After the End

I remember the times that I lay awake in my bed since May 2, 2014, thinking about the fact that Amanda was going to die. I thought she had two years, but I was wrong. She had 13 months and three days from that day she called me, the day I stood in my kitchen, staring out the window as I held the phone to my ear, speechless, shaking my head as she talked and thinking, Dammit. This what she has always been afraid of… thinking, We are not old enough for this…we are too small, we have not done enough, as her words “it’s cancer” hung for just a second and a half in the almost imperceptible hum in my ear, the words “it’s some kind of cancer” she had spoken in her trademark lilt, as if she had just said, “Oh, look at that flower,” as if she had forgotten that I knew how much the very thought of it had terrified her for years.

Now I lie in my bed and think, She’s gone. She no longer exists. She does not exist, and it makes no kind of senseI see my ceiling fan and my recessed lighting and they are so solid, so real, and she is not, even though she used to be. Now everyone who never met her will never meet her, and she cannot be real to them, and it seems like such a ridiculously large proportion of humanity that will never know the gift of her. They will never know her wide-eyed, blinking expression of fake shock, or the way she threw her head back when she laughed sometimes, the way she could cover venom with her Southern drawl, the way she ferociously defended everyone who ever tried to do the right thing. They will never know the way she turned to stare, unblinking, at me as I took her pulse without wanting her to know I was taking her pulse, even while I thought, She knows I’m taking her pulse, as she lay in the hospice bed in the living room of the home she bought just six weeks before her diagnosis. They will not know her faint freckles, a bashful kind of Irishness that may have hidden beneath the English of her long-ago bloodline, before she’d been born to Carolina. They will not know the watercolor brown of her eyes. They won’t feel the coldness of her skin that I felt the day I walked into her condo one more time, to find her with her watercolor eyes still open, and to leave them that way.

I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling fan and recessed lighting, remembering all the loved ones I lost before her, whose coffined bodies I had knelt beside on prié dieux, thinking through my prayers, willing myself through my aches, whose cold skin I feared to touch. For her I had hardly prayed, my faith a little shaken well before her illness took hold. But for her I did not hesitate to grant a kiss, to lay a hand.

She was 44.

“I don’t want to be one of those sad women who dies of cancer in her 40s,” she had said to me the summer before. I can still see her saying it, wide eyes searching for assurance, mouth trembling. I can still feel the sickening, mind-dulling anticipation of something that has now passed by, as though I am still dreading that it will happen.

It has been more than seven months since the day I walked in to find her cold, without surprise. More than seven months since the morning I woke up in my friends’ guest room to grab my phone as had become a habit, and this time to see a message from her brother: Give me a call when you wake up. To know what that meant. To call and hear his voice tell me, “I have bad news,” as though we had not been there by her side together for days, as though I had not known for 13 months what this news would be.

It seems like yesterday and it seems like a year ago. I can still feel that tachycardic pulse thrumming vivaciously and valiantly against the pads of my index and middle fingers (not the thumb – one feels one’s own pulse in one’s thumb) while my mind whirred with thoughts of when it would slow and why it was so fast: She’s hot. Fucking air conditioner. Breaking on the hottest day so far. Adjusting the sheet and fetching the wet towel from the refrigerator and the ice pack from the freezer, willing it to stay cool a while longer as she closed her eyes and sighed in relief when it covered her forehead. I can still feel that cold skin against my glossed lips at 9:40 in the morning on a Friday as the air conditioning repairmen, in what I hope was the worst job they ever took, worked in her bedroom and she lay there, gone, in the living room. It feels like yesterday, and it feels like a year ago. But it does not feel like real time.

The rest of our small clutch of close confidants in this crisis had thought she could have 10 years. Eventually I realized that not all of us had read the research and known the odds we implored Amanda not to find. They were not at the appointments where the doctors all first told her, “Yes, you could have a few years,” in tones of conciliation with expressions of agonized sympathy in their eyes. No, it’s not impossible. The relative swiftness of Amanda’s dying was as much a shock to them as it was to her.

But In those overheated or overcooled doctors’ offices, in those moments when her comprehension switched off and mine sharpened, I learned. I heard a blunt force in the softened honesty of the medical oncologist, a woman whose decades of experience and expertise in this particular kind of cancer made her a researcher first and a treating physician second. Her manner reflected years of work at being warm, rather than a natural inclination. “Some women who come to me at this point have a few months,” she had said. “Others have a few years. Most are in-between.”

When I look back, searching for the moment when my gut told me the time, I think it was then. Six months later, when there was something strange in a scan, my gut knew that knew there wasn’t much time left. It knew that we should take her on a trip, that she should come to Beethoven’s Ninth when my choir sang it just two weeks later, so she could hear the soaring sounds she called transcendent. It knew there would never be another chance.

She hadn’t wanted to come.

