Friends To The End - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Friends To The End.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
Today’s a grief episode. Sometimes people are like, “Is it a grief podcast?” I’m like, “I don’t think so. Maybe it is.” But today’s episode is for sure about grief. Today’s episode is about death. It’s about loss. And culturally, I feel like we talk about certain kinds of loss and grief more than others: losing a spouse, children, parents. But we don’t really talk as much about the pain and the grief of losing a dear friend.
And similarly, we celebrate and we make holidays about all kinds of love: familial, romantic … but really not about that love that exists between platonic friends.
And I know that I’ve said, ya know, “Best friends forever! Best friends, we’re best friends!” a lot during a lifetime … and I also know that it is so rare to have a friendship last forever. To have a friendship that lasts till the very end.
And that’s what today’s story is about: the kind of friendship that lasts right up until the edge of forever.
It’s the story of Josie and Miles. And it starts all the way back in childhood in rural Georgia ... in an organization that is a staple of rural America: 4H.
Josie Smith: 4H is a youth organization that is really focused on citizenship, leadership, education, basically just turning young people into the best versions of themselves. The motto of 4H is "making the best better." And there's an awesome pledge about head, heart, hands and health and making your communities great. And so Miles and I grew up—
Nora McInerny: That's what the Hs are!
Josie Smith: That's what the Hs are. Head, heart, hands and health.
Nora McInerny: Oh I love that, because I remember the logo is a four leaf clover.
Josie Smith: Correct. We were very lucky, pun intended, to be in 4H together, learning about the four Hs. We're both overachievers. We were overachievers in childhood. We were very concerned about winning. If you didn't win, then you were the first loser. There's no point competing if you weren't going to win. 4H is very based in competition, and so we thrived in that competition and got to compete together some. And so we grew up together doing that, and that was kind of the mindset the both of us have and the way we look at the world is to make the best better.
I have heard of 4H before this. I was raised in a city, but Minnesota has a THRIVING 4H community. And as a city kid, my only interaction with 4H was going to the state fair and watching with absolute unbridled envy as the 4H kids show off their cows … their llamas ... their pigs.
But it turns out there is a lot more to 4H, and lots of it is competitive … and a lot of it is about livestock.
Josie Smith: My favorite was poultry judging, and Miles tolerated poultry judging, but he liked winning. And the county where he worked and where we both grew up, we tended to win poultry judging. So you could do anything from look at meat that you would buy from the grocery store and grade it to see if it was in good shape. We candled eggs. And then the part of the competition that Miles really loved, and by loved I mean hated, was the live birds, where you were holding a chicken and you were trying to determine how many eggs that chicken had laid. And there's a number of ways to do that, one of which involves touching the chicken's butt to see if its pubic bones are in good shape. And he thought that was just way too much for a work day. And so he didn't love that. But that was one of my favorites.
But Miles’s very favorite — the thing that he LOVED — was called consumer judging.
Josie Smith: And that competition is where young people learn how to make good decisions as a consumer. And so there's always several categories, and they're given options. They're given a situation where a shopper or consumer is looking for a particular thing, whether it's pajamas or savings bonds or cell phones or Visa cards. And they have to look at four items based on what the consumer wants and choose and rank them. And Miles loved that. He was incredibly good at it. He was a state winner, a master 4Her, as was I. And so he loved to coach that. And he coached many teams to state- and national-winning titles. And so, those two competitions were really important to us. And there's also a lot of public speaking involved with 4H, essentially just being excellent in all ways, which is one of Miles's life mottos, was to be excellent in all ways.
This is their friendship as adolescents. Josie and Miles bond over what they have in common. They fall deep into that platonic love that’s so much easier to access when you’re really young. Miles is five years older than Josie, so he goes off to college first, and they lose touch for a few years while Josie also goes off to college. But when they’re both done with school, Josie goes back to her hometown, gets back into 4H. And guess who else is there…
Josie Smith: I will never forget the first time that I saw Miles again after he had come back from Northwestern. I was working in 4H in a different town, and we ran into each other at a leader meeting. And whoever was in charge of that meeting was doing a terrible job. And of course, Miles and I are both extra judgmental of people who do a terrible job leading meetings. And so we saw each other from across the room. We didn't even realize that we were both going to be there. And we connected over rolling our eyes collectively at the guy who was trying to tell us what to do for the whole weekend. And we immediately moved to sit next to each other. We spent the entire weekend together. We reconnected. We realized we were both still extra judgy, extra competitive, but out to make our students the best versions of themselves. And it was kind of like the rest was history after that.
