Letting go of fear as a friend faces down terminal illness

I was recently asked to submit a statement about my thoughts on the meaning of life. And, true to my style, it was a loquacious romp through complicated territory.

In the last year and a half, I’ve watched one of my best friends, Tim Lafollete, battling a cruel monster called ALS. This is both the most beautiful and most difficult time of my life. So my answer was complex and cathartic. It is hard enough for me to write about the reality of my feelings without glossing over the uglier parts, so to ask anyone else to do so is impossible. Keith Barber did a great job of capturing certain aspects of my feelings, but I feel that it was an incomplete snapshot of a vulnerable admission. I wanted to supplement his article with what I originally wrote on the matter. Dealing with the illness of someone you love brings many feelings that cannot be put into words, but here is my attempt:

Tim has always been one of the most antsy people I know. In the years before he became ill, it was not uncommon for him to wander off in mid-conversation when he was distracted by something. I could almost hear him thinking, “Oooh, something shiny!” He was this way from the moment I met him when we were 18 years old. My best friend Lis and I would exchange crosseyed glances when trying, in vain, to keep Timmy on task or focused on one topic of conversation. But I knew in my gut that this was not a battle I would ever win, so fighting it was pointless. So whenever he would be hit with one of these sudden moments of inspiration (or distraction), we would just giggle, sigh, and say, “Oh, Timmy.”

I knew from early on in our friendship that his mother had died when he was 2 (although it wasn’t until years later that I learned that it was from ALS) and he had seen his fair share of heartache and difficulties, as had all of us. But, somehow he still approached the world with wide-eyed wonder. When a friend would betray him, or a girlfriend would decide that they made better friends than lovers, he would grieve with his whole being. But, when the next opportunity for love or friendship came along, he would sprint towards it, arms wide open. Many of our friends often felt more protective of his heart than he was. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. At that point, I felt like life was becoming a laundry list of things to protect myself from and vigilance (or fear) was the key to being prepared.

I could reminisce for days about the adventures that led to my deep and unconditional love for this man. It would be easy, in the face of his diagnosis, for everyone to retroactively define Timmy’s whole journey as one long lesson in how to grab life by the scruff of the neck and make it your servant. It is tempting to sound pious here, but the truth is that I have learned how pointless it is to look for any reason in this incredibly f***ed-up situation. It’s easy for people to idealize Tim, and to assume that his trial by fire has somehow canonized him. Or that our care for him has sanctified us. But the truth is far messier and much more wonderful than that. Many people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Bullshit. I refuse to believe that whichever deity is in charge this week has chosen to punish such an incredible person in order to teach the world a lesson. He was not “chosen” for this.

That being said, I would be a fool if I didn’t learn from this experience. He is one of the strongest, yet most vulnerable people I know. I have a tough time dealing with my grieving process being so publicly documented. Yet, Tim fights his battle with a terminal illness in a public forum. He has remarkable courage and a trust in the world that has been humbling to witness. This experience has helped me to become the kind of person I always wanted to be. I have opened up in ways I could have never dreamed possible. I am discovering my capacity for love, courage, and my ability to adapt and act quickly under horrible circumstances.

I would trade all of it, every single upgrade to my being, to have my friend be healthy again.

What is the meaning of life? There is none. But I have learned that in order to make it through life I have to let go of fear, especially the fear of the inevitable. When Tim first got sick, I was very preoccupied with the future. I was so afraid of what was coming that every time I looked at him, I would not only see him but what he would inevitably lose. I was terrified of the day that he would no longer be able to walk, or play music, or hug me, or use his hands, or swallow, or breathe on his own. Well, each and every one of those horrific days has passed quietly. You’d think that the last day I watched my friend be able to swallow food would create some sort of fanfare, but it didn’t. But he’s still here. And so am I. As he has said, “No matter how hard we fight, we know how this is going to end.” The person that I was before all of this would have said that nothing I could do would change the outcome, and this was a battle that could never be won, so what’s the use in fighting? But, I look at my friend, with more strength in his limp pinky finger than most people have in their whole being, and smile to myself and just say, “Oh, Timmy.”