“I’m dying. I can feel it. But please tell me what’s wrong with me,” says my uncle on the telephone. He’s almost pleading. No one in Morocco will tell him that he’s dying of lung cancer. Even his doctor won’t break the bad news. Everyone comes to say goodbye to him without acknowledging that this is goodbye.
“I’m still here” (Ik ben er nog) is the title of a media campaign started in 2010 and designed to encourage the Dutch to keep in touch with terminally ill friends.
One in four Dutch people turn their back on a friend or acquaintance who is dying, research has shown. It’s often a response born of fear or awkwardness, because people don’t know how to act around someone who doesn’t have long to live.
The campaign is the work of SIRE, a group of advertising and marketing experts who contribute their talents for free to generate discussion about social issues.
“I don’t mind dying. I’ve always known that I wouldn’t live past 55. But please, just tell me, Guapa.” That was his pet name for me. Why is my uncle inflicting this on me? It’s the most difficult phone call of my life.
My uncle died without ever knowing why. Everyone knew except him, the terminal patient. I think of him when the woman who lives next door sighs and tells me: “She’s still hanging on. My mother. Still alive and fitter than ever.” Her mother was a dialysis patient for years. The treatment wore her out and she lost the will to live. Then one day the doctor told her that she had 15 days to live. The mother knows and everyone else knows. She will be ready when the time comes. Even the priest has paid her a visit and everything has been arranged down to the last detail. But that was three weeks ago, and she’s still alive. Everyone around her has gone back to work and is going about their everyday business again.
“Before you know it she’ll be feeling guilty for keeping everyone waiting,” I blurted out to my neighbour. Her mother wants to see her grandchildren one more time, but my neighbour thinks the kids have already done their bit. “It was difficult enough for them to say goodbye once.” In Morocco the wishes of a dying person have to be carried out as a last show of respect.
Right to know
No one would have forgiven me if I had told my uncle, even though I believe he had a right to know. In the Netherlands a doctor sees it as his duty to tell a patient what is wrong with them and what their prognosis is. It’s a matter of course.
Does it hurt to know that you are dying? Or is there no such thing as a terminal patient in the Arab world because only Allah knows everything? Will I come to regret not being able to tell my uncle the truth? And what should I say to my neighbour when her mother has passed away: “Sorry for your loss but it’s about time?”