Miles was back in their hometown and looking for a place to live, and as luck would have it, Josie knew the perfect place for him.
Josie Smith: I moved into a single wide trailer on the south side of town, on a pond. And Miles just thought that it was the most picturesque, perfect, white trash, redneck, just basically the Taj Mahal of southern living in our single wide trailer on the pond. And so when my roommate at the time left and moved to Waycross, he moved in. And so we shared a single wide trailer. And he was just living in our grandeur there.
Nora McInerny: So once Miles moves into the trailer, what is it like to have him as a roommate? What are your days like? What is your time together like? What is your roommate situation like?
Josie Smith: I love that you referenced that as The Trailer, because that is literally exactly what we called it at all times. It didn't matter who we were talking to or, you know, what knowledge they had of our life. We were at The Trailer, and it was sitting on a beautiful pond in the middle of a field. You could walk out the front door of the trailer and all you could see in front of you was either cotton or watermelon or peanuts or whatever was planted. And so we kind of lived in this little oasis of redneck agriculture.
Miles moves into the trailer with Josie. And nothing will bring you closer to someone than living with them does. You’re sharing a space, you’re sharing your lives, you’re sharing a bathroom. And they’re young. They’re unencumbered. Miles and Josie are best friends getting to share their lives together in the bubble that is The Trailer.
Josie Smith: We would open a bottle of champagne and then we would drink the entire bottle. And champagne made both of us really weepy. And so we would often open a bottle of champagne, drink the whole thing, and then sit on the floor of the trailer and cry about, you know, stuff that wasn't really even that sad, but it felt like what we needed to do after drinking an entire bottle of champagne. We would come to the end of our days and we would call each other on our way home from work. And we would ask the other one if they had cooked anything for dinner, or if we were planning on cooking anything for dinner. And the answer was usually no. And we usually ended up getting Steak 'n' Shake takeout, because you had to drive past Steak 'n' Shake to get to our trailer from town.
We also never went to sleep when we should. Keep in mind we were both functional adults with real jobs, but we were often up at two o'clock in the morning eating Taco Bell. Miles loved to sit on the floor. We had great furniture, but his favorite place was to pile a pallet of blankets onto the floor and sit. And we live in a small, southern, South Georgia town, and both of us are bleeding liberals, basically, and so we would sit on the floor of the trailer, and we would talk about the politics of the day and cry about how we couldn't understand how people were voting the way that they were voting. And then we would get up the next day and go back into our community and pretend like we were Republicans to try to get by.
Another thing is I don't pay attention to pop culture. And Miles was an absolute pop culture fiend. And one of our favorite pastimes was to watch award shows. We would watch the Grammys and the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and he would ask me if I knew who all of these mega famous people were. And the answer was pretty much always no. And so then he would try to guess what movies I had seen that might have these incredibly famous actors in them to try to connect the points for me. And I always just looked at them and shook my head because, I mean, like, I didn't even know who like, Meryl Streep was whenever we were first living together. So we just had so many points that we either had completely in common or completely not in common, but we somehow connected on every single one of them in our little bubble there at the trailer.
It’s very easy to romanticize your or someone else’s 20s when you’re not in them anymore. I tend to do that. And there also is something about this time of life -- before your job or a romantic partnership or children take over -- that is so special. And miserable. But special. And listening to Josie talk about this time, you can feel that, can’t you? That things weren’t perfect, but they were good. It was fast food and champagne and living on a pond in a rented trailer, staying up way too late and being the center of each other’s universes. Things were good.
But things had not always been good for Miles.
Josie Smith: He had had colon cancer. They had taken out a tumor. They had done the chemo. He was OK. I remember he told me that he was in remission right before he decided that he was going to move into the trailer. And so it was kind of wrapped up in a little bow. He had had the surgery to reverse everything they had done. Everything was great. And then he moved into the trailer and life was perfect. I knew that he had been sick before. I knew that he was OK now. And we just went on as if everything was great, because I- in my brain and I think in his brain, everything was great.
Nora McInerny: When did you both realize the cancer had returned?
