Man's Best Friend - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Man’s Best Friend.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

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Dan: I'll never forget-- we were in Vegas. And it probably was the end of April... maybe beginning of May I can't remember... And so I'll never forget he was... staring at a kind of a vanity mirror right in-- right in-- like a-- a skinny... tall vanity mirror right next to the... the door... to leave the hotel room. And... he was like... opening... and closing... one eye at a time. So... like closing his left eye, looking right close his right eye looking... and I'm like, "what are you doing?" He's like, "I got a brain tumor." I'm like "what are you talking about?" And he just kind of kept it in and he's like, all right, let's go play some craps.

Hi. I’m Nora McInerny. And this is Terrible, Thanks for Asking.

And that… was Dan. Talking about his best friend. His compadre. His bestie. His bud. His friend to the end. His brother from another mother.

That was Dan talking about Darren.

Friendships can be as deep and as complicated as any other relationship. Unlike family, we do choose our friends. And just like romantic relationships, sometimes that choosing comes down to convenience, or proximity...two people in the same place at the same time. Some friendships are surface level. Some are deep and important and formative . Some last for a season of life. Some last forever, or as close to forever as you can get.

By the time Darren looks in the mirror and says something about having a brain tumor on their annual bro-trip to Vegas, Dan and Darren have known each other for 13 years.

They met in college...and their friendship could have been one of those just-for-a-season kind of friendships. Because the two of them were, primarily, connected just by physical proximity.

Dan: Because we pledged the same fraternity together. You know, they make fun of you they bust your chops a lot but it's really just, you know, they talk about pledge classes and oftentimes those are the people that you become closest to because you're together almost every day.

That’s what happened with Dan and Darren. They spent all that time pledging with one another, and then they both made the fraternity. And then they roomed next to each other sophomore year. And then they just spent time with each other in the way that you do in college… maybe not always in spectacular, meaningful moments but mostly in the in-between ones… walking to class… eating meals… going to football games…

Dan: You know, just hanging out together. We used to call each other a-hole all the time in a-- in an affectionate way and... it's almost in how you say the word he'd be like a-hole, you know, if I make fun of him... a-hole, you know that's the best compliment is to call... to call each other a-holes…

In college, these two a-holes,were a bit of an odd couple.. They didn’t have a whole lot of life experience in common. Dan grew up in New Hope, MN. A little suburb outside of Minneapolis known for split-level homes and...honestly, there’s not a whole lot to New Hope, it looks like basically every other 70’s era suburb you’ve ever been in.

But Darren? Darren was a city boy. He grew up in Chicago -- okay, highland park -- which when you live in suburban Minneapolis is like, basically Manhattan. Trust me, Chicago is A BIG DEAL to the rest of the Midwest. We kind of resent it? But we’re also like, yeah, it’s cool. You’re cool if you grew up there. Darren was cool. And Dan was...very Minnesota...

Dan: I thought dressing up nice was... blue jeans and a blue denim shirt from the Gap like that was my definition of... of oh well, if I have to look a little bit nicer, that's what I would look like. He was just a little more... worldly, sophisticated... from his upbringing compared to mine. He knew what sushi was I did not know what sushi was entering college... just based on my upbringing...

Darren was worldly in that Chicago kinda way, and he was also just...a good dude.

Dan: The-- the organizer, a leader, the president of the fraternity, he... just was such a-- a go getter... positive energy...and...just liked to have a good time. But he was also, you know, really-- a really good student as well... and whether we were... at fraternity parties together, going to the football games together going to the bars together, playing intramural sports together... he was just such a...positive vibe in the room. Always. He was just the very... put together... eye on the prize kind of guy he knew what he wanted and I think he knew what he wanted... right away.

Dan didn’t really have that. His future seemed a little fuzzier. But Darren’s was crystal clear. This is the 90s, and what Darren wanted was to make deals. To be a Gordon Gekko.

Dan: I just think success was really something... that was important to him... and he really had that image of a young businessman not afraid... to... take on the New York... world... to do well.

So after college, Darren headed off to New York to be with his girlfriend and take on the business world.