And six months after that, the doctors had gathered in her hospital room and told her there was nothing more they could do and that hospice was next. She hadn’t been ready for that, hadn’t been completely cognizant thanks to inflammation in her brain from radiation. The radiation had been a last-ditch effort, one we later learned had been debated rather than easily concluded among her treating physicians. It helped to know that when their experience said it was over, something else had said, “Just try.” The research-focused medical oncologist came softer over the phone, “Amanda was the most wonderful patient I have ever had.”

Amanda had turned her head toward me after staring blankly at the wall at the foot of her bed. “Am I being weird about this?” I had told her that she couldn’t possibly be weird about it; there is no “weird about it” when the battle is over before putting down the sword and shield. I’d told her that if she wasn’t on top of a building with a flamethrower, she was doing fine. It had been my response for 12 months and 25 days.

“We always knew it was going to come down to this,” she had said to me.

She hadn’t accepted it until then. That moment. And it was just after that when she told her brother that she wanted him to take care of their mom, and when she told me she was worried our friends’ boys wouldn’t remember her.

I still see her in her last weeks. I can readily conjure times before her diagnosis, but when photos from then appear, they surprise me; in my older memories, I conflate her healthful body with her ill one. My immediate memories of her as sick, as wasting away, don’t spark heartache. That her nose took on the characteristic form of a dying cancer patient’s, that her skin turned so sallow that her pale freckles stood out, that her shape changed before my eyes, does not change her to me. They are facts, and facts to which I am humbled to have borne witness. I am grateful to have been there in those waning days. She was so loved that people flew across the country or drove hundreds of miles to spend an hour or two saying goodbye, and then came back for the service, just days later. That she asked me to be one of the few by her side all the time in her last year, that her final week filled my days, is an honor for which I cannot grant words, a kind of feeling that should have a color, a scent, a tangible weight. Her dying, her death, was tremendously real.

But her being dead is impossible to fathom.

Dying is an action. It is a role one plays. It was a thing she was doing. I can lie on my bed, staring at my ceiling fan, and think about when she was dying. I can think about who that dying woman was, how her voice and its trademark lilt may have quieted, but never changed. I can think about all of that and be fine, because it was a fact, a phase, a part she played with knowledge. Living and dying are acts. They take shape. They change. They advance and retreat.

Dead is an unmitigated state of being. There is no action in it. There is no agency.

My friend, my sweet friend, with whom I laughed for years, with whom I shared unspoken things, whose memories intertwined with mine, is dead, and I am not. We share nothing now. I am left without her to carry her life in my head and my heart and to speak of it to others. I am gifted with an unfolding promise of memory while I struggle to make real her life to those who never knew it.

It is the greatest and most terrible gift she ever gave me.

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Legacy

I wonder why I’ve never been assigned to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and speeches and letters.

I’ve spent some time today reading a few of them, and I’m embarrassed at never having done so before.

I was reading King’s now-historically titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because I went looking for some quotes from Dr. King that are lesser-known to the masses. (I do this every year because I shamefully do little else in recognition of his influence and the sacrifice of his life, and I feel like I can at least take some time to reflect, since that’s much of what he was asking us to do all those years ago.) I had found one such quote, and sought its source for context. In part, the reason I went looking for the source was because the quote, in juxtaposition with present-day electoral politics, seemed to have gained new life.

This is where I stop to think of whether it is fair to apply more universally a sentiment about the struggle to end the oppression of black people. In doing so, do I diminish the call that is unique to that people? Do I, essentially, usurp “black lives matter” in favor of “all lives matter”? Do I, as one does when espousing all lives, blunt the power of the voices raised for the 400th year against oppression of one people that still has not seen justice fully realized? Do I imply that the injustices their people have suffered are equal to injustices done to me?

I’m going to risk it with the clear implication that it is not my intention to detract, but to recognize that Dr. King, I think, would have raised his voice a lot in the last year or two to support others who are struggling for freedom and understanding.

“…The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
~Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

One of the greatest things about this country is that we’re free to say whatever we want about its government and its people, but there is now an abuse of that freedom that makes some of us think it’s right to stand in our insistence and shout that dissenters are more than wrong, that they’re idiots, devils, communists, socialists, lunatics and trolls. This nation’s freedoms of speech and expression have been twisted into a compulsion to berate without conscience, and to spread it in unprecedentedly broad swaths with a keystroke. We’ve been fostered in our misguided belief that freedom of speech equates with encouragement to spout opinion at every opportunity. In the old rally cry that warns, “Don’t tread on me,” we have become the snake that eats itself.

There are no saints in a culture that champions schadenfreude.

Nowhere has this seemed more obvious than in the presidential race we are currently enduring. I am struck by how tired the spectators have been made by the marathon. We have a field of Republican candidates so pushed to extremes by its perception of a shifting base that those who were dismissed from some circles years ago for their own extremism now seem perfectly reasonable and measured. We have a field of Democratic candidates who bore us in debate because there is a less belabored circus, even while no opportunity is missed to fling bile on absent dissenters.

