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 sense. I 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.