Dan… was not so sure what he wanted to do. But he did have his girlfriend, who was from New Jersey, so he followed her out there.

Dan: We both knew some people, obviously, you know, he had his girlfriend and her family... and other friends. I had my girlfriend and her family and some other friends and family as well but the great thing about it is... we would like see each other almost every weekend. I would go to New York City... and we just started to grow up together...

Darren became the kind of successful business guy he had wanted to be, and he kept helping Dan expand his horizons, and learn important things like…

Dan: we'd go out to dinner and I would learn that... I can't get into this bar if I'm wearing sneakers...

They married those girlfriends. And then for various reasons, they all ended up moving to Chicago. They were grown ups.

And that’s where Dan and Darren’s friendship grew up. They bought condos, and started to have kids. Dan became a dad FIRST. He and his wife had a little boy, and Darren’s wife is pregnant too.

Dan: So the bris is when a Jewish baby on their eighth day is circumcised. And... we get a call... I get a call from Darren maybe a half hour before it's about he goes, "I can't come to your bris. Can't come, sorry." I'm like, "why?" he's like, "cause we're having a baby" And they are on the way to the hospital. And so... you know, unfortunately, they were not... they were not able to... to make it to that event, but they had a very good reason... so, yeah, just having our kids... our oldest kids together... was just great.

Sometimes, marriage and children make it hard to maintain friendships. If you’re my friend and we haven’t hung out in awhile, uh, I miss you and sorry. But for Dan and Darren, their friendship grew alongside their families. They had kids at the same time, and that time they spent together shifted from young guy stuff...to dad stuff.

Dan: There was a... a Lake View YMCA and we took a swim class with our kids I don't know how old they were, but it was one or even-- you know, even smaller. So it's the you know, the dads are in the pool with the kids and there is this... you know, the instructor comes in and it's like just... a skinny guy-- a short, skinny guy, but with the most massive beard. And... the class would start up as he would get in your face and he's like... you know, they would sing this song. And I'll sing it for you but it was just-- we always had to be like "who has come to swim today, swim today, swim today... who has come to swim today and what's your name?" And then the guy would just be in your face staring at the kid, and every kid was... terrified. So you hope... "Owen" "HUH! Owen's come to swim--" and then they go through the whole thing. Then they go to the next one.

Nora: "Swim today swim today...".

Dan: Right and then they go to the next one and then it is so great because Natalie, his oldest... would never say her name. And then Darren would be like... "Natalie." "Natalie's come--" It's just... It was so much fun and then we'd got to breakfast afterwards and... you know, you have Mickey Mouse pancakes with powdered sugar on it and...

When they weren’t hanging out, Dan and Darren would call every day. Text.

They loved pranking each other. Sure, they were grown-ups now, but they just had FUN together.

Dan: I had... Virgin... Atlantic as a client, the Richard Branson company... and like I'll never forget one time I got a voicemail at work it's "Hello Dan, Richard Branson here... looking for some fucking clips. Call me back, please." And I'm like, "oh, shit...like... was that Richard Bran--?" I'm like... I'm like I-- I didn't even think it could have been Darren. I'm like... because I know that this guy was pretty eccentric and would just call anybody so I called my contact there... and I remember taking my old big cell phone and trying to play it into the... into the-- the-- my real phone to call my contact there like... "is it possible that Richard Branson called me?”

Classic Darren, impersonating an eccentric bajillionaire.

One of the things they looked forward to every year was an annual trip to Vegas with their whole college crew.

Dan: Darren and I had almost like a sub trip within the trip. Because not everybody hung out together the whole time. And so we have group dinners which were great, just full of laughter... sitting by the pool hanging out. But we … we enjoyed gambling. We were craps buddies. That's just something that we... we did together.

So that year… in 2005… when Darren looked at himself in the mirror and wondered if he had a brain tumor… it was just a thing that friends say.

Dan: I'm like... "shut up alright let's go, you know?"

Nora: Right.

Dan: But he said it I mean, he's like, "let's go play some craps."

Nora: Right and you're like "good."

Dan: So it was more... yeah, it was-- it was done. We didn't think about it more I wasn't--

Nora: The way-- the way people are like "oh, my God, it feel s-- like, shit, I'm probably dying." And you're like…

Dan: Yeah.

