The Dying Show

Posted on March 19, 2018


I found out about a month ago that a woman, J,  who, throughout most of high school and college, was my best friend, was on Hospice care in a nursing home outside of Philadelphia. She was in the final stages of emphysema. Doctors couldn’t even say if she would make it to her birthday at the end of May.

Accompanied by two other high school friends, I went to the nursing home to visit J. The other two had sent me a photo of their last visit with J, and so I was prepared to see what she looked like now. What I wasn’t prepared for was how the afternoon would go.

I knew there would be tears. There were tears.  I knew there would be an expression of fear (“It’s not death, it’s dying”).  There was that.  I knew there would be a trip down Memory Lane and an acknowledgement of what they had all meant to each other way back when. There was that, as well.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the great rolling pee-in-your pants laughter, about what was then and what is now.  From things that happened 30 and 40 and 50 years ago, to the man in the nursing home, another resident, who kept hitting on her. After reporting him numerous times, J finally took matters into her own hands. She scared the hell out of him, to the point where he no longer signed up for events if he thought she would be there.  “I’m a fucking powerful woman,” she said, “and I don’t take that shit.”  She was laughing as she said it, this now tiny woman in a wheelchair, with oxygen tubes snaking into her nose from the big tank, hooked onto the back of the chair. We agreed about her being fucking powerful and so we laughed right along with her, sorry for the poor slob who dared to put his hand on her knee and invite her to his room.

Because, humor, after all, can be rooted in events that are essentially horrible.  In cartoons, characters are always getting blown up or running off cliffs.  In films, the actors fall victim to events that would never be laughed at in real life, like falling off ladders or down flights of steps.  It’s the slipping-on-a-banana-peel event. And, when you think of it,  death is basically  one big, terminal slip on a giant banana peel, isn’t it?

So we laughed. At our hairstyles in J’s wedding album and at the high school-era photos she passed around. At the sight of old boyfriends and old husbands and old bedmates. At the fact that we all remembered things differently.  At nothing in particular.  We laughed until we were clutching ourselves. And then it got worse. We started laughing at how we were laughing. And there was no coming back from that.

And, between the paralyzing fears and the regrets and the gratitude, J was the same wicked irreverent person she was back then. Emphysema, the uninvited and overly demanding guest who will continue to grow more demanding until her end, is, gratefully, allowing J’s personality to remain intact. There are no heavy meds to dull her wit, no debilitating pain to distract her. There is only an ever-present oxygen tank, a wheelchair, and an occassional struggling cough that attempts to bring breath back, while breath, itself, remains enticingly just out of reach.

J had married very briefly many years ago, but she had no children.  All of her family was long gone. What she had were her friends, or, in our cases, the memories of friendships from decades ago, from a time in life when we were invincible and believed that everything in our lives was headed toward some bright and unrealistic future. That time became more and more important to her as her debilitation increased.  If old friendships could create no actual lifeline for her out of the disease, they could at least provide an emotional one.

During the afternoon, J extracted promises from us. We promised to see her again, before she died. We promised to go to her funeral.  We promised to attend the Shiva. We promised to think of her once a week after her death. J asked us no more and no less than we would deliver.

And, after the promises, we were free to go back to the laughter.   We concentrated on the laughter and on the private thoughts about how this is how a life ends.  We allowed J to be J and she allowed us to be us.   I finally said to J what had been on my mind throughout the afternoon. “You are hilarious. You should take the Dying Show on the road,  just like that comic who did that with cancer.”   J answered, “So I could be a stand up comic?”  “No,” I said, “you’d have to be a sit down comic.” And then we all started laughing again.