Josie Smith: Looking back, I think that we both should have known before we knew. Everything was just good, and I don't know whether or not Miles always knew and just didn't want to admit, or if he didn't know. But I know that I didn't know that we should even have been paying attention. I just kind of assumed at the time that Miles was doing what he needed to do as far as going back for his checkups and having his scans. And I just figured if there was an issue that he would say. But he started having issues with eating. He started eating bland food and eating less food. He would eat a lot of fast food chicken sandwiches, just to not upset his stomach. But he was just having a hard time keeping food down. He was blaming it on heartburn. And so it got a little bit worse and a little bit worse and then he went to the emergency room one day when I had actually taken my mom up to north Georgia to go apple picking. And he called me while we were apple picking and he was like, “Hey, I just want you to know I'm driving myself to the emergency room. I think I'm really dehydrated because I haven't been able to keep any food down, I've been throwing up a lot.” So I was like, “OK! Let me know what they say.”
But Miles isn’t back from the hospital when Josie is done apple picking, and at 11 p.m., she drives to the hospital. The doctors have sent Miles for some scans and have decided to keep him overnight.
We’ll be right back.
Miles is in the hospital. By the time Josie gets there, it’s become clear that things are bad.
Josie Smith: I think it was maybe about 36 hours after he checked himself into the ER that a doctor came into his room and said, “Miles, your cancer is back.” It was a whirlwind of trying to get answers and trying to fix it immediately. And I, I don't know that either one of us really had time to process right then. But basically, Miles was the most positive, upbeat, buoyant person that I had ever met or spent time with. He could make anybody laugh about anything. He would dance around to Beyoncé whenever I was at my most stressed over an event that wasn't going well, just to try to make me laugh. He never took anything seriously. He's the kind of person who laughed at funerals, and then all of a sudden he was hit with this, and it basically crushed him. Because it came out of nowhere, and he was so sick that he never really got a chance to bounce back and decide how he was going to handle and fight. It was just all of a sudden like a fight for his life immediately after he was diagnosed.
Things are uncertain. There are a lot of question marks about how serious the cancer is, what treatment will look like. But one thing that is for sure is that Josie is going to be there with Miles every step of the way.
Josie Smith: Our friendship went from BFFs who just did fun things together to, “I'm going to stand by you no matter what,” in about 48 hours. Because he looked at me in the hospital, and he said, “I need you to help me get through this.” And I said, “I will be by your side every step of the way, no matter what. And I will never give up on you.” And so we fought until the very last day.
Cancer treatment is not easy to go through, and it’s not easy to watch someone you love go through it. It’s an endless parade of poisons and needles and blood draws and pain and nausea. It’s constant appointments and check-ins and evaluations.
Miles does have family, but Josie and their friends are his chosen family, and he wants them by his side through his treatment.
Josie Smith: We had two other friends who were a part of our close-knit support system, Leah and Adrian. And me and Leah and Adrian and Miles were a pod. And Miles knew and we knew that we were just absolutely never going to leave him alone. It was one of the things that we decided really at the very beginning of the whole process, is that no matter what happened, no matter how much work we had to miss, no matter how many miles we had to drive, we were never going to leave him alone. And so one of us was always with him. And it was beautiful to have the opportunity to be there for him in that way. And it was horrifying every day to be walking through that and seeing him go through that and not actually being able to take it away from him. But we just knew that no matter what, we were just never going to leave him alone.
Miles is surrounded by a community of people who love him and want to help him. But Josie is the person who lives with Miles, who shares a home and a life with him. And what she said when his cancer came back — that she would be there — she meant it. She’s there like she always was and also in a lot of new ways. She’s helping Miles physically and medically and emotionally with literal life and death decisions.
Josie Smith: We were both so scared to be at the trailer. And we bounced around from hospital to hospital. We spent almost as many nights in a hospital as we spent out of a hospital in the 10 months that he was sick. And so when we were back at the trailer, it simultaneously felt like a foreign place, but also the only place that we ever wanted to be. It was scary to be there, because we were kind of spitballing medical decisions, trying to make sure, because when you have this crazy, terrible cancer, it's like everything is bad. There's nothing that I was like, “OK, this feels right.” Everything was traumatic and bad. And he was scared, and I was scared. And so when we were at the trailer, we kind of clung to each other. But also, we were both terrified because it was like, “What if something happens here and we can't handle it?” Like, “What if we don't know how to manage it?” And so the trailer went from this place that was full of joy and laughter all the time to a place that was almost like a prison. It was home and it was prison, all at the same time.