Later that month, after the guys got home from Vegas, Darren started having vision issues. He went to the eye doctor, who told him to go to the ER right away. Darren went. And then, he called Dan.

Dan: I get the phone and... you know, cause I knew who it was, it is a cell phone I'm like, "yo, what's up?" And he was crying. But... we never... had cried to each other before. So I said... I actually thought he was... almost joking I'm like, "what's going on?" and... he... in whatever... words he used said they... they found some sort of mass or something... pressing on his optic nerve and he-- and he had to... you know, they knew he would have to have emergency surgery. Initial diagnosis wasn't... declared and no one knew... they just knew... it was an emergency. And like "what?" And I'm like, "I'm going to come down and... and see you."

Dan rushed to the ER. He found Darren’s room, and opened the dividing curtain where his friend was sitting. Darren’s wife, Alison, left the two of them alone to talk a minute.

Dan: He was in his bed... kind of like just... "I don't know what's going on this is crazy" and the first thing he said to me is... "please go make sure Alison is OK." And... so I'm like, OK. So I went and I gave her a hug and again nobody knew what was going on.

That joke Darren made in vegas-- about him having a brain tumor? -- well. It wasn’t a joke anymore. Darren did have a brain tumor. And he was going to need brain surgery.

Dan: I had in my hand a Ziploc bag. And I don't know why I did this, but I brought... some casino chips. Cause I used to buy one dollar chips and bring them home because I thought someday I would make a... like a little art piece out of them. So I put a bunch of them in a bag because I knew Vegas was like the special place for us and good luck or something and I brought... in the Jewish religion there's a thing called the mazzuzah... and it goes on the door post of your home. And it has... a prayer in it. And I just put one in a bag. I said "here this is for good luck."

The good luck is for Darren. But it’s also for Dan. Because Darren is his best friend.

Dan: And I'll never forget that night I came home from the hospital. And I was putting my son to bed and I was sitting. In our glider, you know, those nice chairs with the foot rest. Not a rocking chair, but early on the gliders. Oh, yeah. And I just remember sitting there holding my son, crying, thinking to myself, “Please don't die. Please don't die.” You can't even think--- I can't even remember what was swirling through my mind at that time other than I vividly remember it. I vividly remember saying. You can't die, you can't die.

We are going to take a break. BRB.

We’re back, and Dan just got terrible news about his best friend, Darren. Darren has a brain tumor. He’s admitted to the hospital, and is waiting for brain surgery. And Dan is scared. He and Darren both have young kids. They’re still young! Darren cannot die yet. They have so much to do together! That’s what Dan is thinking, up at night, rocking his son. About the future they’re ALL supposed to have together.

Dan: I kind of thought, well, we would grow old and, you know, our families would all move to Florida or somethin’ or move to go to California and just lived retired lives together and go golfing and go to Vegas and just do the things we did and… Trying to understand that the implications of him not being here… are… Impossible.

But Darren is still here. He’s still here, and he’s about to have brain surgery, so Dan goes to the hospital to be there when he wakes up.

So many people gathered. Darren’s parents, siblings and friends. There’s nothing to do when a person you love is having surgery. There’s no way for you to help, or contribute. All you can do is just...show up. Just...be there.

Dan: And we just sat there. And we waited. And we waited.

Brain surgeries take a long time. They look fast on Grey’s Anatomy but they can take like, 6 to 8 hours.

Hours pass. And unlike in Grey’s Anatomy, there aren’t a lot of dramatic scenes unfolding to entertain you. You can’t just open a closet door and find two doctors making out. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Dan: Took turns going to the cafeteria, coming back and forth. And, you know, just everyone was waiting.

Somewhere in that same hospital, Darren is having his head sawed open by a brain surgeon. They are going to dig into his brain, cut out the tumor, and hopefully he’ll be just fine! Brain surgery is always risky, but when you’re waiting? You can’t think that way. You just have to think that no news is good news. As long as no one tells you something has gone wrong… everything is fine. You just drink your bad coffee and you re-read the three magazines in the lobby and you all make small talk like a person you love isn’t having a brain surgery. You all pretend together until finally… the surgeon comes out to tell you what happened.

