I closed the lid on PCR thermal cycler 2, checked the hallway was clear, then snuck out in the opposite direction to my lab.
My lanyard allowed me access to anywhere in the hospital, so I swiped my way through the closed ward doors with a satisfying beep. I wasn’t 100% sure I was supposed to be in there, but no one was 100% clear on the ever-changing COVID-19 rules, and the nurses all smiled at me as I passed - or at least I think they did - beneath their fitted masks.
I found the bed number my friend had texted earlier - it changed often - and rounded the curtains to see him leaning against the dull, gray window. Folded up on a visitor chair, his arms were around his legs under a blanket, like he was trying to make himself small. He was a very tall guy, so this was no easy feat.
“So, how’s it going today?” I enquired, plopping myself in a socially distanced, ugly orange chair.
“Apparently one of my tumors has managed to fracture my spine. I barely even felt it over the other stuff.” His eyes were dull, reflecting the gray, cloudy window, and my heart sank. How far can a heart sink? It seemed to sink a little more with every scrap of bad news, but there was always more room to keep sinking. I tried not to let it show as painful pictures of our times surfing, hiking, and camping together flashed across my mind. Things you probably couldn’t do with a fractured, tumor-riddled spine.
These good times weren’t that long ago. We’d only met about 8 months prior when he’d flown home from Canada after a shock diagnosis of stage four lung cancer in mid-2019. He’d had a niggling cough, he’d told me, and had delayed going to the doctor since it was expensive for a traveler. They’d sent him home as soon as possible for treatment.
I tried not to let it show as painful pictures of our times surfing, hiking, and camping together flashed across my mind. Things you probably couldn’t do with a fractured, tumor-riddled spine.
He’d told me all this while playing board games at our mutual friend’s house, looking like any normal, healthy, 29-year-old. He wasn’t coughing or anything, but I guess he was already on some form of suppressive medication. With a dry, blunt kind of humor, he explained that he’d like to do as much ‘fun shit’ as possible while he felt OK. He was even planning a ‘retirement trip’ around Australia, in a van he was going to handyman into a mobile home with the help of YouTube. Complete with solar panels for dimmable lights. I was immediately inspired to get involved, and definitely on board to partake in all the ‘fun shit.’
We bonded pretty quickly over our mutual interests in traveling, exploring, and the outdoors. He’d never tried surfing before but picked it up pretty quickly after borrowing my spare board. Our new surfing group bought matching blue foam boards when they were on sale - he added a white ‘speed stripe’ to tell his apart.
Before setting off to Canada, he’d bought himself some huge, multi-panel world maps, to mark with pins where he was planning to travel in the future. Once he found out I was a travel enthusiast and general map lover, he bestowed one of these maps to me.
“I think you’ll get more use out of it than I will any time soon,” he’d declared, and proceeded to source polystyrene backing, the best glue to use, and helped me mount it to my office wall. It became pretty obvious he was a generous guy, quiet yet thoughtful, and willing to help out wherever he could.
His selflessness got a little frustrating at times. Like when we were out camping one weekend, sitting around the fire, trying to convince him to try dating apps for a little fun. “It wouldn’t be fair to them,” he’d said. When his liver started to hurt that night, he said he’d drive himself to the hospital if it got past a 7/10 on the pain scale, so we didn’t have to cut short our fun. I’d said, “shut up, of course, we’ll drive you.”
He was dying, but much more concerned about being a bother.
When COVID-19 started to become a bigger thing, restrictions in Australia were severe. Lockdowns meant we weren’t allowed to go anywhere anymore, which pretty much brought a stop to all the ‘fun shit.’ Many people I knew, including my husband, reduced or stopped working and hunkered down with toilet paper and sourdough kits - but as a hospital employee, I just worked more.
Employed in the genetic diagnostics lab, I didn’t work directly with anything COVID-related, but I was required to be on stand-by, and support the core labs when they were overwhelmed. Key employees had left recently due to budget cuts and condition disputes, morale was low, stress levels were high, and I started to resent my job.