The cancer changes their relationship … and it also changes Miles. Because as much as he wants to get better, cancer keeps taking things from him.
Josie Smith: Miles had a lot of pride. He was always incredibly well-dressed. And he didn't just wear clothes, he wore outfits. And he never left the house without being dressed to the nines. And having cancer took away so many of the things from him that he felt like made him him. And he felt so much shame for his appearance, for his inability to look the way that he wanted to look and to be the way he wanted to be. And he actually ended up really turning into a recluse as a sick person, and it was so demoralizing and dehumanizing for him, because the person that he was to everyone else and the person that he wanted to be, he couldn't be. I really, truly think that he never figured out how to be sick. And those experiences, where someone else has to do for you what you should absolutely be able to do for yourself, it takes away so much of yourself.
While Miles is losing parts of himself, Josie is discovering parts of herself. The parts of herself that can live up to the promise she made: that she would be there, even when there was frightening and uncomfortable and horrifying.
Josie Smith: Probably three months after diagnosis, we were still in the process of really getting a good treatment plan. We kept on getting the runaround from his medical team at the various hospitals where we had been about what they could actually do, because it was really difficult for them to ID what type of cancer that he had. It was in a weird place. It was real sludgy. And they had trouble finding it. They ended up having to do back-to-back colonoscopies to try to ID a location for the tumor that he had. And he was really not able to eat very much at the time. And so a colonoscopy is not a great experience for anybody who's ever done one before. If you've done one, you know that kind of ruins your day. And so he really hadn't been able to eat much for weeks. And he was incredibly weak. And I was sleeping in the hospital room with him the night where he was prepping for his second colonoscopy, and he was trying to get in and out of the bed to make it to the bathroom in his hospital room. And he fell out of bed the second or third time that he tried to get there. And so I actually spent the rest of the evening holding him up on a bedside commode, just holding him there. I just held him there for four or five hours, because he couldn't stand, but he had to sit on the bedside commode. And I just, we looked into each other's eyes, and we both just had tears running down our face, because it was not something that either one of us could say out loud what was happening. And he didn't want to do that, and I didn't want to do that. I wouldn't trade that moment for anything, because it was a moment where he realized and knew and I realized and knew that it didn't matter what was going to happen, that I was just gonna be there.
This is what it means to love another person. To do these things, to acknowledge the absolute brutality of a situation that requires this kind of intimacy.
Moments like that make Josie and Miles closer. But they also made the gravity of the situation come into sharp focus. And the responsibility Josie was taking on really started to hit. Miles asks her to be his medical power of attorney, which basically means Josie has the power to make medical decisions for Miles once he no longer can.
Josie Smith: When I was driving down the interstate one morning, really early, driving back to work after sleeping in the hospital with him. And it hit me all of a sudden that I was now going to have to make decisions in his best interest, even if he didn't agree with me or didn't feel that it was in his best interest, because he had made the decision to trust me with that responsibility. That I was now his caretaker. And I felt like in that moment, I... I lost my ability to just be his friend, and all of a sudden it was my responsibility to make decisions in his best interest, whether he knew that it was in his best interest or not. I'll never forget that feeling, when he was no longer my Miles, who was my confidante and my go-to and my ride-or-die. We didn't have the back and forth anymore. Instead, I just had to be there for him even when he was no longer able to be there for me. And it was, it was heartbreaking and also very moving.
Miles is sick for 10 months before he dies. It’s 10 months of good and bad days. Bad days so bad he’s too sick to do chemo. Days good enough that he can show up to work at 4H. Or try to, at least.
Josie Smith: He was wearing his chemo pump in a bag around his neck. And he was driving to my office to be a part of the board meeting. And he called me on the phone, and he was like, “Josie, I'm in a ditch. I just ran into a tree. I need you to come right now.” I got up out of my chair at the board meeting. I didn't say anything to anyone, and I just walked to my car, and I drove out to where he was, because he wasn't very far away from where we lived. And his chemo bag had slipped off of his shoulder around the steering wheel of his car. And it had yanked the car off the road and into a tree. It was basically a brand new car that he had bought right before he got sick, and he just smashed the front of it. And he was completely fine — the airbag had deployed into his face — but he was so shaken that he was not able to talk to the police. He wasn't able to talk to the people who were there. And I just remember showing up at the site of the accident, and I just basically took him into my arms, and I was like, “I'm going to take care of it. I'm going to handle it.”
