When Friends Die

Cancer brought Maxwell and I together.

It also tore us apart.

Maxwell died today. Peacefully, I’m told.

He is now free, and freedom meant everything to Maxwell.

Maxwell Ho

He was as free a spirit as I’d ever met. Certainly unconventional in many respects.  The Rolling Stones song, Ruby Tuesday, makes me think of him, especially the lines (with a pronoun change):

Don’t question why he needs to be so free
He’ll tell you it’s the only way to be
He just can’t be chained
To a life where nothing’s gained
And nothing lost
At such a cost

Maxwell lived a life where he chose happy over safe. And it worked for him. For all of his 55 years. For that alone, he inspired me.

I met him about a year and a half ago. We were both in remission and trying to heal from chemotherapy. Unlike me, Maxwell had metastatic cancer. Lung cancer, actually. And he never smoked. Lung cancer patients have a quite a non-compassionate stigma to deal with. They’re judged for bringing their cancer on themselves through smoking tobacco. To offset this, Maxwell would tell people he had “non-smoker’s lung cancer.”

I remember hiking with him and he commented that he liked hiking with me because he didn’t have to worry about keeping up. We were both trying to regain the strength and stamina robbed us by chemo, but had a way to go. We understood that about each other and kept pace.

He played Tibetan bowls. He had a whole set of them and believed in the healing power of their vibration. He often played them for others.

He went back to Hong Kong where he was raised to visit his family. After he returned, he and I got together. It was last August or September. He knew I had considered a move out of State and wanted to make sure he saw me, to say goodbye. No, I decided not to move after all, but we got together anyhow. Little did I know that it really was goodbye, at least the last time we’d get together with him in a lively state where he appeared healthy, even if he wasn’t.

I told him of the books I was working on that were cancer-related. I told him my days of writing fiction were over, that I wanted to give back to the cancer community. He said, “Write about cancer, Eileen. Get it out of your system. And then write fiction again.”

Last week, he sent an email that the cancer had recurred. Tumors were found in his brain, throat, stomach and another area that escapes me. He was feeling increasingly numb down his side so he went to see his oncologist. The culprit was a tumor that pressed on his spine. The hospital performed lots of treatment, but he reacted badly with lots of complications. He went downhill rapidly. His vocal chords were affected by the radiation and he couldn’t speak above a soft whisper, so communications were limited to texts or email.

I offered to come over and play his bowls for him. I knew it would comfort him. When I arrived last Sunday, I immediately thought he was on his death bed, that there would be no recovery this time. I could tell his body was shutting down. He was frail and drifted in and out of sleep, but mostly sleep. He was so glad to have the bowls played for him. It was his thing and it brought him great comfort. He whispered, Thank you, Eileen.” I said, “I’m just giving back a fraction of what you’ve given to others.” He said, “I’ll take it.”

After that, he pretty much drifted in and out of sleep while I played the soft chords from the various bowls. I got a text two days later from the woman who was caring for him that he was in the hospital, dying. Today he passed away.

I feel so sad.

I’ve lost other friends, friends I was even closer to, but this one hit me really hard. I think it’s compounded by the fact that Maxwell and I were in remission together, trying to strengthen our bodies. Death by cancer is always so personal since diagnosis. I understand he was metastatic and I was not, but it really sends a deep trigger through me, like a resounding Tibetan bowl, but not so sweet a sound.

Maxwell once commented:

There are too many lined up in the cancer port. So, so many. Where do they all come from?

One of the worst side effects of hanging out in that port is we gravitate toward others with cancer. The end result of those relationships is sometimes death. And it hurts. And you wonder, why them and not me? It seems so random. So incomprehensible.

Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday … Still I’m gonna miss you.



  1. Reading your previous post (“For My Friend Maxwell”, http://www.womaninthehat.com/friend-maxwell) we were hoping for a better update….

    This is saddening news. May he rest in peace, may his family & friends remember him as vividly as you remember him.