The surgeon finally walks out, and tells them, “I think we got it all.” That IT was an Oligodendroglioma. It’s a kind of brain tumor. It’s not GOOD, but it’s not the worst.

Dan: The fact that it was not a glioblastoma... was a good thing. Because that's…

Nora: The worst.

Dan: The worst one. And... and then everything is about pathology so... it's rated on a scale of one to four. Four is bad, one's good. He was somewhere, you know, a two to a three there was different... interpretations. You know, when they had their... when they met with their doctor... you know they made a plan to treat and he did radiation. And he did chemo. And he kept working.

Darren’s brain tumor was fully removed, but from my experience with brain cancer, even when they remove all the tumor they can see -- they know that some of those cancery cells have snuck into parts they can’t see with their eyes or even with an MRI yet. That’s why you do chemo and radiation -- to try to get all that stuff zapped and killed. I’m very medical and technical.

Darren’s brain cancer is a chronic condition. Even when he’s done with chemo and radiation, he goes back to the doctor every 8-12 weeks for an MRI. My husband did this too, and we referred to it as walking the plank. He’d go into the MRI...and we’d wait to hear whether he’d be pushed off into the cancer-shark infested waters, or if he’d get to walk back onto the ship for another 8 to 12 weeks.

It’s a lot of pressure, and stress. And to get through it, Darren and Dan create their own little rituals.

Dan: He lived MRI to MRI and I don't know how many he had, but it was probably. At least 80 MRI is. And it started maybe every eight weeks and then it would go every 12 weeks and then maybe, you know, that's kind of the furthest out that they would go, but that would. That was the only way they could see. If it was going to come back and. I don't know how the ritual started, but. You know, I was kind of someone who could keep things light when they weren't easy to be jovial or light, and so at the time I believe they would have at least had the beginning, they would have the MRI. And I met them for lunch downtown. And then they would have to go back to the doctor. For a report. The essence was MRI. Make sure everything is okay. And then we have lunch. And we had a ritual. that would be kind of the. Celebration lunch, if you will. That his MRI was clean. So every time he got an MRI the night before, you think, what am I going to say? Send a text. Thinking of you got your back didn't matter, you know, no one could say the right words.

The lunch reservation would be set. Allison and Darren would go to the MRI. Dan would go to work.

Just it's eleven o'clock. Haven't heard yet. It's eleven thirty. Haven't heard yet. Where's that e-mail? Where's that text. And then the text would come through MRI good or all clean or. And then you take a deep breath and so. But it was a very it was just like an intersection of love and being scared and. Support. But that MRI lunch was. Extremely important. I remember. You know, just. Every time it was just, you know, you wait on bated breath.

For 8 years, they hold these lunches. 8 years of bated breath and good news, of MRIs that show no evidence that those rogue cancer cells survived the chemo and radiation. Of celebratory lunches at a fancy restaurant

A lot happens in those 8 years. Dan and Darren each have another kid. They move into different houses. They do all the normal life stuff they’d planned to do, amid all this stuff they never thought they’d have to do.

Dan: you know, you know, in a way... I think Darren was a... was a certain soul mate of mine. A non-romantic soul mate we just… There was just mutual love... in our friendship and... you know, there's the fun, maybe non--

Nora: Did you tell each other that you loved each other?

Dan: You know, it's funny it's hard for a guy... to tell another guy... that... I love you… And I would tell him that I love him... and he wouldn't say it back... but that's OK. It was either too hard or--or whatever but I... I did not need to hear it, but I needed to say it.

Regardless of how hard it might be to say, the two of them have spent the better part of three decades SHOWING IT. LIVING IT. Because even if our society has not evolved to a point where two straight guys can openly, verbally express their love for one another? These two guys do. Love. each. other.

That’s why Darren called Dan when he found out about his brain tumor. That’s why Dan shows up for these lunches month after month, year after year.

That’s why, in the winter of 2014, Dan is sitting at the restaurant, waiting to celebrate another good MRI.