And she does. Josie talks to the police. She calls a tow truck to get Miles’s car to a repair shop. She deals with the insurance. She takes care of it.
We’ll be right back.
After that accident, Miles almost entirely stops driving. Understandable. If my body had betrayed me and caused me to crash my car into a tree, I’d be hesitant to get back behind the wheel, too.
While his car is in the shop getting fixed, Miles’s sickness continues to get worse. It becomes obvious to Josie and Miles and the rest of their friend pod that the clock is ticking down.
Josie asks Miles what he wants to do with the rest of his time. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s a necessary one.
Josie Smith: Miles had a really difficult time talking about the fact that he was going to die. He knew, and I think that he actually knew for longer than me, but he didn't want to give up. And so a bucket list to him, in a lot of ways, was a signal of giving up. And so he didn't really make a bucket list. But then, eventually, his short bucket list developed. It had one item on it, and that item was to go to Disney World. And so for the longest time, I would ask him if he was ready for me to plan the trip and he would say, “No, I want to wait until I feel better.” And then I would ask him another month later, I was like, “So are you ready to play this trip to Disney World?” And he was like, “No, no, no, I'm going to get better. And I really want to be able to enjoy myself at Disney World, so we're going to wait.”
And so we waited. And then he was in the hospital for the last time. We had checked in. We pretty much knew we were never going to check out. And he started going into kidney failure, and a doctor came into the room, and he was like, “You probably have weeks, not months.” And so, at this time, Miles was really not functional at all. He was really not getting out of bed. He wasn't speaking a lot. He was mostly sleeping. And when the doctor was like, “You have weeks,” Miles still didn't really acknowledge that he had weeks to live. But he did open one eye, and he looked at me, and he was like, “We better go to Disney World.”
And so we started to plan a trip to Disney World. And he was not even getting out of bed to go to the bathroom at this point. And I remember telling his hospice nurse and his charge nurse, I was like, “So I'm going to need a couple of days, because we're going to take Miles to Disney World.” And they were like, “You probably shouldn't do that.” And I said, “Well, you're probably right, but I definitely am anyway.”
And so we put a plan into motion. A couple of things happened. One, my friend Lynda started a GoFundMe page, and she put it out there, because we didn't have any money. Both of us have spent all of our money in care and keeping of Miles and, you know, making sure that he had what he needed, and so we didn't have any money. And so we raised about $6,000 in 24 hours. And then the hospital staff came into his room on the morning that we were planning to leave, and they gave us another $2,000 in Visa gift cards that the hospital had just put together for us. And I was floored by the community support. Everybody in our town loved Miles, and it took zero time for people to rally around us and get him on that trip to Disney World.
We bought tickets to Disney World. I bought plane tickets for his best friends from Chicago, and then me and Leah and Adrian and our little group, and his friend Ernesto, we made a plan, and we got a resort at Disney World. And then it was like, OK, we have to get him out of the hospital. And so we met with his doctors, and we met with his nurses, and we met with his hospice team. And they said, “You have to understand something. It is highly likely that Miles is going to die at Disney World.” And I said, “What a perfect place to die.” And we signed the papers, and we put him into my parents’ van and we drove to Orlando, and we showed up at Harry Potter World about four o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday. We went to Universal and Disney World. But the process of getting him out of the hospital was so much like a circus that when I look back on it, all I can do is laugh. It was really terrible. We were basically taking his life into our hands, but everybody was in full support, and the nurses would say, “You probably shouldn't do this.” And at the same time, they were winking at us, like, “You should definitely do this. And here's $2,000. Go, have a good time.” And so we went to Disney World.
We gave him an allowance of the money that was raised for us to go on the trip to Universal and Disney World because he wanted to shop. And so he spent, in three days, a thousand dollars on Disney and Universal souvenirs. He came home with a Harry Potter afghan. He came home with an entirely new wardrobe of Disney-themed clothes. He came home with half a candy store. He came home with all of this stuff, and he had so much fun buying it.
They go to Harry Potter World. They go to Disney World. They go to Universal Studios. They do all of the fun things that Miles wants to do. And that includes the rides.
And I love that, because my husband Aaron had brain cancer. He loved roller coasters. He loved rides. We went to Disney World after he was diagnosed. But he wasn’t supposed to ride the rides, per his doctor. And he WANTED TO, so badly. But I was like, nope, sorry! Doctor said no!
