Feeling wonky

“I’m feeling wonky today.” It is a common comment from a friend when I ask him how he is feeling. He’s highly educated and uses language precisely, so I suspect that despite his choice of an informal word, he is aware of its dictionary definition: “crooked, off-center, askew.” It makes sense because the side effects of the medicines with which he is being treated include problems with light-headedness and balance, as well as a tendency to become dehydrated which will produce similar symptoms.

I’ve been meeting regularly with two men, both lightly older than myself, who are struggling with illnesses that typically have short timelines. The median survival for untreated cases of one of the diseases is about 3 1/2 months. Effective treatment of that illness can produce an extension of up to eight months. That’s still less than a year from diagnosis to death. The short timeline is daunting. But many people go well beyond the median. Some live for a few years. Less than 10% survive five years. The men with whom I visit are well aware that their life’s timeline is dramatically shortened from what they had expected. They are realistic about death. They are worried about those they will leave behind.

The blessing for my life and for the lives of their loved ones and other friends is that they are honest and vulnerable as they speak of their illness. My father was similarly honest and frank when he spoke of his coming death after his cancer diagnosis. I have always been grateful that he gave me the gift of being able to talk about what was going on with him. It reduced my fear of dying. Those who die before we do have a lot of different gifts and legacies that they leave behind. Frank talk about dying and about what it is like to face and accept one’s own death is one of those gifts.

For these particular people, as would be the case for most of us, I assume, facing death means a change in priorities. Things that used to be very important become less important. Tasks that have been put off rise to the top of the “to do” list.

One afternoon as I sat with one of my friends he lamented that his illness had taken away his appetite. He had enjoyed eating, but that seemed to no longer be a pleasure. One of the joys of his life had been tasting and sharing fine wines. Now his ability to savor that a particular pleasure was gone. It wasn’t that his life was meaningless without a glass of his favorite wine. It was just that his priorities had changed. He was learning to savor conversation and treasure moments with his friends. He had even learned to offer a glass to a friend when he didn’t share the bottle and enjoy the friend’s reaction to his once-favorite vintages.

Another friend persists in inviting me to go out to eat with him even though his appetite is not what it once was and his choice of food is most often simple. He commonly doesn’t eat much when we are together, but somehow the ritual of going out for a meal still carries some of the sense of being a treat and a gift that he can offer to a friend.

What I know is that we all are on a limited timeline. Each of us will one day die. No one gets to escape that reality. And the number of days of our lives is unknown to all of us. Even without the diagnosis of a rare or particularly untreatable disease, there are no guarantees. I’ve had the challenging task of informing loved ones of sudden and traumatic deaths often enough to know that an accident can occur when least expected. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time can be fatal. There are no guarantees. Good people die young on occasion.

On the other hand, as a pastor, I am also given the privilege of visiting with those who have lived very long lives. I’ve had conversations with those past the age of 100. I enjoy relationships with several people who are in their nineties. Their experiences and history fascinate me. I am also fascinated that some of those who have accumulated a lot of decades are more interested in asking about the future than they are in reminiscing about the past.

I’ve been wondering about my friend lately. “Feeling wonky” is the closest he has complained about his illness. I’ve asked him if he experiences any pain and he doesn’t describe any to me. It is possible that he is not experiencing pain, though we all have our aches and pains. I wonder if he will soon be using another term to describe his symptoms and how I will feel when he does. So far, I’ve drawn closer to him and learned more about who he is since his diagnosis than I had during the previous two decades and more of our relationship. I’m not even sure that I would have described him as a friend in years past even though that title seems most appropriate these days. I often use the term when talking with him: “How are your doing today, my friend?” I don’t want him to be dishonest, but I dread the day when he says, “lousy.”

The human spirit is an amazing thing. There are illnesses that leave their victims in very dark places and overwhelm them with depression and sadness and bring them to the brink of despair. There are illnesses that are as dangerous and life-threatening that somehow bring out the best in a parson’s character and they display abundant gratitude

Years ago I once fainted. It turned out that I was dehydrated and needed to receive fluids by IV in a hospital emergency room before I could recover my equilibrium. So I think that I know a little bit about what “wonky” feels like. It is not an unpleasant sensation. I hovered on the edge of consciousness without fear. I’m hoping that wonky is that way for my friend. I have him sit down and get him a glass of water and we talk.

I will forever be grateful for those conversations.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!