The only perk was being able to keep seeing my friend as he became increasingly sick. Visitors were heavily restricted, and his family lived several hours away from the hospital required for his specialized treatment. I began speaking regularly with his mum, with whom I’d swap information about his condition and movements - she was privy to more details from his doctors, while I saw her son more regularly than she could.
I wasn’t 100% sure I was supposed to be in there, but no one was 100% clear on the ever-changing COVID-19 rules, and the nurses all smiled at me as I passed - or at least I think they did - beneath their fitted masks.
My friend tried to keep people updated via social media and texts, but as he grew weaker, he found it more draining to use his phone. It gradually fell on me to keep the outside world informed of what was going on inside the now guarded and mysterious inner goings-on of the hospital during a pandemic.
As much as I tried to keep it together while watching his body progressively fail, tried to keep conversation entertaining as my stress levels rose, listened stoically when he wanted to talk about his fears, about what he wished he’d done more of while he was healthy, about his probable looming death… it wore me down, I wasn’t strong enough, and I started to cry more in his presence. Him being him, he felt bad that he was upsetting me… and told me I didn’t have to keep visiting if ‘it was too depressing.’ I told him to shut up; of course, I still wanted to visit him.
But I wasn’t coping with it all. My mental health had been quietly going downhill without me consciously realizing it; crying at some point every day, waking up feeling panicky dread. Chest pains, headaches, fatigue, and waves of dizziness. Social withdrawal. My thoughts grew darker and bleaker until they no longer felt like my own - and it frightened me.
I reluctantly reached out for help from a counselor, who directed me to a psychologist. Together, we unearthed a bevy of surprise buried issues. It was like asking a plumber to fix one leaky sink, without realizing it could trigger a torrential flood.
I felt guilty. Guilty for being self-indulgent enough to complain to a therapist about my life when my friend - and many others - were suffering and dying. Guilty for grumbling about a well-paid job when millions of others were forced out of work. Guilty for not supporting my friend’s mum enough, or his older friends, or him. Guilty for being so fortunate, so healthy, with an amazing network of friends and family, and still so sad.
Once unleashed, it felt good to begin the hard work of mopping up the flood around my floundering heart. But at the same time, I felt guilty. Guilty for being self-indulgent enough to complain to a therapist about my life when my friend - and many others - were suffering and dying. Guilty for grumbling about a well-paid job when millions of others were forced out of work. Guilty for not supporting my friend’s mum enough, or his older friends, or him. Guilty for being so fortunate, so healthy, with an amazing network of friends and family, and still so sad. But I kept on mopping anyway.
I didn’t tell my friend about the psychologist; he already felt like an inconvenience - I didn’t want to make it worse. I did try to tell him how lucky I felt to have met him, and what fun I had hanging out with him. It’s a cliché, but the experience really did force me to confront that life was short, and you never knew what was around the corner.
Cancer? A pandemic? At the same time? Can’t plan for any of that shit.
Like a smack in the face with a solar panel, it dawned on me that I should be doing things that make me happy, while I’m capable of doing so. What else is life for? My friend had told me he regretted not getting around to doing the fun things on his ‘list’ sooner. So I started getting busy with mine.
I enrolled to study writing, purely because I enjoyed it, and found it easier to express myself through written words. I sent out applications to other jobs. I bought a kayak because I’d always wanted to. I said ‘yes’ to more opportunities as they came along, because how could I know when they might come along again?
I saw my friend in palliative care the night before he passed away, shortly after his 30th birthday. It was both a blessing and a curse to be there. I hated seeing him that way, so pale and dulled, like a window sapped of all its sunlight. Cruelly denied the right to live the full life he so deserved. He hadn’t even been able to take his retirement trip. He’d managed to hook up the dimmable lights to the solar panels, though. All ready to shine.
I was unsure of what to say, unsure whether he could hear me anyway. But I’m so glad to have been able to see him at all, especially when so many others couldn’t. So grateful to get to know him. So grateful that by knowing him, I was able to get to know myself a bit better along the way.