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First Person

At hospice, we wrote the final chapter of our friendship

What do you talk about with someone facing imminent death?

By Jim Sullivan

It’s a rainy fall evening and I’m sitting in a hospice and rehab facility south of Boston, visiting someone just a few years older than me. Someone who shares my first name. Jim Robbins was stricken with pancreatic cancer a few months ago, and told he’d be lucky if he made it until Christmas.

I’m not sure how “lucky” that would be for him. His is not much of a life at present; pain is his constant companion, and it doesn’t get better. He can walk, gingerly, from the large, square room he shares with three others to a common area where we can talk. Two of his roommates seem already gone; one remains vaguely conversant. The hallways are empty. There’s a vaguely noxious smell. The nurse’s station is subdued. Except for our conversation, everything is quiet.

I met Jim at the long-defunct Channel rock club in Boston back in the 1980s. I was a music writer; among other things, he shot videos of bands playing there and sold them in a booth. Jim was politically astute, sharp, and sarcastic. He posted a meme on his Facebook page in July that said, “I read somewhere that being sarcastic on a regular basis can add up to three years to your life. If that’s true, I’m gonna live forever.”

For many years, we went to Red Sox games together, and he took me to a Patriots game back when he had season tickets. A cat person — he had two treasured Egyptian Maus — Jim joined my wife and me on a visit to a Maine Coon cat exhibition back in the early aughts. But we slipped in and out of touch in the years after that, in part because Jim had been in the marijuana sales business, got busted and called several federal facilities home at different times. Lucrative for a spell, ultimately it wasn’t the smartest career choice.

When he got out, he regaled me with tales both hilarious and harrowing. One mutual friend who visited him in prison reported that, as scared as he was, “dark comedy got him through.”

After prison, he started driving for Uber.

Now, he is in this place.

And so am I, out of some combination of friendship, sorrow, empathy, and a vague sense of my own impending fate. And also — if I’m honest — the need to tell myself that I’m the kind of person who would visit a friend in hospice, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.

What do you talk about with someone facing imminent death? It turns out to be rock ’n’ roll and the Red Sox.

I’ve come with another mutual friend, David, who also knows Jim from way back in Boston’s rock scene. We had a terrible trip down from the city to the suburbs, with black sheets of rain covering the roads. The electronics on David’s windows went haywire, sending the windows up and down on their own, forcing us to put makeshift plastic covering in before we left, which rattled like mad ghosts on the highway. It was hot and steamy, a noir-ish night. We discussed turning back, but we ultimately agreed this was a must-do.

“There was this necessary compulsion,” David said later, “to see him when we had a chance.”

But I don’t think either of us wanted to go alone. It would have been… daunting. When three people are talking, there’s some conversational room to move. To change topics. To change the mood. To have a pause that isn’t awkward. Jim used to have a loud voice and hearty laugh, but this night he is soft-spoken and slow. He apologizes for that and for his somewhat wandering focus. He is on pretty severe painkillers, he tells us.

What do you talk about with someone facing imminent death? It turns out to be rock ’n’ roll and the Red Sox, two of the things that always connected us. In May of 2016, I had taken Jim to his first Red Sox game in years. He sent me a message later: “Best time I’ve had in a long time. Just perfect. Thanks.”

And, yes, I realize music and sports are the things guys tend to talk about to avoid real feelings about more substantive matters.

Death is the elephant in the room, of course. With me, David and Jim, the elephant raises its trunk and swings it around, and it’s Jim who makes it happen. He is a big guy, and was always trying to figure out how to lose weight. Now, he’s still rotund, but he would no longer have trouble fitting into Fenway Park grandstand seats, could he go. Jim quips that he needs to find a way to patent this fantastic cancer diet regimen, although — a theatrical pause here, perfectly timed — he realizes it would be a tough sell, given that fatality thing at the end.

The visit lasts for about 45 minutes. Jim tells us he’s tired, giving us a gracious way out. David had previously given Jim some books — Jim was a voracious reader — and offers to bring a couple more. Jim shuts that down: “Don’t bring me any more books. I don’t have that much time.”

When we part company, we hug. We promise another visit, and we mean it. Jim smiles and asks if I’d write his obituary. I manage something between a grin and a grimace and say, “Sure.”

A few weeks after the visit, I get an email informing me that Jim has died. His ashes will be spread with those of his late brother and parents.

I guess I’m sort of writing that obituary now. I’m not happy to have been there for the end of the story. But I’m glad we went. We gave Jim a small slice of a good day, amidst a string of horrible ones. And we gave ourselves something meaningful to hold onto.

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

Illustration by Chris Malbon

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