Should I call? What should I say?

In July of 2012, I got a call from Scotty in Lincoln with bad news.  Our good friend Bob Andelt had been diagnosed with the big c in four different parts of his body…and the prognosis was not good.

I was driving at the time in Austin, Texas and I had to pull my car off to the side of the road.  I wept uncontrollably for at least ten minutes.  I didn’t want to lose my friend.  I felt so sorry for him.  I felt so bad for his wife Mary.

I’ve played golf with thousands of people over the years, but Bob was my all-time favorite.  We shared a passion for the game and a desire to always improve.  Competition was always a big part of our matches and in order to beat Bob, you usually had to shoot around par or better.

Bob was a life-long railroad switchman.  He called himself a blue collar working stiff, but Bob was very well read and could discuss history, current events, and especially politics at a professorial level.

Bob could be intimidating on and off the course.  He had the weathered skin of a sailor and his cold blue eyes could stare right through you.  Sometimes he looked downright mean…he did not tolerate fools…and he wasn’t afraid to let his feelings be known.  Bobby also had a temper, especially when he wasn’t playing well.  But unlike most golfers, when Bob got mad it meant he was likely to start playing much better, his temper helped focus his game.

But the best thing about playing golf with Bobby was that he loved to laugh and talk on the course.  That’s one of the “soul feeding” aspects of golf, it takes four hours to play 18 holes so you are bound to have a lot of conversation…and with Bobby those long talks were always great fun.

Despite the fact that he was such a good friend, it took me a month to muster the courage to call him after I found out he was sick.  He was never much of a talker on the phone and I didn’t know what to say…and I wanted to say the “perfect” thing.   When I finally made the call, the same old Bob I knew for over 30 years was on the other end.  His humor and outlook on life were still the same.  The conversation flowed smoothly as we reminisced, laughed, and talked about his illness.

I made a special trip back to Lincoln just to see Bob for what I knew would likely be our final time together.  We went out to eat twice with other golf buddies and had a great time. Nothing had changed, except of course, all of us knowing Bob had a limited time left.  When Bob walked me out of the deli, we hugged for probably the first time ever.  We were handshake guys.  I hugged him hard and I could feel him hugging me back just as hard.  I had to immediately turn and walk away because tears were streaming down my cheeks.  By the time I reached my car, I was a basket case.  I knew I would never see Bob Andelt again.

Over the next four months, I called Bob a few times but not as often as I should have.  His passing in January 2013 came so quickly I never got the chance to make that final call.  Once he was gone, I wished I had called Bob more often during those final months.

So my answer to the two questions of this topic are: YES and don’t worry about saying the perfect thing…just call!  And don’t just do it once, do it over and over.

And if you’re still fretting over how to begin the conversation, here are a couple of  potential opening lines:

“Hey Jeff, what’s up?”

“Just thinking about you and wanted to see how you’re doing?”

“I’m a schmuck for not calling sooner, but I know you’ll forgive me, right?”

Or as my irreverent friend Catharine might say, “Okay Schmahl, I’m calling to make sure you’re not laying on the couch feeling sorry for yourself.”

Or as the very irreverent Chizzler would say, “Missed you at the course today Small, not actually you, lard ass, but missed the 20 bucks you would have lost to me.”

Of course, there does need to be a sensitivity with phone calls and visits, because everyone is different and as an illness gets worse, circumstances and moods can certainly change.  But reaching out to a friend in need is never a bad thing.

When word spreads of a terminal illness, there are lots of calls, e-mails, and cards.  But as time goes on and the patient becomes weaker and weaker, the calls and visits probably become more infrequent.  So just when a person needs support and caring the most, human interaction becomes less and less, and sadly the patient becomes more lonely and depressed in their final months.

In the final three months of my dad’s life, a retired Lutheran minister faithfully came to visit each and every day.  No matter how bad he felt, dad would always perk up during these short visits.  They started with a brief conversation about current events, weather, sports, or how dad was feeling.  Then the pastor would read a short devotional lesson that concluded with a bible verse or two.  He would close with a prayer and then be gone…but what a blessing these visits were to my father from a faithful servant.

Medical/Personal Update: 

My strength the last four weeks keeps improving and my tumor marker numbers continue to go down. I’m encouraged, thankful, and optimistic!

Maria and I leave for Nebraska later tonight and we’ll see hundreds of friends and family during our nine days back home.  I’m not going back to say “good-bye” and I certainly don’t want any pity or sorrow.  I just want to renew friendships and encourage one another!

Next Stop: Why I don’t like bicycle helmets