Life’s greatest invention

Last night my friend Martin hugged me twice. The first was the normal friend-departing sort of cuddle. The second had a distant intimacy, and I immediately recognised that paradox as a marker for the mindset that enabled it – Martin had identified, and then inadvertently transmitted to me, that this was the last time we would see each other.

Once, during the second third of our lives, we had been very close. Although the contact had petered out (in fact I didn’t see him for the last three years) we were still fast friends.

We didn’t see each other for the last three years because Martin moved to North Carolina from Tasmania, following a dream – or it might have been a fantasy. He won’t be going home. He has pancreatic cancer and, unless he manages to die of something else in the next few months, it will be the cause of his demise.

It turns out that the most common cause of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinoma, allots you just four months from diagnosis. Strangely, having drawn the shortest of short straws in this dastardly lottery, you are better off pulling off another long shot. The rarer form of pancreatic cancer is survivable. But Martin hit the diabolical jackpot only once.

There is a form of chemotherapy that gives you a bit more than four months but it can be horrible. Martin tried it, and then he decided he would rather be human and soon dead than a shell of himself but dead slightly less soon. A brave decision for most people, not for Martin. For him it was obvious. The need to spend ‘quality time’ with the kids and wife was obvious, and paramount.

So now I’m on a plane, bound for New Orleans, a city that promises debauched fun, but this time it also promises guilt. Each fried thing or sazerac that I gulp down will remind me that Martin can only tolerate his body because he gulps morphine, ironically one of the debaucheries practiced by many of New Orleans’ transients, and not a few of its denizens. And he will gulp morphine and he will suffer and he will sleep and he will be confused and he will struggle to shit and he will die. Just like my brother, twenty years ago, he will die.

And I will think about him and feel sadness and grief, and a cocktail of guilt and relief that it wasn’t me, and the eruptions of grief and guilt will, over the great deal of time that I imagine is available to me, be fewer, and farther between. And then I will die. And then we all will die.

And all that doesn’t matter. Because each moment is a tool. I sharpened my tools with Martin when we argued about infinity, and when we out-implemented each other’s algorithms, and when we ran out of petrol after driving 200 kilometres to get a milkshake, and when he reminded me that we ran out of petrol thirty-three years later, and when he hugged me, bearing the burden of his mortality, and thus imparting to me the certainty of mine.

Our bubbles will all burst. Last night I watched his thinning, but as it thinned the light shone more brightly through.

-David Walsh