Why didn’t I let him just ride the damn roller coasters. Because the truth of the matter was that he was dying anyway, so he might as well have had some fun in the meantime.
And Miles definitely wants to ride the roller coasters. And so that is exactly what they do.
Josie Smith: Me and Leah sat on either side of him in these roller coasters that really- they can hold in a good, normal, healthy person. But someone with absolutely no body strength, who's wasting away, they just don't do the same trick. We’re basically becoming his roller coaster restraints. So he's strapped into these Harry Potter roller coasters and the roller coaster would start. I would basically squeeze my eyes shut. We would hold our arms around him, and we came to a stop at the end of the ride. We would look at him to make sure he was still breathing and he was good. And we put him back in his wheelchair and we rolled on to the next ride.
And that’s their trip. Miles does Disney, Harry Potter, Universal, and he does it up big with the help of his friends. But now the trip is over, and it’s time to head home.
And the drive back is … heavy. It feels significant and final.
Josie Smith: We didn't know how long it was going to be, but it started a waiting game that we had already been in for months, but it just became very acute, because we knew that he was holding out to do that, he had rallied while we were there. He would get up out of his wheelchair. He would insist upon standing up for our photos. I have pictures of him dancing. He actually drank a margarita for the first time in six months, because all the medication he was taking really didn't allow him to drink. And we got him a margarita at a Disney World resort restaurant. He had really rallied. And we got to enjoy, you know, a little spark of what life had been like before. And as we were driving home from Disney World, I think we all knew that we had had that chance, but that now it was ... it got really real on that drive home. I started preparing myself for the moment that I was going to walk in and he was going to be gone.
Josie Smith: We got home and we actually spent the night at the trailer. He had been hospitalized for over a month before we left for Disney World, and we had been sleeping at the hospital, and we actually brought him home to the trailer. And I put him in my bed. And I spent the entire night watching him breathe, waiting for him to stop breathing. But he didn't. And the next morning, he woke up and he asked me if I would take him back to the hospital. He didn't want to die at home.
That drive to the hospital is another instance of a moment that is so significant in some ways and so mundane in others. It’s one of those moments where you’re going about your regular life knowing that there is this impending and unavoidable end.
And that’s what Josie is experiencing on this drive to the hospital.
Josie Smith: I felt like I was watching somebody else's life. It felt so unreal that it was almost impossible to grasp what was going on. I was so hyper aware and so in denial all at the same time. I guess your brain just allows you or empowers you to drive down the street as if your best friend isn't about to die in front of you. And so I did.
They check Miles back into the hospital but he’s not ready to go just yet. Doctors continue to treat a blood infection that Miles had before they left for Disney. They keep monitoring his blood sugar levels. But it’s clear to the hospice nurses that it’s time to make a serious decision. And Josie, who is now Miles’s medical power of attorney, is the person who has the power to make that call.
The nurses present her with a “Do Not Resuscitate” form. If she signs the form, it means that if Miles stops breathing, or his heart stops, the doctors will not perform CPR. They will not try to get him breathing again. They will just … let death come.
Josie Smith: I didn't think that I could do that, because I promised him that I would never give up. And it felt like, in that moment, whenever I signed that DNR, that I was giving up. And even to this day, it's not that I regret doing that, because I think that it was in his best interest. And you make decisions with what you have in front of you, and you do the best you can in the moment. But I felt like I had not kept my promise to him as I signed my name on that DNR.
This is the natural progression of a terminal illness. It’s the responsibility she took on when she agreed to be her best friend’s medical power of attorney: that she would do what was best for him.
In a previous episode, we talked with Dr. Sunita Puri, a palliative care physician and author who believes that some of the most important questions you can ask of yourself and the people you love is, “What makes your life meaningful? What would your life be if you couldn’t ever do the things you love? The things that make your life meaningful?”
These are the kinds of questions Josie is facing when she signs that DNR. Would Miles’s life be his if he could never again sit on the floor eating Taco Bell or dance around to Beyonce? If he could never again put together picture-perfect outfits?
The answers are no. And so Josie signs the DNR. And not long after, Miles’s life -- his beautiful, colorful life -- comes to an end.