  2. So sad. We make so many good friends in cancerland and then we watch them go away for all thre wrong reasons.

    • Caroline, yes, it really is tough. And it happens over and over. Maxwell was special for me, though. I’m glad I could share a small part of him with my readers. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Hi Eileen. So sorry to hear about your friends passing but also glad to find out more about his life and get a sense of his beliefs. Take his advice. Get it out of your system and then write fiction again. You have a lovely light touch in your writing and that is so uplifting. Look after yourself. Linda

  4. dear Eileen

    I am so sorry that Maxwell has died, and I am so sad for you to have lost such a dear, free-spirited, and inspiring friend. we pay such a heavy price for love, don’t we? as you grieve his death, I hope that through every vale that takes you down into your loss, you will be comforted by the memory of his free spirit and his encouragement about your writing, and that the echo of his Tibetan bowls ring a soothing balm to your heart.

    though Maxwell’s decline came so quickly and with so many devastating complications, the things you were able to do for him – facilitating messages from your readers, visiting him, and playing his Tibetan bowls – were beautiful gifts to both him and to you.

    sending you many warm, gentle hugs, my Dear Friend,

    with much love,

    Karen xoox

    • Karen, yes, we do pay a heavy price for love. I know you understand that on a deep level and you’re so very right. Not that we would change any of it. Playing the Tibetan bowls by Maxwell’s bedside, having him look at me with those deep eyes in appreciation was such a rich experience, even if it hurt deeply. I think of the Tennyson quote: ‘Tis better to have lived and loved, then not to have loved at all.

  5. Beautiful, painful, honest, vulnerable, story, tribute, salute, epitaph.

  6. Linda R. Malis says:

    I’m truly sorry for your loss, Eileen. To lose a friend so dear and real, sincere and someone who you’re in sinc with, is so hard and emotional. Maxwell sounds like he was a special person and he appreciated you on a deep level. He was only 55, too young. Thank God, he is no longer suffering and at peace with God in Heaven.

    I completely relate after losing my dear friend, Donna, to leukemia in Sept. 2014. It was so hard to see a person with so much energy and zest for life to become gravely ill. It really makes you wonder. Life is fleeting, until our time comes we can only live, do the best we can and trust God. I hope you can reflect on Maxwell’s life and the time you both shared and it will bring you peace and more purpose.

  7. Thanks, Linda. Your words are filled with wisdom and I know you know from personal experience. Much love to you.

  8. I am so sorry for your loss, Eileen. It seems you were given an honor to play the bowls for him as he failed, may we all be blessed with a friend like you.

  9. So very sad Eileen and yes, there are so many, way too many in the Cancer port.

  10. So sorry to hear about Maxwell. I used to dance with him. He was one of the greatest dancer. He loved to dance and laugh and have a good time with it. You were lucky to meet and spent time with this great man.

    • Annette, I’m so glad to hear from someone who knew Maxwell. Yes, he was definitely a fun-loving person. So light and free-spirited. This world has lost a really good man. He left a wonderful legacy for us all. Anyone who knew Maxwell is richer for having known him. Thanks so much for commenting and shedding light on another part of his time on earth. I understand he was quite the dancer.

  11. John Jenkins says:

    My wife and I met Maxwell at the Stanford Lung Cancer Support Group Meetings. We quickly learned that Maxwell was a special spirit. He offered to come to our home and comfort us with his Tibetan bowls even though it was far for him to travel. We just learned today in the Support Group that he passed away. It was very sad to lose him, but he gave us a tremendous spark to use in our own struggle with cancer. We will never forget him.

    • John, I’m always so glad to hear from others who knew Maxwell. He impacted the soul of everyone who crossed paths with him. He had mentioned the Stanford cancer support group. Keep the spark he gave you as a gift and a legacy. I will do the same. I, too, could never forget him.

  12. Lauren Jenkins says:

    I met Maxwell thru Stanford lung cacer group and cherished his humorous and insightful thoughts. I especially enjoyed when he pulled out the bowls and had them shimmer for us. He was so gifted in spirit. Ialready miss him and just learned off his passing today.

    • Lauren, thanks for writing and commenting. As I mentioned in my comment to John, Maxwell had mentioned the Stanford group. I’m so glad the two of you got to know him. He really has left a lasting legacy. And those bowls – weren’t they something? Even Maxwell’s memory fills me with magic. He really was one of a kind, in all the right ways.


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