by Chris Quilter
Reader beware: this could be one of my morbid columns. It’s about an old friend who died recently, causing me to ponder the role luck plays in our lives. Not the “we make our own” luck or the “good karma” luck we deserve. I mean dumb luck, happenstance, serendipity—grace, even, as long as it’s the unpredictable kind bestowed by a higher power whose agenda we cannot divine. You win the lottery. You find a parking place downtown in August. You die peacefully at home. That kind of luck.
At his 80th birthday party last June, my friend was in all key respects the person I had known since 1990: creative, witty, smart, thoughtful, and self-sufficient. In August, he was diagnosed with a rare, nasty, and aggressive cancer. As he said later, in looking back on his initial surgery, “In a week, I became an old man.” A second surgery and weeks of radiation barely put a dent in his cancer’s progression. By late February his only real treatment option was hospice care. For a few weeks, he was able to manage in his small apartment on his own, with frequent and regular visits from his inner circle. Then he couldn’t.
It looked like our friend’s luck had run out. He wanted to die at home, but he was single and none of his gang could step in to become a full-time caregiver, the way so many spouses and children do. His closest friend had already put much of his life on hold to drive him to scores of medical appointments, and his own bills were piling up. To make it a perfect storm, our mutual friend had been broke for as long as I’d known him.
Not deadbeat broke. He was a gifted, diligent artist who’d had a solid career as an illustrator. But he had no gift for business and was a grasshopper rather than an ant when it came to planning for the future. It took Social Security and subsidized housing, supplemented by a tiny income from his art, to secure a stable if minimalist lifestyle of genteel poverty, artfully leavened by a discerning eye, doting friends, and independent spirit.
In anticipation of the time our friend would become bedridden, we had passed the hat and collected a fair amount of money that wasn’t going to last long if we had to hire caretakers from an agency — by far the safest choice when bringing strangers into the home of anyone vulnerable. So it seemed inevitable that our friend would have to spend his last days in one of those linoleum hellholes we all dread. (With good reason: all the nursing homes in this area that accept Medicare patients are Medicare-rated at one out of five stars.) Happily, he lucked out.
His minister’s mother had been looked after until her death by a member of the congregation, who hadn’t had much caretaking experience but was discovering she had the talent and temperament it demanded. We quickly arranged a visit and it’s little wonder she and my friend hit it off. She was a gift from central casting: good-natured, levelheaded, trustworthy, tireless, capable, and affordable. We signed her up for every free hour she had, which turned out to include some round-the-clock stints. In the 10 days or so my friend had left, she was there way more often than not, with the rest of us filling in as needed. Our friend, having had very little pain (more luck!) and a great deal of tender care, died peacefully at home on March 24.
There’s so much more to this story. Isn’t there always? I’ve barely told you anything about what made my friend such a dear and interesting person—and just exasperating enough to be thoroughly human. I’m still annoyed that he failed to do what I believe we owe to those we love if not to ourselves: to plan as best we can for the death we hope to have. That makes him far from the only lovable person I’ve known who did whatever he damned well pleased. I can’t even pretend that he is a cautionary tale. He left everything to chance and got away with it. How lucky can you get?
Laguna local Chris Quilter is on the board of Laguna Beach Seniors, which offers free case management and other supportive services at the Susi Q.