But Darren is late today.

Dan: I just remember. I believe getting a text saying there were some issues...But, you know, I'll be at lunch soon. So I got there ahead of time, I'm sitting there in the restaurants just kind of a very hoity toity stuffy restaurant. I just remember sitting there and I see Darren and Alison walk in and they just kept going right past the table to the back of the restaurant where there's elevators going down to the bathroom and...

What Darren tells Dan is that the lucky streak is over. The brain tumor is back.

There’s another brain surgery. More radiation, more chemo. More MRIs. More lunches.

Four years pass.

And then, in 2018, there is another bad MRI. And even worse news. No more surgery.

Dan: We knew where it was heading or headed...He's not going to get better. And. We don't know. How long he has. But we knew it wasn't. Five years we knew it wasn't probably four years and. All along, we probably knew it was about a year is what maybe I thought or what I was guessing. And that's when everything kind of changed.

We are going to take a quick break, BRB.

We’re back. There’s nothing more that can be done about Darren’s brain cancer.

Darren stops working. He’s at home now, in hospice care. The goal is no longer to prolong his life, but to make the rest of it as comfortable as possible.

Dan: I went to see him every day...not because he needed me per se. It's because I had to see him. I knew it was my time left. Wasn't. Infinite and. It could be 10 minutes. It could be an hour. It could be me literally watching him sleep. It could be me taking him for a walk. It could be a group of people just hanging out with him. He had a leather chair that he would sit in with his feet up. And it wasn't. Necessarily profound or deep. It was just trying to keep things normal for him when clearly... they weren't.

It’s not normal for Dan, either. And as light as he tries to keep things for Darren, the weight of watching his best friend of almost 30 years fade from this earth...it wears on him.

Dan: I had a lot less patience… for my own family and just normal day to day things that I would have to do. And it was very heavy. It was very, very heavy. Because I knew what was going to happen. But I... still went there every day.

Dan has work. He has kids. A wife. And still, he goes every day to sit with his friend. To do the work of love, which is mostly just showing up. One day, Dan shows up, and it’s clear that today will be his last visit with Darren.

Dan: There was an office that turned into kind of his makeshift bedroom with a hospital bed. He was surrounded by everybody. His kids. His parents, his siblings, his in-laws. And it was just It was a you know, a. A vocal goodbye session. I don't know how else to say it, but it was lots of I love you's and very emotional and I was not in the room. I very much questioned my place even being in the house right now. I just went in, I kissed him on the forehead and I left. It wasn't my place to... You know, hang out and be part of it. I did not feel comfortable doing that. So I left the room. Obviously emotional. I went back to kind of the kitchen to be out of the way. And. I just pretty much told his his brother, I said, look, this is family time. I'm going to go. But, you know, please keep me posted. And... You know... love to everybody. So I left, I went to my car and I just kind of sat there in disbelief. I was just parked on the street. I just kind of sat there. And I... couldn't drive away. I just could not drive away. I don't know what I was going to do, but I couldn't drive away.

All of a sudden, I see come walking outside. Was was Darren's mom. And she came to my car window and she told me. Please come inside. You're like family. I wasn't going to say no. And I am... forever, forever grateful that that happened. And so... I don't even think we spoke. Just walked back inside. So I walked back into the room. And at that time it was just. Darren, you know, was was unconscious, you know, just there, and his wife, Alison and I walked in and. See Alison there, but no eye contact. It was just. Sitting there for a minute and. I just kind of was by him and just kind of rubbing his shoulders and I just broke down. Bawling hysterically. And... And then Allison started crying, too. And at that time, I just kind of grabbed her hand and I just felt like we were both just like crying. And I felt spiritually and electrically. Connected to Darren forever at that moment, eh?

Darren died on May 20th, 2019. By the time Dan and I speak, it’s been about six months since his friend’s death. And while he has talked about his friendship with Darren and about Darren’s death, I’ve cried (quietly) at least three times. And if you’ve been listening to this podcast, you’ll notice, that Dan hasn’t.

And just like there are lots of different ways to love a person, lots of different ways to communicate that love -- there are lots of ways to grieve, and to express that grief.