Josie Smith: They turned everything off, and we just spent a couple of days watching him breathe. I felt like I had failed, like I did everything that I possibly could, and it still wasn't enough. Because Miles and I, we could do anything, the two of us together, we could do anything. We could save an event, we could write a speech in five minutes, we could turn a kid from, you know, a nightmare into a polished gentleman. And together, we had tried to save him, and we failed.
He always hated when people talked about cancer as if it was a battle. And he really hated when people said, “This person lost their fight with cancer.” He really hated it, because it was as if it was putting the blame on someone who died from cancer on that person, like they just didn't fight hard enough. He just hated that terminology. And he would tell me that. And he worked with Relay for Life long before he got sick. We have pictures together of us at Relay for Life rallies. You know, who are you relaying for? And we would have names of our friends who had died and, you know, it was very objective. But then when he was fighting, he couldn't give up, and he didn't want me to give up, even though he always said, you know, “You're not losing your battle, it's not your fault.” But we both just felt so much like we had failed.
It’s not Miles’s failure. It’s not Josie’s. It’s a failure of our woefully inadequate vessels, these dumb and very fragile little bodies we’re given to navigate through the world. Bodies that can break, that can turn on us, bodies that don’t do what we want them to — even when we ask very, very nicely.
After Miles dies, Josie has to go home. To the trailer that she and Miles had shared for almost two years together. And everywhere she turns, there are reminders of Miles and the life he lived. The life that was so intertwined with her own.
Josie Smith: It felt to me as if functionally, I had lost a spouse. Because Miles lived in my house, and we shared a space. And we shared everything. We shared groceries. We carpooled to town. You know, we were paying the same bills. And then we spent essentially every moment together for ten months through an incredibly traumatic experience. And then when he was gone, all of those societal things that people accept when it comes to loss, all of a sudden it was like the relationship that we had had crumbled because he wasn't my spouse. He wasn't my child. He wasn't my parent. But all of the emotional connections and physical connections and spatial connections were there, and they were broken when he died. And in a lot of ways I didn't know what to do. And it was the same for Leah and Adrian, our other two friends who were a part of our team taking care of him. None of us knew what to do. The custodial staff at every hospital we stayed at usually ended up being our favorite people, and they would always ask me and Miles how long we had been married. And we usually just said “six years” and told a story about how we met, and just acted as if that was truth, and they loved it.
Our lives were so intertwined. It's taken me years to tie up the broken strings that were untied and ripped apart when he died. It was also very surreal, because the task of sorting through his physical belongings fell to us, because he lived in my house. And I still have boxes of his personal belongings in my closet, because I cannot bear to throw them away, because they are ... they are what I have left of him, and they were in our house. You know, I have a pair of shoes here and there, and I have, like, his calendar and ... I had to go through his closet and, oh, my gosh, he owned more clothes than most department stores. And it's like, what do you do with all of the stuff that made up a person, that's just now in the house, and he's gone? My cat used to go sit in the middle of his bedroom and cry, looking for him, because it smelled like him and his stuff was all there. And the cat couldn't find him, and he just didn't know what to do.
Nobody knows what to do after someone we love so deeply dies and leaves us behind. Not even a cat, and they know lots of things that we don’t. Probably too many things, honestly.
Even now, just over three years later, Josie still doesn’t really know what to do. Her best friend is gone. And he is not just memories and stories, or a bag of overpriced souvenirs from Disney World (although … she still does has some of the candy that Miles bought during the trip). Miles is the indelible imprint of the people who love you the most, who sing with you on Saturday nights and comfort you on Sunday morning. He is the definition of friendship, of love, of what it means to be loved.
Nora McInerny: How do you remember Miles now?
Josie Smith: It is hard for me to recall the happy memories that we have before he was sick, because that period of time was so hard and so traumatic that it lives in the front of my brain. And the emergency room trips and the close calls and the near deaths and all of those things, they just float around in my head every day.
But when I can push through that and think back about the beautiful life that he had, and the incredible friendship that we had, I just remember his determination to be joyful. And I remember his insistency on making every day fun. He thought that every situation was an opportunity to laugh. He found every challenge and opportunity to succeed and to improve, and he was constantly working to make his community better. And so without him here, I try every day to continue that goal that he had, and to work on those initiatives that he cared so much about to make our community better. And I just remember his dedication to life and joy. I want to take those opportunities that he doesn't have the opportunity to take.
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Beth Pearlman, Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Media and Jordan Turgeon. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. You should check him out.
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