The Intimacy Illusion

Today I’m thinking about intimacy. On this day, July 10th, seven years ago, I shared one of the most intimate moments I think anyone can share with other people. I was at the death bed of one of my dearest friends with his two sons, his daughter-in-law, Michael and my daughter. The day before he died, I’d just returned from my noon swim and was standing in my driveway talking with Michael who’d been working in the yard. Michael had finished 18 chemotherapy treatments earlier that year, after being given a prognosis of two to three months to live after his treatment for metastatic Merkel Cell cancer the previous November. He’d had a scan negative for disease in May but we knew those were only diagnostic for cancers bigger than a centimeter. We were living in that rarified space called remission. He seemed robust. We’d run away immediately after the scan to St. Pete’s Beach to be close to the Gulf of Mexico which we’d always loved. Every moment we got felt precious, even on the crappy days.

Our friend and neighbor for over twenty six years had been ill with a terrible form of leukemia for the previous six years. He’d survived an unimaginable two bone marrow transplants which were performed at the University of Chicago by a team led by an exceptional hematologist/oncologist. When he was recovered enough, he returned home where local doctors would manage him unless he had an emergency. He was struggling with GVHD, graft versus host disease, like so many people who have organs from other bodies introduced to theirs. He took multiple medications and was advised to be extremely cautious about putting himself in environments which harbored fungi, molds and other triggers for a potential dangerous reaction with his delicate alien blood. His wife and daughter were in England at this point, to attend a family wedding and to visit a childhood friend of his wife who was dying of breast cancer. He was home with his youngest son. He looked somewhat fragile and had taken a few falls but was relishing being alive. An avid gardener, I’d worried when I saw him tromping around in his Wellies, mucking in the dirt. He wouldn’t have gotten away with that if his wife was home.

That afternoon as Michael and I stood chatting in the driveway, our friend’s youngest son dashed across the street to tell us that he’d found his father slumped on the floor of his bedroom, unconscious, barely breathing, surrounded by blood and excrement. He’d called an ambulance. We decided I’d go with my friend to the hospital. I took his dad’s cell phone to get the phone number of his doctor in Chicago and climbed in the ambulance. While his son tracked down the rest of his family, I sat in the front of the ambulance, with its sirens blaring, calling out words of comfort to my friend while tracking down his oncologist and sharing the little I knew. The doctor’s tone confirmed that this situation was dire, likely end of life.

When we entered the ER, I was the information provider for the doctors. They drew blood and hooked him up to life-sustaining equipment. When they asked me the names of his chemo meds, my heart sank. He wasn’t on any medication and I knew their queries meant that his immune system was tanked. After dealing with the details of Michael’s blood work for the previous two years, I knew all too well what was happening. Things moved fast. His lungs were filling with fluid and the doctor wanted to intubate him. He struggled against that and I found myself telling him that if he wanted to see his wife and daughter again, he needed to accept the breathing equipment. Reluctantly, he did. I felt like an imposter. How was it that I was making such enormous decisions? The situation felt so wrong. Michael and my daughter showed up soon and then his kids arrived. I sent my family home. I felt like we’d see times like this soon enough in our own family. This felt like a terrible dress rehearsal. The ER was a nightmare. His sons knew how vulnerable their dad was and that he was being exposed to all kinds of people and contagion in that space. Finally, he was taken upstairs to a private intensive care room where I settled in with the kids for what could only be described as a death watch. I talked with his wife, my dear friend, and her daughter, a doctor, as they tried desperately to get home. Their daughter, who was close to being my kid, wanted all the facts. I was heartbroken, telling her the truth.

The night vigil went on for hours. Although I was holding up for those boys, I was mentally down the road, knowing that this situation was going to have long-term negative consequences. As close as we were, our world views on private lives were very different. I believed in airing problems and confronting everything, often much to my family’s dismay, not to mention everyone else. This family was British, down to the stiff upper lips and the hiding of many secrets. When the dust settled, I knew that his wife would suffer terrible guilt at not being home for this ultimate disaster and that my being in her place would come to be an unsustainable breach between us. But that was in the future. Now I did what needed to be done. Early the next morning, Michael and my daughter came back to the hospital. A phone pressed to my friend’s ear was the only way his wife and daughter could say their goodbyes. And then, he was gone. I asked the nurses to retrieve his wedding band and began the awful business of selecting a funeral home as there were no plans in place. The boys sat stunned so I acted. By the end of the day, their family was reunited and off to see my deceased friend at the funeral home one last time. I’d brought food and drinks to their house and later that evening we all were together, grieving. Michael set off fireworks in their backyard, the police came and eventually, we all went to our beds, drained.


