Knowledge & Ignorance

"What did he know and when did he know it."

For those who may have forgotten or who are too young to remember; that question was bantered about during the Nixon/Watergate fiasco. The question was - did Tricky Dick know about the break-in; if he knew, when did he know. The same question was asked about the subsequent cover-up.

"Sometimes it's better not to know."

Now there's an adage that drives pragmatists crazy, until they are themselves in a morally ambiguous situation where it's ... well, better not to know. I think plausible deniability begins with this concept.

So when is it better to know and when not? Today's story is one of my own, a real event that happened to me over twenty years ago. I have written once before about the death of my best friend, this story unfolds three or four weeks after his death. He died of complications from AIDS, during the last year I went to Tom's various appointments with him. Sometimes I took notes, other times I asked the medical questions that weren't being asked; I kept track of things.

This was 1989, there was no internet to provide everyone with reams of information but we were in L.A. so there were resources. At some point Tom started getting a monthly AIDS update newsletter, he would read it and then pass it on to me. At some point in the final months he lost interest and the newsletters went unopened. 

Several months after his death I was cleaning out his home office and came across the newsletters including the last three or four still unopened. I was going to donate them to a local information and support program but for some reason I decided to open the last few. On the back page of one was an article titled: Progression of Disease for those with Pneumocystis Pneumonia and T-Cells under Fifty. Exactly Tom's condition so I read the article. 

I can remember sitting there in amazement as the article mirrored his last six months almost precisely. What drugs would be prescribed. What side effects to expect. What opportunistic other disease attacks to watch for. It was a retrospective telling of the end of his life. I even said out loud: "Well now you tell me." Yet I wonder...

A decade later while my mother was failing, friends and family would ask about her prognosis. What to do about estate planning, finances, bring the grandkids to see her and when? I always had the same 'lighten the mood' answer - "I could answer that question if someone could just tell me how long this play runs." Tell me when this will be over and I'll tell you how to make those type of plans.

But, of course, this is not what life or death is about. That's not how it works. But 20 years ago, if I had opened that newsletter; I would have know. How might those final weeks have been different. What might we have done or not done, if we had known. For me, not much would have changed; but there were others who delayed or denied - perhaps I could have given them better advice but who would have believed that I had a day planner for the end of days.