Essay: Surfing the Waves of Denial

The Greg I knew was buff and cocky. But he didn’t seem to want to know that he was going to die.

The police found Greg lying in his bathtub. He was naked and unconscious, his body peppered with compression sores. The doctors at the ICU believed he might have been there for as long as four days. His family didn’t seem to know for sure what had happened. When my friend Kelli and I went to visit Greg in ICU, we didn’t get any answers either.  

Greg was an avid surfer who had been in our shared beach house in Montauk, on the tip of Long Island, for years. He’d earned the name “Greggie Suitcase” for his peculiar stance on a surfboard, as if his arms were loaded with luggage.  Privately, I thought he was just trying to impress us with his mock body builder stance. “Buffitude” was a word he’d coined to express his superior surf fitness. He was arrogant about surfing, though when I asked his advice on how to turn when I was first learning, he became serious and said, “It’s intuitive, babe. It’s intuitive.”

I hadn’t seen Greg for a year when I arrived at the ICU, and I was looking for a handsome silver fox. Instead, a nurse led us to a skinny old man with a bushy gray beard, whose closed eyes were bulging out of their sockets. We didn’t speak to him that day, as he was still recovering from renal failure, a doctor told us. There was talk of moving him to a nursing home, but I left the hospital thinking he wasn’t going anywhere. He was frail, his limbs covered in bandages, his body a gaunt shell.

After that visit, I sent a message out to a Google group that Greg’s friends and family had put together, a way for us to share information about his status, as Greg himself wasn’t always clear about what was going on. What’s going on with Greg? I typed. Does anyone know his prognosis? The one thing I did know is that he’d had colon cancer four years earlier, in his late 50s.

When I didn’t get an answer, I called a mutual friend, and learned that Greg’s cancer had metastasized to his hip. He had cancer in his bones. A family member had told him this on the QT, he said.

Why all the secrecy? Did Greg know what was happening? My friend didn’t know for sure but he doubted it.  

I mentioned the murkiness of the situation to my boyfriend, who said he wouldn’t be able to put up with such a charade. At the end of life, we agreed, a person should be given the opportunity to make things right if needed—to have their own reckoning.

A week later, I got the news that Greg was improving.  He was on solid food and had been moved out of the ICU. Other friends reported that Greg was back to his usual joking self, and that they’d all polished off burgers and fries as if it were an ordinary day.  I wondered if any of them knew what was really going on.

When I got home, and in the days that followed, I continued to ask what, exactly, Greg knew about his condition. More silence.

I went back to Bellevue with another friend, Martine. This time, Greg had a stunning view of the East River and we all admired it together, until I noticed that a bandage on his elbow was dangling free, exposing the bone, muscle and gristle of his tiny, withering body.

Greg didn’t seem to notice the dangling bandage but he did notice my face. I must have looked horrified. “Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked, suddenly on guard.

I apologized and said I wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t seem convinced because his body stiffened, as if he wanted to fight with me. “Well, don’t look at me like that.”

I apologized again, then stepped away from the bed and pretended not to have seen what I had seen. I had been hopeful that Greg would make at least a partial recovery.  I’d thought that by some miracle he’d return to some version of who he was, suggesting an outing for a Sicilian pizza pie, his favorite, at Norma’s, his favorite spot. I still half-expected him to initiate an impromptu Kink’s dance party right at the hospital. But after seeing what felt like a glimpse of his cadaver, I understood that I’d been in denial.

Martine broke the tension by asking Greg if he’d like some ice cream.  At this suggestion, he perked up and we took turns feeding him chocolate ice cream we’d brought from the cafeteria. With each small creamy, chocolate bite, he closed his eyes in bliss and moaned slightly. 

When I got home, and in the days that followed, I continued to ask the Google group what, exactly, Greg knew about his condition. More silence.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew Greg to be master of denial when it came to his health—part of his “buffitude” persona, I supposed. He’d had blood in his stool a decade earlier but had ignored it, according to the friend who’d told me about the cancer spreading. Years later, after a routine colonoscopy, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Still, he convinced himself it was nothing, and after his surgery to remove the mass, he was flabbergasted to discover upon awaking that he now had a colostomy bag hanging from his hip.  

What did surprise me is how fully Greg’s family embraced his denial. A family member finally wrote to our Google group that as far as Greg knew, his next stop was rehab—which was actually hospice. “But don’t talk to him about his health,” she wrote. “We want to keep him in a positive state of mind. Thanks for all your love and support.”

I was incensed. I felt like a liar pretending that everything was going to be okay. On my subsequent visits, I found myself wrestling with the notion of denial and hope. My mother, age 82, said she thought it was better to give a patient hope than to tell them the truth if they didn’t already know it.  I asked another close friend of Greg’s about it and she flatly answered, “I guess we have to respect his family’s wishes.” Another friend whose father had battled a long illness and recently died asked me point-blank why it was any of my business if Greg knew he was dying or not?

I had no answer.

In hindsight, I realize that Greg must have had some inkling of the inevitable, since he’d made a request to have a select bunch of us visit, as if it were our last time. The group of us made our way to the hospice building, a generic place with bleak green walls, its saving grace that it overlooked the beach in Rockaway, Queens. We found him propped up by a wedge of pillows since his bed wasn’t working, his skinny legs poking out of the hospital gown.

As we again took turns feeding him, this time chicken from a local Mexican place, the conversation turned to the upcoming holidays and parties and dancing. I told him he was the greatest dancer I’d ever known. He smiled at that.  We’d ballroomed and boogied together at friends’ parties over the years. He used to do a funny, high-pitched birdcall when he got excited and he’d usually release one before we hit the dance floor. To me, it was his signal that we were about to have sweaty uninhibited fun together.

In between mouthfuls of chicken, Greg told us emphatically. “Yeah, we’ll have to have a party at my mother’s when I get out.” I felt a moment of creepy dread, but then I smiled. “Absolutely,” I said, summoning the belief that I wasn’t lying to Greg, simply riding the fantasy that a miracle dance party just might happen. Even if this one was one in the afterlife.

Anna Marrian has written essays and articles for Self, Newsweek, Jane, The Observer, Berkeley Wellness and the anthology Behind the Bedroom Door, among others. Love Junkie: Getting High for Daddy, an excerpt from her memoir and an Editor’s Pick, is available as a Kindle single.  Anna holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter and has earned fellowships from the Hertog Foundation and Tin House. She’s taught creative writing at Hunter, Eugene Lang, New School and BMCC.

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