In the ensuing days, I helped plan the upcoming memorial. My friend was a well-known scientist; there would be a local familial event immediately, followed the next year by a symposium which would include his professional colleagues from around the world. After the first days following his death, I could feel his wife receding from my efforts to discuss everything that happened. I hoped in time, we could really talk. As life moved on, I had my own problems to deal with – Michael’s August scan revealed that his cancer was again visible in three places. I was still available for this family that had been so like my own, but we were engaged in searching for clinical trials and new treatments. In January, Michael was rejected from the study that seemed most hopeful for him. Our oncologist left our hospital and we were dealing with a new one. He started to have pain. In February he had a huge tumor removed from his scalp, one thought to be a cyst. His body was also beginning to hurt.

No one understood the source of his pain until he had a series of MRI’s which showed tumors compressing his spinal cord. He began a new course of radiation and ultimately, a palliative chemo which overwhelmed him. And the cancer kept spreading. By May, I was certain that death was approaching. We tried to get into the clinical trial again. Desperate, in June our new oncologist got an experimental drug off-trial. Michael was hanging by a thread.

In the meantime, I continued to be supportive of my friend and her family as they proceeded through their grief. I talked frequently with this woman with whom I’d walked through fire, but I always felt her hand up in my face whenever I tried to share my feelings about what happened with her husband. As the one year anniversary of his death approached, she was helping her daughter move into a new home in the town where her medical practice was located. I’d run to the pool for a quick bit of exercise before heading back to Michael, who was very fragile. I quickly called her to say I was sure this was a complex moment for her, doing something joyous with her daughter while remembering the events of the year before. Suddenly Michael called and I hung up to speak with him. When I got off, I saw a stunning and harsh text message from my friend, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was not to try discussing her husband’s death with her any more because she was too delicate. She said her kids felt the same way. She told me I could talk about Michael but the rest was off limits. I remember reading it over and over in the locker room, unable to absorb the content. While I stared at it, she sent it again. She was so accustomed to my rapid replies I think she figured I hadn’t received it. I was trying to decide what to say. I was also very angry.

I was in a life and death struggle of my own with Michael. I was repelled by her weakness and self-indulgence. I went home to be with Michael and to carefully decide how I wanted to respond. After a few hours, I wrote to her kids and apologized for checking in with them often if that had increased their pain. Then I wrote her and suggested that perhaps a hiatus was in order as we were both in tough emotional spots. This touched off a series of bruising emails and texts between us. All kinds of repressed conflicts were unearthed as I’d expected since the previous year. She was a person who didn’t believe in therapy and kept her feelings tightly held inside her. My polar opposite. We’d crashed and burned because of the way her husband’s death unfolded. Our kids weighed in. Hers were all in with her, even telling me they didn’t even discuss their dad’s death within their family. The one closest to me suggested that I just apologize and all this would blow over. My kids were trying to be neutral and to support me while protecting this long friendship. That made me mad. I was under incredible stress. I wasn’t going to play to this manipulative weakness. I had Michael to care for, so I withdrew. A few weeks went by. Michael seemed to be slowly turning a corner for the better.

But then my elderly mother fell, broke her hip and was dead within two weeks. Four days after her funeral my dog died. I was hurt, angry and unforgiving. We lived across the street from each other. But our friendship died that summer. Through the experimental treatment, Michael got another reprieve from his cancer for over a year. He was the only person who fully witnessed this entire relationship from start to finish and was my rock in understanding everything.

Today, he’s gone. I still live across from someone who was my intimate friend and yet we haven’t exchanged a word in six years. I don’t miss her. I don’t respect her. What I thought was intimacy was an illusion. For years, what I thought was closeness was merely a reflection of me back at myself. She was never who I thought she was. Or maybe she was when she had stronger people to lean on. I don’t get to know that and I’m no longer interested.

I do believe in lasting intimacy but I think it’s rare. How many people once seemed so close and essential to you that are now barely shadows, if even that? Who knows the whole of you, and who do you know as completely as you might wish to? I guess we humans are equipped to pass through periods of what feels like exquisite connections, only to find them ephemeral and relegated to the past, some perhaps unremembered at all. In the end, I think I’ll be surprised if I can count a dozen genuinely intimate relationships in my life. Actually that might be a lot. I’m still intimate with people who aren’t alive any more, which reduces my number more still. A younger, more romantic me didn’t know how easily people slip away. And maybe that’s a good thing. However would we survive all the disappointment?

3 thoughts on “The Intimacy Illusion”

  1. Speaks to me in an unimaginably profound way.. A perfect reflection on the limitations of the human condition beautifully captured.

    Thank you for so generously sharing .

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