When Death comes For a Friend

I received some really crummy news today.  A friend of mine has A.L.S.  ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a very nasty and untreatable disease.  In a nutshell, ALS causes degeneration of the nerves which conduct signals to the muscles.  As those nerves fail and finally die the muscles lose their ability to contract.  Things like walking, talking, swallowing, and finally breathing become progressively more difficult and finally impossible.  What my friend has received, in essence, is a death sentence.

A couple of things come to mind as I try to come to grips with this news, and the first of those is the definition of the word ‘friend’.  This person and I do not attend each other’s birthday parties and in fact I don’t even know when his birthday is.  We have never visited each others’ homes, nor lifted an ale at the pub.  In fact, at work is the only time that we see each other at all.  So how can I call this person my friend?

I call him friend because I like him and he feels like one.  We have worked together for many years and we have spent many hours talking together.  We both love gardening and football, although I watch college ball and he prefers the pro game.  We both love eating and cooking and classical rock and old movies but most of all we love to talk, and we like to talk with each other.  It has never occurred to us to get together away from work.  We would probably enjoy a friendship that extends beyond the confines of our workplace but the subject has just never come up.  I have a very full social life away from work as does he, so it just seems to work best for us to pursue our relationship at the workplace only.  Does that make our relationship any less a friendship?  I don’t think so.  I have several friends with whom I spend a great deal of time when I am not at work and I take great pleasure from their company, so I know what it feels like to be a friend and it feels very much that way with My Friend.

And that is why my eyes filled with tears several times today when my mind turned to my friend and his diagnosis.  My friend is younger than me and has a wife and young child.  His wife also works where we do and I speak with her from time to time on the phone in the line of duty.  We like each other too, but our relationship is much more that of ‘acquaintance’.  I have not spoken with her since I heard the news, and I know that it will be hard to talk about.  I will want to say something sympathetic but what will that be?  “I know what you’re going through?”  No, I don’t.  “Is there anything I can do for you?”  No, there isn’t.  “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you both?”  Big friggin’ deal; he’s going to die.  Change that!  Perhaps I’ll just say “I have no idea what to say.  I’m as helpless as you are in this matter.  If you think of anything you need that I can do; anything, just say it.”  Maybe that will help, but probably it won’t.

The hardest thing for me is that my sense of fairness has been outraged.  Why does this decent, hard working family man and his loved ones have to go through this ordeal?  My friend does not deserve this.  Charles Manson, a name synonymous with ‘monster’ for my age group, rests comfortably in his cell in a California prison, living to a ripe old age and content in the tortured jungle that is his diseased mine.  Idi Amin, a dictator as likely to eat his victims as merely to kill them, dies after a long life of comfort in exile in Saudi Arabia.  Even Ariel Castro, the man who recently imprisoned and brutalized three women for more than a decade, met his end quickly at his own hand; no slow, wasting disease for him.  So why do these criminals get a pass and my friend must die slowly before his family’s eyes?

Mark Twain took a stab at that problem in his short book entitled “The Mysterious Stranger”.  In that story a young man runs into an extraordinary individual who turns out to be an angel.  At first delighted, the young man is soon horrified to learn that his new angelic friend’s name is Lucifer.  When the angel detects this reaction he says “Oh, you are thinking about my uncle, but what difference is that to you?  Who are you, a human, to judge us angels?”  Twain’s theology is tortured and Augustine answers that question clearly in “City of God”, but the story goes on to make a good point.

The young man learns that a friend of his is going to die soon.  He begs of the angel to spare the friend’s life if he can do it, and the angel replies “yes that is possible, but are you sure that you want that?”  The young man assures Lucifer Lite that he wants just that very much and so Lucifer says “It is done”.  Lucifer then shows the young man that his friend will now live a long life filled with disease, heartbreak and despair until the day when he finally, mercifully dies.

Now I’m OK with the proposition that an early death may be preferable to a lingering, tragic life, as long as that death is not self-inflicted.  In my view, willingly seeking death in order to avoid what is assumed, but not known, will be a long and painful life is caving in to Despair, who eats the souls of men and particularly enjoys dining on the souls of those who serve themselves up by their own hand on his infernal platter.  I am not talking about the position that suicides go to hell which would be a topic for a later conversation, and I assure you that you will not correctly presuppose my position.  I am only saying that Despair loves and feeds on our own personal despair, and I have no great desire to gratify his appetite.  But I can’t see how this can apply in my friend’s case.  There is no unexpected happy end to be found in his diagnosis.  ALS ends, after a very disagreeable time, in death.

But maybe I can still find some solace in Twain’s words after all.  Lucifer the nephew asked the young man “who are you to judge angels?”  The answer to that particular question is that angels can and will be judged just as humans will be judged and humans have (or will have) the rational powers to judge just as well as angels, but my comfort is not to be found in that quarter.  Instead, Twain’s greater (and probably unintended) observation that the imperfect perceptions of humans make it very hard for them to discern the course and ends of heaven-ordained events, or even events chance-ordained but guided by heaven for ultimately desirable ends, gives me some hope that a prognosis even as grim as my friend’s may, in the end, be shown to be in some way a mercy.  We are somewhere at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the creation parade.  We cannot see the whole stretch of time and do not know how all of the pieces will ultimately fit together.  It is therefore our lot to bet on a loving God who sees the clowns, the lions, the ringmaster, the Tattooed Lady and the guys sweeping up the elephant droppings all at the same time.  We do not have that perspective and can only hope in the One who does.  The alternative to that view is that we are all alone and utterly screwed and that would point towards Despair, and you know where that leads.

So will any of this make it easier for my friend if I share it with him?  I don’t know; probably not.  But maybe so.  Maybe the existence of a ‘maybe’ will be enough to kindle a hope that it will all work together for good in the end when the whole parade has passed by.  And in the end, isn’t Hope a much better thing than Despair?

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