Being caught on the gay-dar is a regular occurrence for me and my best friend of 35 years, Roger Williams.
Gay-dar is what Roger started calling the assumptions salesmen make about us being a couple after we shopped for my truck last year. Of course, I’m sure it didn’t help when we arrived in my wife’s car sporting personalized plates: 25YRS N (heart).
And when Roger texted me to meet him for breakfast last week, we got the same reaction from the restaurant hostess who settled us into a cozy little table. We shrugged. Just another comedic story to tell our wives.
At breakfast, however, our conversation turned serious.
He had news about his mother, Jenny, who struggles in a Maine nursing facility with Alzheimer’s.
“She eats well and walks a good deal,” Roger said, “yet my dad says, ‘This isn’t your mom. Your mom’s gone.’ ”
There’s a Catch-22 in dealing with Alzheimer’s patients. Since it’s difficult to get them to lucidly describe their aches, life-threatening problems often go untreated until they are on their deathbed.
And that’s how Roger’s family came to be surprised about the latest development. Jenny has cancer.
After breakfast, Roger sent more texts.
“Her health is failing and she’s been placed in hospice care.”
With internal bleeding, Jenny’s doctor predicted about a week.
Another text: “Charge nurse told family that I should get on a plane tomorrow!”
I volunteered to research airfares, but found bereavement fares to be only a few dollars cheaper than full fare. Dying isn’t cheap, but neither is mourning. By evening’s end, I combined frequent flier miles with some airline passes to purchase roundtrip tickets for Roger, his wife and daughter for about $600.
More texts, “Thank you so much!”
“I remember so well how you were there for me when my dad died,” I replied. “Thanks for that.”
The next day, I put them on the plane, but the messages continued.
“We are so tired! We only slept 4 hours last night,” he texted before boarding a red-eye.
At 5:30 a.m., another text: “We just landed. My dad says, ‘hurry.’ ”
Jenny was holding out. We both knew from our jobs as hospital chaplains that dying patients seem to hold out until they can see a family member one last time. Now, she waited for Roger.
The last text I got from him: “We are here. Sitting at bedside. She’s pale and sedated.”
“You’re a good son,” I told him.
As chaplains, the hospital bedside is a place both of us have been a hundred times. But I felt confused. Should I be the chaplain to him? Or was I his best friend?
Or was there a difference in this case?
I’m often asked what to say to people who are going through something like this. I tell them that sitting with people as they grieve is not show-and tell time.
It’s just show time. It’s time to exercise your right to remain silent and work on showing them your love. It’s also time to show your courage by staying present with them during the scary times.
And that’s the best answer I know: Don’t tell people you love them. Show them. Even if showing them means getting caught in someone’s gay-dar.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.