom to just be, to not pretend to hope for things when our hopes are detrimental to the good of the one we love, to accept, to stare down expectations and social mores and just do. I worked his forearms and heard of how E came to be not just his brother but his friend and confidante. On his metacarpals and carpals I got the story of E's youth. Turning the pages of time and my massage attention to toward the fleshy parts surrounding his thumb I got the lowdown on family dynamics. And by the time I was working his fingers we had declared our love for one another.
When Mama came away from the morning visit with E she was ready to go home so I took her lead and exited as well. But I also took the morning's moments with me throughout the day. Later in the evening, when I stood backstage at a fundraising gala for the AIDS hospice where I volunteer, I heard the music with a new poignancy, the speeches with a keen alertness to the myriad of emotions that comes when you minister to the dying and those they love. I was amazed at how my one day underscored the connectedness that a person of faith feels when faced with friendships, struggle, love, aspirations, frustrations, and more. I held no answers but I embraced peace.
And then . . .
Feet announcing with every throb they were ready to head home, secure in the knowledge that once again the power of volunteers had produced an enjoyable experience for supporters and a profitable one for the organization, I stood ready to make a quick departure after the traditional toasts and desserts with cast and audience. I greeted one of the organizational staffers and her husband who I had met briefly earlier in the afternoon. We did a checklist of how everything went and then she walked away for a glass of water.
I turned to her husband. "So as I recall, your beautiful wife told me that you were in marketing as well. Is that right?"
"Well, yes, in a way. I work in communications for the Mexican consulate here in Houston."
Gasp. Hand to chest in disbelief. Was it really only hours ago that I sat with E's brother discussing what we thought was needed to help others of his siblings to cross the border and see E? And here was the man who might have those answers.
I regurgitated what I hope was a concise version of the story. He nodded in understanding, letting me know that indeed he'd heard similar stories before. Then he outlined the steps needed, gave me his card and said the most beautiful words a woman blessed with the ability to connect the dots can hear, "Have the brother call me."
Facing disease and perhaps death is never easy, pleasant, wanted, or any other positive term I can come up with. But with love, touch, patience, grace, and an openness to allow for each person involved to be who they are and how they need to be, peace can come.
I thank God that I don't just get to see this happen, but am an active participant. For that and so much more, I thank God.