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This Is Us
We will all face painful moments sitting next to dying people. What can we say?
Illustration: Jialun Deng
My eight-year-old asleep with his favorite blanket and pillow. Photos: Jenny Harrington
Tackled by shock, I couldn?t breathe. I had quarterbacked nearly two years of his cancer treatment. I knew every player and every play. He had an all-star team from the start. Yes, we?d been on the defensive since his leukemic cancer relapse. I fought furiously to get him on a (supposedly) life-saving immunotherapy trial, in which his own immune cells were reprogrammed to attack and destroy cancer cells. Chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR T cells) had been his Hail Mary treatment 12 days ago. Now, we were waiting and watching, at the edge of our seats and hospital bed, for them to work their magic. CAR Ts for the win! Wait. Was I hearing, amidst the chaos in the hallway, that our miracle CAR T therapy had failed? Yes. The ball had been fumbled, we were out of plays, and time was up. I was told, ?Your son is dying.?
There was one person who would be more shocked than me.
Choking back tears, I took a deep breath, held onto that gulp of air and went back into the room to sit next to my imminently dying child.
Without a breath, I pushed out the words, ?We need to talk.?
What do you say to a dying person?
On the other side.
What followed was a memorable week of playdates and parties. Out-of-town family and friends flew in. We enjoyed an enormous circus-themed party on the hospital?s garden rooftop. There were acrobats, a magician, and a band made of talented elementary school music teachers. His friends wore Hogwarts robes and superhero costumes. Everyone ate chocolate cake, sang, danced, and celebrated his life like there was no tomorrow.
All week long, I repeated, ?You will not be alone. You will not feel pain. We will be okay.?
There are no magic words that can catch and carry and keep a person crossing into the end zone. Words cannot keep a loved one from dying. The morphine drip increases in strength and frequency. Exactly one week later, holding my hand, he died. I died that day, too. There are no words that fill in for his silenced silly and cherished company. I feel incredibly alone. It is unimaginably painful. That?s when I repeat the Three Magic Phrases in reverse order. We will be okay. You will not feel pain. You will not be alone. I feel myself caught in the arms of my beloved child. Now, I am not alone. Then, the pain eases. I will be okay. This is the beauty of the Three Magic Phrases: dying people live on as long as we go on remembering them, and repeating the phrases we said to them is a very direct connection. Our loved ones catch us, daily, and keep us going. And in turn, when it?s our time, I hold onto hope that we too will find comfort in a few magic phrases.