A few months after Ben died I received an email from someone I’ve never met. She said she worked with Ben briefly in the past and told me that her husband had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She said he was expected to make a full recovery and I was simultaneously relieved and jealous. Fast forward one year and I’m told the cancer is now in his liver, shoulder, ribs, sternum, skull … you get the picture. He is dying. And now I ache for these people I don’t know.
In order to distract myself I began cleaning out my (Ben’s) office. In doing so, I found this:
Anyone remember this? Randy Pausch, professor, husband, father, cancer victim. Died in 2008 at the age of 48 but not before giving the Last Lecture and writing a book for his children.
In 2008 Ben and I watched his Last Lecture and cried about it and talked about it endlessly. (OK, I cried, but Ben talked about it endlessly. It was Ben who bought the book). Ben admired the lessons Randy Pausch had learned in his life (in fact, Ben constantly reminded me that “Randy Pausch says we should let the kids draw on their bedroom walls”) and how he had faced his death head on. Ben made actual changes in his own life that can be attributed in part to Randy Pausch. It was Randy Pausch’s death that caused Ben and I to have some in depth conversations about how we would face our own deaths, although Ben always said it was just a hypothetical conversation anyway since he planned to live to 100. (I’m pretty sure Ben privately figured he’d outlive me because I would worry myself to death before anything could ever get him. I’m almost surprised he wasn’t right.)
The death and pending death of two people I have never met have slowed me down this morning and caused me to reflect on how Ben “planned to die” when he was healthy versus what really happened when reality swooped in. He didn’t die the way I expected him to. He didn’t die the way he expected himself to.
Most of the time Ben did not want to acknowledge that he was dying, but there were moments when he knew. He sent “goodbye” texts. He sent “I will miss you” texts. Those memories simultaneously make me smile and cry. The logical Ben would have scoffed at that and said, “You can’t miss people when you’re dead.” The dying Ben thought he would miss his family and friends.
I remember the time when I told him “You cannot die on me. I need you!” and he cried and said “I know.” That moment was probably the catalyst that caused Ben to never specifically sit down to discuss his pending death with the kids and I. He worked around it, especially at the end, but I think to him he felt that if he said the words “I’m going to die” he would have felt he failed us. I think it hurt him too much to think about missing us. I get that.
I know Ben lived the best life he could, and he died the best way he could which for him meant refusing to let negative thoughts of death creep into his head during the majority of his illness. He focussed on life. Good for him. I need to remember that.
My plan to distract myself by cleaning the office has not worked. I found these:
Look at his smile. The pictures remind me that Ben always lived his life like “The Last Lecture.” He always saw the bright side, he despised complaining, he believed in hard work, he was kind. His life set the example for others, and it didn’t take his pending death for him to get there. He was always there.
I will miss you too, Ben. Always.