If you ask about it, he might find you intrusive. If you don't ask about it, he might think you don't care. When something terrible is happening in a friend's life, you tread carefully.
You've known him for years. He's a colleague who long ago turned into a friend, although always a somewhat distant one. He's a guy's guy, the type to quickly squirm when confronted with talk of feelings or pronouncements of the heart. You're a girl's girl, the type who likes to express joy and thanks and togetherness, but you know it mortifies him, so you just do your bonding with jokes and jabs. A big sister, that's your role. He's your baby brother who has it all together and whose ears you occasionally enjoy yanking.
The terrible news came gradually; you put the story together in fits and starts. At first it was just the normal complaints of parents. He's got three kids, and you've got two. You'd laugh together about toddler nonsense, swap discipline tips, e-mail pictures that seemed to say it all. So when he complained about his son refusing to eat, you took it in stride and offered your own sound advice: Don't worry about any one individual meal, look at the nutritional intake over a week's time. Don't allow the dinner table to become a battleground. But set rules. No ice cream unless he at least attempts broccoli.
You never figured on anything serious.
Some weeks later, he told you he was taking his son to the doctor because he was getting so thin. He never said what happened, and you didn't ask, because you figured if he wanted you to know, he would go ahead and tell you.
He started getting a lot of calls from doctors, and family members who live far away. There was talk of a feeding tube.
Respect his privacy. Give him space. It's none of your business unless he invites you in. Maybe he needs something. You hope he'll ask.
Now the relationship is strained. You don't joke the way you used to, you keep your transactions about business. You don't want to pry. But you want to know what's going on. Why isn't he telling you what's going on? He doesn't consider you part of his inner circle? He doesn't think you're worthy?
Stop it. This isn't about you.
He put in for vacation time. You asked where he was going; even just plain old colleagues are allowed to ask that sort of thing. He told you about the clinic two states away. He told you about the tests and the theories, and he said some of the worst possibilities had been ruled out.
"Well, that's great!" you said, far too enthusiastically.
"There are still some terrible possibilities," he said.
"Right. One thing at a time. Right. That's all you can do."
You hated the way you sounded. Couldn't you have come up with anything original? He was finally telling you something, and all you could think of were canned responses. "I want you to know I'm here for you." Ugh. "If there's anything at all I can do . . ." Ugh! You considered sending him a card. Or maybe baking him a cake. Ugh. In an inspired moment you asked him if he wanted to go out after work and play pinball, like you used to do in the old days.