Passing Like the Wind
This month, I lost a friend. I had seen him around the holidays at the end of last year, when he told me that he’d not been making his social rounds because of an extended bout of lower back pain. He indeed didn’t look well, but I also have seen the toll of chronic spinal pain before.
In February he went to the doctor and got the news: he had very severe and likely metastasized cancer. After he underwent surgery, I got in touch with him to send my thoughts and support and make arrangements to go visit him.
He was in the hospital for weeks post-op, and I had gotten into a daily routine of checking online updates from his loving family. He was having good days and bad, spiking fevers, enduring pain, fighting to heal. Over a text exchange, though, he was his usual cheerful self. I asked him if there was anything I could bring him, and we agreed on a book from my shelf that I’d tote over to his hospital room in St. Paul.
He was a compulsive reader and writer, which was one of several things we had in common. We liked to get together for a couple of beers and engage in wide ranging bullshit sessions about religion, the mind, the spirit, and the sensory deprivation tanks that we both used to induce transcendent experiences — we were part of a loose community of so called psychonauts who explored experience while floating in total silence and darkness for ninety minutes at a time.
The Sunday I went to see him was not a typical weekend morning. It was the end of the first week in March, and it was clear that the coronavirus was in the process of spreading across the United States. This was the last period of relative normality, the source of those “post your last picture before the lockdown” requests on social media. It may have been projection, but the atmosphere felt tense among the healthcare professionals I interacted with that morning. The landslide hadn’t quite reached us yet, but it was coming.
I made my way to my friend’s room. He was waiting for me alone in bed, propped up and wide awake. He had lost an alarming amount of weight. Somehow he looked like a younger version of himself. When he spoke, there was a strain and a rasp in his voice. I concentrated to see and hear him the way he had been just weeks before, then intuitively understood that my affection and respect for him required me to truly see him as he was before me: alive, enduring the betrayal of his body, the same person but in some ways not the same.
Sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, I read his intelligent eyes and knew that he was watching me process his appearance and how he had changed. We smiled at one another and got that out of the way.
We slipped into a familiar groove, moving verbally around a landscape that included quantum physics, my own Buddhist belief system and how it intersects with science, the latest books we were reading. We touched lightly on his illness and the surreal quality of how much his reality had changed in such a short time. We acknowledged the reality of the coronavirus and how it was hitting at the same time as his cancer. We shook our heads in wonder at it all.
He then looked me firmly in the eyes and told me that he wasn’t remotely frightened. He understood this moment, like all others, as the unfurling of a plan beyond the confusion and suffering of our mortal lives. He said that whatever happened, whether it was a matter of days or weeks or years, he knew that he would be coming home to Jesus.
As he spoke, I felt a warmth suffuse me. I opened my heart with all the compassion I could muster, and I listened to my brave and amazing friend.
He knew that I didn’t share his Christian faith, but we had discussed several times that there might be numerous roads to the same place. And I had immense respect for his mind and heart, the way he embraced the mysteries of the Bible and life itself. He continually worked to find ways to make those riddles come alive and breathe in his quest for understanding and integrity.
And as we sat there together, I saw an absolutely fearless man. He was free from fear and doubt in a way that I had never entirely seen. Staring down pain and death, he found inspiration and certainty.
He got pretty tired after about half an hour or so. I said goodbye and told him I loved him. He returned the sentiment. We said that we hoped to meet again. Other than a few texts here and there, we didn’t communicate much after that. The coronavirus spread rapidly, and he retreated to the arms of his family and then entered hospice care. About two months after I saw him last, he died at the age of 40.
In the weeks during which my friend was fighting his last battle in this world, death and suffering robbed many thousands around the world of parents, friends, doctors, and loved ones gone too soon. It’s been heartbreaking.
But I’ve also thought about my friend, not as a source of cliched inspiration, but in trying to recapture that certainty in his eyes and that peace in his expression. In the midst of pain and total upheaval, he had the ability to transmit strength and certainty to me. It’s a grace and peace in the face of fear and death that I will remember as long as I am among the living, and in these times of frightened and confused emotions roiling across the psychic landscape, it’s a strength that I’ll try to emulate and which I wish upon everyone who needs it.
My friend and I didn’t share a particular faith. But we shared faith — in meaning, in the understanding that fear is a sensation that passes like the wind, along with the joy and the love and the pain.
And though I can’t explain precisely why, I also believe that he has gone home, and that he has learned the truth behind the mysteries.