Goodbye, Friend: You Did So Much for Me

Throughout our lives, friends come and go. We have acquaintances, online friends, and friends in real life. These friends are found in different times, introduced by other friends, found at work, or simply happened-upon when we least expect to find them. Sometimes we fall into love with these friends over a period of time, but sometimes it is immediate. Whether these friendships form over minutes or years, each friend is a gift, to be treasured as any of our other prized posesssions.

A couple of years after I graduated from college, I received an email from a former professor.  It wasn’t the good kind of message, where you catch up with what the other has been doing. The purpose of the message was to tell all former students that another professor, “Jim,”  was in the end stages of cancer, and would’nt be with us us much longer. I was taken off guard. “Jim,” not as I had known him as his friend, but Dr. “So-and-So” as I had known him in class, was one of the most likeable professors I had ever had during my stent as a philosophy student. I didn’t know, as I would learn at his funeral, that he was one of the most influential modern philosophers who wrote about animal rights or ethics.

The message that I received urged me, or any other student who had benefited from one of Jim’s classes, to send him a letter to let him know of the impact he had on our lives. He was heavily sedated, but his family was reading messages to him while he was lucid.

I was struck. Of course he had an impact on my life. He taught me of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” as a matter of fact. He had taught me that some people think that animals should be afforded the same rights as humans, because they are thinking, feeling beings. He taught me that a philosophy professor could be a big, round, jovial, smiling person, and if you passed this person in the grocery store on a Saturday morning, you might not know you had met someone great.

But back to that letter that I was urged to write. When I received the “invitation” to send that letter, I thought it was a great idea.  I thought of what I might write, and how those things might make him feel, coming from a former student who was impacted, not in a small way, by the things he taught. But then I paused. I thought of the strange circumstances under which I would be writing. Why would he appreciate my writing to him only under these dire conditions? Would he realize that I probably would not have written to him if everything had been okay? And worst of all, would my writing to him with thanks for what he had taught me somehow seal the fact that he was dying? Did he even realize that he was dying in the first place? What if my letter was the thing that made him realize that his death was imminent?

As you may have already realized, Jim died. He had incurable bladder cancer that was not kind to him in his last days. But I am sure that some former students wrote to him to tell him of the influence that he had in their lives. You may have also realized that Jim did not receive a letter from me. I thought of what I would say, but it scared me so much that I did not send any such letter. I was so frightened of what Jim might surmise from my own thoughts, that I did not take the time to consider that Jim already knew – that he was dying.

If you do not know the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, the outcome is basically that you gain more points in the long run from cooperating than you do by defecting, or turning your back. This lesson can be applied most every day, to something as small as doing the dishes, or something as big as not ratting out a coworker who is constantly shirking the rules. I was just Jim’s student, and I am sure he never knew how he impacted my life – how I always considered the Prisoner’s Dilemma when a sketchy choice was at hand, or when I thought that I might do better by cheating. He never knew;  I could have changed that, but I was too scared to do it.

My advice to you, friends, is to tell those who are leaving your life how much you have appreciated them. You can tell a story from your early days together, or a story about how you learned something from them. Even if the person you love does not know they are dying, they will love you all the more for telling them such nice things about themselves.Who doesn’t appreciate hearing about how they are appreciated and loved? I know that I do, and I am not dying. We all want to be loved and appreciated for the lives we have lived, no matter now brief.

Dedicated to Liz.

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