Yesterday I received word that a friend and long-time colleague had died. Even though I knew it was coming, the news still was difficult to take.
It had been about a year since my friend was first diagnosed with cancer. He had one of those “bad cancers,” where the survival rates are low and the prospects are grim and there just haven’t been many treatment advances that can give the afflicted some encouragement. Nevertheless, my friend was unfazed. He’s always been one of those happy warrior types, the kind who approach everything, even a terrible personal illness, with optimism and enthusiasm and curiosity. He learned what he could about his condition and his treatment, engaged in spirited and intelligent discussions with his doctors about his options, and could give you detailed, knowledgeable descriptions of what was happening, and why. It told you a lot about his true nature.
There was something inspiring, too, in how he dealt with his condition. He may have had private moments when he cursed his luck and the dread disease that had befallen him, but his public face inevitably was hopeful and confident. He came to work when he could, and spoke of days in the future when he could take an even greater role, because he loved being a lawyer. It was an amazing display of spirit and fortitude. He unfailingly projected the positive mental attitude and willingness to battle, undeterred, that doctors often say can make a significant difference in a patient’s prognosis.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t an instance where the mental could control the physical. When my friend got the news that the treatments weren’t working, he accepted it with a kind of awesome grace. He would speak of how his illness had opened up new channels of communication, made his talks with his friends and family more meaningful, and brought his already close family even closer. He actually seemed to feel that, in certain ways, the bad news had nevertheless provided some important benefits.
The last time I saw him, Kish and I visited my friend and his wife at their home. The cancer was taking its physical toll, but his mental outlook remained bright. We talked and tried to say the things that need to be said without making it seem like we considered this to be the Last Time Ever, and as our visit drew to a close he mentioned that we should see his “trophy room” — which turns out to be his dining room, filled with pictures of his family. As the inevitable end neared, he realized that that was what was important, and the pride he obviously took in his family left us moist-eyed and with lumps in our throat as we left his house and walked to our car.
I’ve always liked the phrase “in the grand scheme of things,” because it captures the sense of perspective that we should all strive to maintain. In the vast spectrum of possibilities that we may encounter during our lives, some are important but most truly aren’t, even though they might seem to be at the time. My friend fought his cancer with courage, faced his prospects with dignity and grace, and could find positives even in circumstances that many people would find unendurable. He was able to see the grand scheme of things and distinguish the crucial points from the petty reversals and the minor annoyances. We should all hope that we can do the same.