When I was 40 years old, I took a 63-year-old friend into my house to live with me. Well, to say I asked Dale to stay with me would be an understatement. He never wanted to talk to anyone, a “monkish man” in his opinion. It would be wrong to say that I was obsessed with Dale alive and me. The truth is, I took him so he wouldn’t die alone.
Dale and I were seminary students together. Most of us thought Dale was the old man, since most of us were in our 20’s and almost 50. But Dale didn’t look old. He runs marathons, chops his own trees, and spends his free time hiking in the desert. He traveled all over the world and spoke seven languages, including ancient Coptic. In addition to being old, this man seems to be helpless.
Ten years after we became classmates, Dale and I returned to work at the seminary where we studied together. It’s great to renew our friendship, this time as colleagues.
During the summer break from events I get a call from the registrar saying that Dale is in the hospital. He died of a stroke, a brain tumor. He is partially paralyzed, unable to speak, and has no hope of recovery. Shall I go to see him?
In the ICU, as we stood by his bed, Dale’s eyes widened. It is impossible to know if he knows us. He raised one hand and touched her throat.
“He’s still working,” the nurse told us. “I think he wants to talk.”
“He wants his cross,” I said. Dale kept the number cross where his fingers rested.
I searched in the box next to his bed and found the cross and placed it around his neck over the wires and tubes surrounding him. Dale put his thumb on that cross and it was firm. At that moment I realized that Dale was still there, himself. And let me not leave him for the rest of his journey. If he can trust that cross, so can I.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Dale was survived by most of his family. One brother was left out of the area, working in a private mine somewhere in the southwest. My first step was to get power of attorney, and the second was to have control over Dale’s medical decisions. My friend could not speak. Someone should talk about him.
It took a week to get the proper paperwork and see his doctors. That’s when I learned that arrangements had already been made to send Dale to poor care: a low-income nursing home where he would not receive treatment. This will die within weeks.
After looking at Dale’s medical records, however, I learned that he has access to many medications and treatments. He can choose from a number of hospitals and nursing homes, including Stanford, where they are very familiar with the type of brain cancer he is dealing with.
So I stood in many lines, holding other forms, trying to get access to the administrator who could do this. When I came before this man, the size of his desk and his well-appointed office told me that this was the court of last appeal. If he doesn’t sign the papers, Dale, who has worked all his life, will spend his last hours in poverty.
The manager is not delusional. “Of course, Dale can have other treatments for cancer, with three treatments: talking, working, physical. about 5% – very cheap.”
“Five percent,” I replied. “If someone pointed a laser at my brain, 5% more accurate. Five percent more listening nurses, 5% more advanced equipment, 5% more skilled doctors: I think I’d like that.”
The woman stood and put her hands on her desk with a look of finality. “Your father will be treated well at our local hospital,” he finished in a soft voice.
“He’s not my father,” I corrected. Then I stood up again. “But if he was your father, would that make any difference to your decision?”
The idea surprised him. He sat down, held a pen, tapped a few times, and didn’t meet my eyes. When he looked up again, he said softly, “if it was my father, I would want him at Stanford.” He then signed the documents confirming the transfer.
Dale received the expert care he sought for himself. And a few months later, he was able to tell me the same thing.
I have long pondered the impact of the headline on such a negative message. How to open a door that doesn’t seem to lock. What is important to me may not be the same to you. Yet we all agree on what a parent is. We all know what family means — even if our experience of it is far from perfect.
When Pope Francis said that the end of the world depends on us embracing the “desire of family” with one another, I think he was talking about situations like this and great relationships. I have to respond to others like they are family. I have to take responsibility for the pain in the world as if it were something foreign to me, doing it.
Dale and I were together for 18 months. We had wonderful meals and wonderful conversations. We went together — he and I with his wheelchair — to say goodbye to everyone he loved. I held his hand when he died. And since we have been together, the meaning of family has changed for me.