It is tempting, and has always been, to hate politicians for the way they spar, for the way they turn what we profess to love as a governing system into an intractable mess of complexly woven and codependent governance by spite. It is, at worst, a spiral into hell that destroys democracies. At best, it is a horror show. It’s a show of extremism and rancor directed at all who are “other.”

But what has dawned on me more and more as we watch it all unfold is that the actors take the stage for us. We have settled into the certainty that we deserve to stand firm in our thoughts with ears closed to disagreement rather than open to understanding, and hands clenched into fists rather than clasped in handshakes. We have acquired some misguided sense of having been persecuted for our perspectives, when we have suffered no indignity approaching what we inflict on others in our intransigence.

This is where I believe Dr. King’s voice would have been raised. Whether it’s those who disagree with sentiment or those who seek asylum on our shores, those who haven’t followed whatever path we presume to prescribe or those who don’t fit a 200-year-old perception of the Judeo-Christian mold, those who are criminalized for believing in a different creed or those who are hated in general for the most tangential association with the evil deeds of a most specific group, we have once again proven ourselves a nation consumed by refusal to hear and understand, so that we may preserve a status quo because to do otherwise would force us to question our self-assurance.

Politicians, after all, seek the votes of those who agree.

This election is not about politicians or politics. It is about Americans. It is about for what this nation truly stands.

And isn’t that the most terrifying thing of all?

 

 

 

Tito and the Internet

I’m 38 years old. In the last 17 years, I have learned a pretty valuable lesson, and it’s one that contradicts conventional wisdom:

It’s probably best for me to just drink alone.

As we all know, alcohol lowers inhibitions. For me, that sometimes means a New Year’s Eve that extends entirely too long into New Year’s Day and involves a significant amount of someone else’s saliva, but that’s not why we’re here today. The other thing it means is that I am much more likely to say what I think. I don’t say it unkindly. But I am much more likely to translate thought into expression. Whereas, in situations wherein I have not had a martini, I just don’t speak.

Or type.

So, alright, amendment: It’s probably best for me to just drink alone and not log on to the Internet.

Now, before you make assumptions: I didn’t get drunk, I didn’t get into an argument, and I didn’t damage a relationship of any kind. No regrets, Coyote. I merely answered a question with respectful and careful honesty where I otherwise likely would not have answered at all.

As opposed to just, you know, quietly moving along in my Facebook travels. Which, perhaps, would have been the better decision.

The irony of this, of course, is that I am frequently the person who says out loud to the people who appear in social media places on my laptop, “You know, it’s okay to just take something in as information and then go about your day. You don’t have to offer your opinion EVERY BLESSED CHANCE YOU GET.” It’s just that this was an area in which I have a certain amount of expertise, and the question was posted by someone who also has a certain amount of expertise, and he seemed a little proud of something I thought was just nauseating.

I did not say that.

I can be diplomatic even when I’ve had vodka. I’m actually really good at it.

Wait… is braggadocio at odds with diplomacy?

Anyway, the point is, I should not be online when Tito has joined me on the sofa.

And we won’t discuss who should join me on the sofa, instead.

A New Beginning

So much has happened.

It was a year that both raced and plodded, with highs I hadn’t felt in ages and lows I hope to never feel again. I don’t suppose the generalities defy custom; I made new friends, lost track of old ones, and watched a dear one leave the world too soon. My heart expanded to welcome a new niece and tightened to finally evict an old love. In some ways, ghosts were finally released. Realizations dawned. Struggles tested. Worries became realities. Romances bloomed and withered. Academia endured. Challenges forced refinement of character, and frustrations—sometimes unrelenting—revealed new understandings. Things I thought I knew either shifted or turned out to have been different all along. Tears came more easily. Life’s mess and complication insisted on winning the day.

For a woman so keen on protection, it was a year of exposure and rawness, of ache at the slightest touch and ecstasy at unexpected provocation. It was a coming out, a time of permissions, of letting feelings surface and learning lessons that I hope will lead to greater grace.

I missed writing. I missed connecting at the soul with people whose faces I had never seen but whose hearts I felt I knew well. But occupation and obligation rarely relented, and when they did, I found my musings so muddled, so tangled, so exhausted or so banal that words were either insufficient or grandiloquent, that to reach for them would have seemed an injustice to their spirit. I wanted to write, but I wanted to rest my mind more.

This post is not a new year’s resolution; I don’t believe in those for their own sake. It is not a clarion herald. It is not a promise to anyone—not even myself. It is simply an acknowledgment of sorts, head bowed, thoughts clouded, that I have been away for a long time, and that I have ached to connect again. The shape things take from here is uncertain. There are ideas, but there is no plan. There are only my fingers on the keyboard and my thoughts on the screen, taking shape in letters after a year full of blurry lines.

Hello again.