Yesterday, sitting in her hospital room, Zinnia lying on the floor, we were all talking about the next step for Susan as her medical conditions worsens dramatically by the day.
“Oh,” she said to one of the doctors, who was suggesting that she think about hospice care “this is Jon Katz, my friend. He’s a famous writer, and this is Zinnia, his wonderful therapy dog. She’s such a great dog…”
Susan looked over to me as if to get my approval.
Then she started telling the doctor how she looked up one day and saw me standing in her living room, and she was so surprised – we hadn’t seen one another in months – that she didn’t even notice the ambulance crew pleading with her to let them take her to the hospital.
Did you remember?, I asked, looking at her directly, “That I had to threaten to call the police to have you declared incompetent before you agreed to get into the ambulance?”
No, she said, she didn’t remember, she was too focused on me, who she hadn’t seen in a long time. “Jon Katz in my living room,” she said. “Wow.”
That was a horrifying thing for me to realize. Susan didn’t get into the ambulance the first time because she was too obsessed with me standing in her living room after not seeing her for a long time. That almost cost her her life.
She got into the ambulance the second time because I told her she had to.
After all that is happening to her, she is still telling this story every day, to anyone who will listen. And then she told the doctor about her plans to change her diet and start jogging or walking every day.
I asked the doctor if he was finished. I said I needed to talk to Susan privately. He was happy to go. Susan is losing her clarity, but it is still sometimes there, and I could sense she was clear at that moment.
“Susan, can you listen to me now? This is not a time for bullshit. This is when you decide how you wish to spend the rest of your life, no matter how long that is. Nobody here cares that I am a writer or that Zinnia is a great dog, or that you saw me in your living room. This is how we got into trouble, I am not here as a celebrity, but as your friend and advocate. Does that make sense?”
I told her she will not be swimming or traveling or making major lifestyle choices. She needed to come to terms with where she is while she can.
She nodded. I said we needed to talk straight with one another, now of all times, and while there is time. No more games, no more agreeing or fawning or obsessing.
This isn’t just a sweet story of one friend rushing to help another, it is more complicated than that, as most stories are.
But I think I got through. I think she heard me.
Yesterday, she told me she would go into hospice once she got healthy. Today, on the phone, she told me she was ready to go into hospice now.
This is the tight spot I am in. Our friendship started as one thing, became something else. Now it needs to reshape itself once more. An advocate is not the same thing as a pal. And a celebrity is utterly useless in this situation, despite what you might see on TV.
The last thing I want is for Susan to do what I suggest she does.
I never see myself as a celebrity, yet the celebrity others see in me is the elephant in the room. Always. It makes me cringe. It has ruined a lot of friendships. One of the many things I love about Maria is that she has never once seen me as a celebrity. She sees right through all of that.
“I need you to understand that you are in a new phase; you are beginning the process of dying,” I told Susan. “You have some really important decisions to make If we can’t talk honestly, and without all the crap, then I can’t help you and I don’t belong here. Nobody knows how long you will live, least of all me. And if you see me or Maria as some celebrity, that will color your response to what I am telling you. And I will need to step out of it. Do you see that?”
Oh sure, she said, sure, I get it. You need to be honest with me.
Yes, I said. Let’s leave it there.
As I left the room, I suspected that Susan may not be clear again, or that she may never really be clear with me. So around this, I’ve talked to the other advocates, Donna, and her brother, and we are all agreed.
Susan needs to go into hospice care. We hope that when we meet with her today that she will agree. We are 100 percent in agreement. If necessary, and it comes to that, we can make decisions for her if it is clear that she can’t make her own.
The meeting today will be with me, hospice, and a member of the medical team treating Susan. I see it as a turning point for Susan, an arrangement to get her the care she needs to be free of pain and comfortable, and hopefully, at peace. For Susan, this is the very best possible outcome, and it can’t come soon enough. She is declining very quickly.
If it goes well, it will end this phase of my involvement; hospice will make the decisions Susan needs to have made. I will continue as a hospice volunteer, visiting her with Zinnia, listening to her, if that’s what she wants.
I can’t be Jon Katz, the celebrity to her, that is an awful role for me in that situation.
But if she lets me, I can be me. That’s what I’m shooting for today. Some decisions, and a sense that Susan is finally in the right hands, no longer alone and bewildered, and in great suffering.