A Terminal Prognosis and a Transcending Friendship

Cystic FIbrosis lungs 2015.

In April of 2015, I held my lungs in my hands. Just one month prior those lungs were the only life I’d ever known, full of destructive infections and dead-end airways. But one month post bilateral lung transplant, I held those rock hard sacks of decay in my hands and was able to say goodbye to that life in a way that felt similar to a long-term (24 years to be exact) abusive relationship finally coming to an end. I was no longer backed into a corner by my own anatomy. I was no longer scared to envision my future. I was finally free.

My name is Travis Flores. When I was four months old, I was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis with a prognosis of about five years. Now, I know what you’re thinking; this is another one of those story’s about how to “overcome the odds”. Well, while that may be somewhat true, my expectation is that this become a culmination of what I’ve learned by being aware of my own mortality — love, hope, strength, forgiveness, and most importantly, patience. Everyone dies at some point in life, but waking up everyday being aware of the closeness shared with death will change a life and for me, it made me the person I am today.

In my weakest moment of life, I was lying in my hospital bed having been admitted four months prior due to a severe exacerbation. I was afraid to go to sleep for fear of not waking back up. I had received four calls over the course of that time for a life saving double lung transplant that each fell through due to complications with the prospective donor. When the phone rang the fifth time, it was almost as if I entered into a dream all the way up until I was being wheeled into the operating room. I was surrounded by a group of nurses, surgeons, and anesthesiologists all whom been through this procedure several times already that week — but for me, it was the first time. I was secretly terrified, but managed to dance around to Justin Timberlake prior to leaving my family behind to begin my new life. To say I wanted this surgery wouldn’t be right. No one wants to be virtually sawed in half and stapled back up after having your guts shifted around, but it was that or death — I chose the battle wound.

Hiking Runyon Canyon 2015.

Today, I am happy and healthy. I am able to do things I never dreamed of, such as hiking mountains or biking along the ocean. Life is beautiful and I am constantly reminded of how fragile it can be. We should all take everyday as a blessing given to us, because it really is.

People always ask me, “Travis, what were you thinking in those moments leading up to surgery?” It’s hard to explain what that’s like, truly. There are so many emotions, so many fears, so many memories, and so much gratitude all at the same time. This is just one of the moments that I relived.

We were six years apart in age, but he had become a close friend and brother to me. His older brother and parents had adopted me into their family over the course of a few years. It’s so incredible how art, even in the silliest of manners (like YouTube parodies), can bring people together. I would leave the city sometimes when I needed to escape the pressures of living a cold New York City lifestyle and I sought refuge in their home. From the green grass and blue skies, to the snow and overwhelming grayness, even through hurricanes, they made me feel welcome. I had a home away from home.

Moving to Los Angeles after completing my graduate program at New York University was exciting, but leaving my adopted family was devastating, and what was even harder was the fact that my friend couldn’t come visit the west coast easily due to his schooling. He doesn’t know this, but as I captured my last glimpse of the towering city from my U-Haul, I cried. Not so much because I was going to miss the city, but because I was so grateful that the city had brought his friendship to me.

As time passed, we both got busy doing our own projects, and naturally he grew older and found love with a beautiful young woman. Our friendship became like many other cross-country friendships; occasional texts, FaceTime’s, and social media banter, but we kept to our separate busy lives.

One day in May of 2014, I sent him a text expressing what had happened with my long-term relationship and my health. My relationship of nearly 5 years fell a part at the same time I was given a year to live due to a terminal progression of Cystic Fibrosis. He must have shared the text with his girlfriend and his family because without a beat, each one of them sent me messages of support and love. Those quickly grew into invitations to come back east for a trip — a chance to heal, focus, and of course, surprise my friend who had no idea that we were planning this trip without his involvement.

So, before my travel was restricted by my medical team, I found myself seeking sanctuary at their home once again — but this time, all the way from Los Angeles. The subtle approval that I got from my doctors was sprinkled with grief because they knew that this could very well be a “goodbye” trip to see my friend one last time. It was apparent that my health would soon prevent me from walking a few feet, so traveling 2,756 miles was a risk that I had one last chance to take.

After two flights and an eight hour train ride, I was met by his girlfriend and her mother at the station. The three of us began to plan the best way to surprise my friend. The decision was made after several suggestions from both her family and his. It would be a photo of his girlfriend and I sitting outside of his house that would be sent to him via text message.

Just after it was sent to him, I went inside the house. I knew he was upstairs and in any other situation I wouldn’t have put myself through the suffering of walking up a flight of stairs. In this case, I braved every step so I could greet him as he received the text. He exploded through the door of the bathroom, smiling, as I attempted to reclaim my breath in the hall. When he hugged me his shock and excitement clearly grew into concern about how thin I had become. I tried to play it off by saying I was gaining the weight back already. It was “no big deal” and “I was fine.”

One by one, his family embraced and submerged me in a pool of support. In those first moments, I did everything I could not to cry. I was so newly hurt by love, so scared by my own body and health, that I simply wanted to collapse and allow myself to be broken. I couldn’t imagine putting people that I love through any more anguish over my declining state, so I stood as tall as I could and as the minutes ticked by I could feel my façade being replaced by a real form of strength.

Surprising my friend 2015.

They took me in, and together we allowed our friendship and my pain to give birth to creativity through videos of gratitude. We read through material that we had worked on previously; reminding us of the love and commitment that we shared for truth in story and art. We lived in laughter and memories around a table, capturing much of it on camera in a documentary style format. I grasped onto time hoping that it would freeze or at least slow down, but unfortunately the trip couldn’t be long. I had to return to California and immediately go back into the hospital for IV therapy to attempt to combat the growing damage to my lungs and my continued weight loss.

The night before I left his house to face the hellish battle of uncertainty, he came into the room I had been sleeping in with a look of desperation on his face. In his eyes, I could uncover the fear and sense of helplessness. After a slight sigh and forced smile, it suddenly poured out of him. He quickly sat on the floor and I realized that he had been masking just as much heartache with his own façade. He was terrified of losing me. A friend who had been an unbreakable pillar of strength for me during my retreat from reality needed me to help him stand now.

I held onto him tightly saying, “It will be okay. You will be okay. I promise.” Things were becoming so aggressive with my stage of illness; it was the only way I knew how to say “goodbye” without actually saying it to him, and he knew that. He kept shaking his head, side to side, “No, no. No, it won’t be okay. No, it won’t be okay, Travis. Please. Be okay.” When I tried to respond with a sense of encouragement he would tell me to tell him the truth, but how do you tell someone that you might not be okay — especially someone so young and so close to you? Death would be easy for me. It was everyone else that would somehow have to face the next morning and the morning after that and so on.

Instead of struggling to convince him of something that may not be true, we just hugged each other and allowed ourselves to cry. It was the first time that I had cried in acknowledgement of my own life and conceivable death. I was so blessed to have had him with me through that emotion. The truth is, allowing him to grieve for me, with me, gave us both a sense of peace. Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do, but by expressing how much we cared for each other and that we had forever impacted each other’s lives, we didn’t have to say goodbye.

Waiting at UCLA for a double-lung transplant 2015.

We smiled as I left his house feeling incredibly grateful to have a very special kind of friendship; one that transcends all time and place in the universe. I look back on this moment in my life, one year & nearly 5 months post double-lung transplant, and it still moves me to know that I have a support system that’s so loving & powerful.

Thank you for making me a part of you and your family’s lives. I love you all so much.

Excerpted from the forthcoming “Patient: An Anthology of Memoirs” by Travis Flores.

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