I heard these words: “We need a miracle.”
I was standing in a hospital room with Robert, a fifty-one-year-old man dying of prostate cancer, his wife, Leslie; and their four children. Leslie was so distraught that I needed to find a way to make her comprehend the incomprehensible—that Robert had only a short time left on this earth. I looked at her, put my hand on her shoulder, and said, “I am going to speak to you like you are my sister, and your husband is my brother. Is that okay?” She managed a nod, and I went on. “Look, the miracle is not the chemo,” I said gently. “It’s the love you have for each other and for the children you had together.”
I looked back at Robert, who was smiling gently. He knew what I was trying to do, even if his wife didn’t.
“Tell me what’s on your mind,” I said to him. “Where are you with everything that’s going on right now?’
“I just want to be comfortable,” he said.
Robert’s children started weeping. Three of them were college-age and the youngest was just seventeen. The oldest played the guitar and she had it with her now, strumming it softly.
“But I want him to have more chemo,” Leslie said. “You have to do something. You have to.”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard those words from someone in grave distress, but there was nothing I or anyone else could do. At this point, with stage IV cancer after many lines of treatment, there are diminishing returns with every bout of chemo–the side effects do more harm than good. They can hasten death, not prolong life. Robert understood exactly what was happening. He’d spent his entire career in the hospital working as a radiation technologist, trying to help those who were suffering from the same disease that was about to kill him.
“Tell me again, what you’d like right now,” I asked him.
“I want to go quick, and have no pain,” he said. Leslie began to sob, and he took her hand.
“Thank you for telling me that,” I replied.
That was the love that Robert needed, to be given the space so he would be able to tell me what he truly wanted to say—and to then be able to create the space to allow healing to happen. It didn’t matter at that moment whether or not he was going to be cured; that wasn’t the point. What was crucial for him was letting healing into his life, and feeling better to the best of his abilities for as long as possible.
It was about acknowledging the love in the room, so Robert could have a “good” death as he had lived a good life.