On August 25, Senator John McCain died at age 81 of glioblastoma. Before his diagnosis, many of us were fortunate enough to have no idea what glioblastoma even was. Maybe our only exposure to terminal brain cancer was through stories about Brittany Maynard.
Now we’ve heard of glioblastoma because someone we know — someone famous — had it. I first learned of McCain’s death through a news update from Cure Magazine, a cancer resource publication. This strikes me as yet another reminder that cancer touches all of us, no matter where we come from or what we do for a living.
And it reminds me of another thing that touches all of us — death. At some point in his treatment, McCain stopped receiving treatment. I have no idea of the conversations and thought and emotion that went into his particular decision. I have been around clients and family members who made those decisions, though. In particular, I am thinking of my own Grandfather.
My Grandfather had breast cancer (about 1 in 10,000 men get breast cancer) which went into remission after first rounds of treatment. After a number of years, doctors discovered metastasis in his liver. Already in his 80s, my Grandfather opted out of further treatment and instead, he and my Grandmother called hospice.
I lived in a different city at the time, newly independent and settling in to a big city job. When I heard about his prognosis, I decided I needed to call him. So, one morning, I did. My Grandmother answered the phone. I told her why I was calling. She conferred for a minute with my Grandfather, then she got back on the line. In her loving, sweet and gentle way she said, “He doesn’t want to get on the phone. It’s just too hard.”
In that moment I understood, because I knew him, that he was offering me a final act of love. I suspect he knew we would never see each other again, and maybe he wanted me to remember him as he had always been, controlled and in control.
This is not the place to debate over whether he chose wisely or not in that moment. The point is, he chose. And his choice came from a place of love and care for me and for himself. I believe this is true.
Senator McCain used some of his last days to express a great love — his love for this country. Whether or not we agree with his final votes in the Senate, the point is that he made them. Out of love for democracy, and love for the people he served as Senator.
Like my Grandfather, Senator McCain’s expressions of love may seem strange or ill-chosen. Today I am reflecting on the fact that we don’t get to choose or direct how another human being expresses love. We can, however, keep our hearts open to it and acknowledge its truth.