But Dan reached out to US -- to this podcast specifically-- because trying to figure out how to express this love and his grief has been hard for him.

Dan: I'm a guy. And the way guys usually relate with each other… is not the same way that I feel girlfriends can relate to each other on a more emotional level, and I found myself to be highly emotional and. so I'm like on Google searching like guys, losing their man, losing their best friend. And like, stories come up about losing their dog. And I'm thinking to myself. Like are guys... Do they just not grieve or emote in the same way as women do?

Nora: Do their because not die? Is that the thing? Do men just not die like or do all men who die die friendless? What is it? Or just--

Dan: I think it's more like. I just think it's more. You see? You know, it's it's more normal to see women crying and relying on each other and being emotional and talking about their feelings. And I have friends and I go I can go certain places with some friends, but I just feel I'm limited a little bit. And after he died, I started therapy, which. I loved and I continue to love. It's like the fastest hour of my week. For me to try to deal with things and. It's like continual processing. And I think one of my... one day after a session I just went home and I started writing and... Stream of consciousness. It wasn't edited, it wasn't. Really even meant for anybody to read. I just wrote and it kept going and going and going. I have no idea why submitted it to you guys. I don't. But as I at least at that time. But I think I was crying out for an outlet to try to figure out why grieving feels like an individual sport to me. Versus maybe being more of a team sport.

Dan has found comfort in writing. In therapy. In his wife and children, and in showing up for Darren’s family the way he and Darren showed up for one another. He’s a keeper of their college stories, their jokes...all kinds of things those kids might want to know about their Dad someday.

Nora: You wrote in there now that as more time passes, you need his family probably more than they need you.

Dan: In the aftermath of his passing. The pain could stop. When I was with them for a period of time. And. I don't know why that was. It just things didn't hurt as bad if I was visiting in his house or. Spending time with his kid or. Or whatever. Just that the pain went away a little bit.

Dan still shows up for Darren’s family. For Darren’s sake. For his kids’ sake. For Dan’s own sake.

Dan: I feel like every time I can do something positive. Whether it's hanging out, whether it's making them laugh. Whether it's attempting to do a stupid cartwheel, which I'm not good at for. Their youngest one, I just feel every time I can do something for them, it's like giving him a solid. Giving him a high five that they're OK. And... but I think it always stayed with me. The day he was diagnosed, he said, go make sure Alison is OK. And... It's not even, you know, if you know, of course, I'm going to make sure they're OK. I don't know what I can do except be myself.

Dan is still himself. And he’s not. Grief changes us. Losing a fundamental pillar in our lives changes us. And even though in our conversation Dan keeps saying oh, I don’t want to make this about me, it IS about him. His grief for his best friend is about the loss of a relationship. And in a culture that prizes romantic relationships above all else, followed closely by the familial relationships that come along with a romantic relationship...where does that leave friendship?

We have such limited language for relationships that aren’t romantic, aren’t family. . Saying “best friend” always makes me feel like a grade schooler AND, like a grade schooler, I do have multiple best friends. It’s just, we want to be able to show each other, to show the world, how important this person is to us. How much they bring to our lives.

Even if we never get to have a gift registry with them, or have our anniversaries celebrated by our children.

I think that grief might always be a bit of an individual sport. Because even when you’re all grieving the same person -- like everyone is grieving Darren -- they’re all grieving different versions of Darren. Darren was a husband and a dad. A brother! A son! A colleague. And he was Dan’s absolute best friend. Dan’s grief isn’t any bigger or smaller, more or less valuable or real than any of those other brands -- it’s just different.

Dan: He was just like a perfect match for friendship. He was my non romantic soulmate. He was someone who I use the word. He was my reflex. If I took a down moment at work or whatever, just pick up the phone, call. I didn't think about it. And I'm just so glad that I got to be… a part of him dying in a weird way. I think it would, you know, in one respect, it'd be easier to just not have to deal because you don't want to deal with the pain. But that was never. An option for me. It was never a consideration for me. I just I didn't have a choice. It was instinct. I just had to be there with him. And. I'm just grateful. And… I will... Always be… You know… a better person... because I had him in my life


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