Opinion editor's note: Eddie Ryshavy, of Plymouth, a retired school administrator, contributed commentaries and letters to the editor to Star Tribune Opinion for many years. He died Dec. 4, less than a week after submitting the commentary that follows.
Pancreatic cancer comes out of nowhere and changes your life in one sentence from your doc. In my case, he called me at home and said, “The CT scan showed a three-millimeter mass on your pancreas.”
Stunned, I felt like the judge had just pronounced a death sentence and my earthly status was unalterably changed.
With such news, you realize quickly that you are now different from everyone around you. You have no future. Your worldview changes dramatically.
Humans are the only creatures who can recognize and appreciate the end-of-life process. I’m not 100% sure at this point that it is such a great capability.
I know I can’t speak for everyone. But after talking to some others occupying a seat in the same boat, I thought some comments for the living from the afflicted might be useful:
I find that I crave normalcy. Even though you are sorry, you are not nearly as sorry as the person dying. Make it quick and get on with behaving normally.
Hardest thing — telling people, especially those who want to explore every cancer cell with you. In the past I enjoyed discussing all my age-related maladies as much as anyone. But once they put on the terminal tag it tends to dampen the fun a bit.
Please, please don’t tell me about this friend of a distant cousin who had exactly what I do and died of a lightning strike on the last mile of a marathon at 103.
If you are one of those folks generally known as a crêpe hanger, who gets their jollies by contacting everyone with even a vague acquaintance with the impending decedent, please limit your background information search to nonfamily members.
If you are a close relative or spouse, you should be aware that the soon-to-be departed will have some days when he or she is having a hard time playing the hero.
Oh, I know how to do it. I’ve watched most of John Wayne’s movies. But he died often and had directors coaching him. I’m just on my own and only have this one shot at it.
I can tell you playing the part occasionally gets tiresome.
I know you feel bad for me. I feel bad for me, too. But know I didn’t do this just to ruin your day. Don’t make me spend the next 20 minutes helping you feel good because I understand you don’t feel good about my situation.
Some feel compelled to make sure they have done everything they can to ease the journey into eternity. They sit down, hold both my hands, lock eyes, assume the countenance of a longtime hemorrhoid sufferer and grill me about their version of redemption. They then use their close association with the Almighty to broker a good plea bargain on my behalf.
I know they mean well. But so do I when I say: Please don’t.
We just finished “the meeting” with our kids. My wife is plagued by a penchant to organize anything and everything around her. She had prepared a working outline that dealt with everything from our current and projected financial situation to plans for her living situation after my approaching exit. Thankfully, the kids picked up on my need for normal human contact, and while the initial information we needed to impart evoked some tears as it highlighted the finality of my situation, we got through it fairly quickly and returned to what I considered an enjoyable lunch.
We are paid-up members of the Cremation Society, and my wife has pledged to place me in a cupboard drawer along with the envelope containing the remains of our beloved pooch, Cinder, until the day all three of us will share my eternal parking spot.
Having been a sympathy-giver in the past doesn’t make receiving it any easier. It’s hard not to be envious that everybody you know has a future and you don’t. It makes you feel isolated, and frankly irritated. It has always been difficult for me to receive favors from others. I suppose it’s the downside of being in control.
The impending loss of control and accompanying dependence on others is another difficult part of this pilgrimage. If I should not properly show my appreciation, please know that I do appreciate your kindness — and you — very much.
And then of course there is the matter of the wig. One feature of my final journey I have vowed to resist is the humiliation of complete baldness. I know it’s in style and that many guys look good that way. I also know I wouldn’t be one of them.
We purchased a wig the other day which, after the initial shock, takes about 50 years off my appearance. My coiffeur assured me that after the hair stylist she recommends finishes trimming down the wig, it will be more age-appropriate. Even so, everyone I know will be well-aware I have on a wig.
Who knows — maybe I’ll set a trend, or at least provide a few laughs.
Once your downward spiral toward eternity has been medically confirmed, you realize that this trip must be taken alone. Hard as it is to leave the kids, all parents are aware, and generally accept, that we will eventually precede them. I can find no fitting expression to describe the anguish at the thought of leaving my life partner, a bond in my case that has officially endured 62 years but unofficially since high school.
Heart-wrenching doesn’t come close, but it’s the best I can do.
All I can ask in the interim is that you please join me in making my interaction with you as enjoyable as possible.