The Gift of Life and Death - Short story
I walked into her bedroom expecting a surprise, and I wasn't surprised because I was expecting it. She smiled at me, I approached and clumsily held her frail body as she told me to be careful - she needed another swig of morphine. She showed me where the morphine was kept and asked if I could get it for her. I removed the screw-lid and handed her the plastic bottle. The liquid had a stale tan colour. I'd never seen morphine before; never in any form, and hadn't imagined it would look like this, but I was ready for surprises. She didn't measure the amount as the liquid passed into her mouth. "It doesn't matter," she said. "I'm gonna die anyway." And then she passed it to me and asked if I wanted some. I declined, telling her that it was probably best I keep it together, and then laughed at her cheekiness. She might have been dying, but her spirit was far from dead - in fact, her spirit seemed more alive than ever, but then a body whose face and torso had been reduced to a skeleton wrapped tightly in skin can seem spiritless to some. It didn't to me.
One of the first things she told me was of the hope that I would remain calm. Family and friends walked in and out of her room all day, and she was becoming tired of their distress. I gave her a promise that I would do my best. “Mum's coping okay,” she said with a raised expression, “but dad's losing it, and sure, I can't expect them to be okay with what is happening, but they don't seem to understand that I'm okay with this; it's only death, it happens to all of us sooner or later, I just got a bad draw, that's all.” She looked at me through her disease sunken eyes and told me that she was okay, and that it would be great if I could hang in there. I again promised that I would do my best.
The truth of it was that I'd not experienced a close friend dying before, I had no map of how to cope, and wasn't even sure if I could, if I would be able to keep that promise. She made it easy because she appeared so comfortable with death – and I'd always thought of it as something that would be uncomfortable. And now here I was finding out how it felt. She was dying, that was all. She still talked and she still breathed and she still told me to look at the colours of the sunset. Watching her painfully frail body crouched in a run to the toilet and then hearing her giggle, “wow, I just made it,” made her seem very alive. She told me that Rickie Lee Jones', Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying, would be playing at her funeral. She didn't want us to cry, but she knew we would. Being in her presence I started to gain this sense of knowing about her, like the acceptance of the death that was approaching had turned her into some kind of sage, like she was existing in certainty for the first time in her life. Nothing's more certain than death, I thought, and maybe it is a peaceful place to go after all. It was like she was already there; in the moment-less moments, but she was still alive, and my map of how to cope was being drawn minute by minute.
It had been a year since we'd last seen each other. Her hope of survival had all but vanished by then. The cancer treatment was something she begrudgingly tried, but she would only do so once; no second-attempts, no wasting the time she had left wandering around hospitals undergoing some kind of painful and long-winded process. Her hair started falling out, and she was annoyed at the reaction people had to this. She reckoned that it was their fears, and about their own inability to cope with the idea of death staring them in the face. “It wasn't their experience,” she told me, and she dearly wished they would let her go through it without having to act strange around her. This bugged her, but she also understood that it was something she had to get used to – life was a constant process of adaptation, right up until the point of death. So when the cancer returned and the doctors told her that she had somewhere between six to eighteen months, she decided to get away from everyone. She used some insurance money to buy herself a little van and go travelling the country. She'd always wanted to do this. The idea of being anonymous - without anyone worrying about her death - was the aspect of the journey that pleased her the most. It was in the middle of this adventure that we had last seen each other.
We spent a few days together during that visit, and we didn't talk much about death. We talked about old times; about where I was going with my life, my reality, my dreams, my future. She had these thoughts as well, but she didn't talk much about them. I took her for a drive out of town to an old farmhouse of a friend of mine. The old place was like a personal museum, with trinkets spread over every available piece of bench space and ledges and edges of tables. She loved the house and my friend because they reminded her of herself. We walked along a path taking in the twisted beauty of branches from the huge trees that lined a creek. A farmer long ago had put saw cuts into the trees; the reasoning for this, we decided, was an insane act that could not be fathomed. We guessed the farmer had died. She held nature in her eyes with constant happiness - you would never have guessed she was dying. That night we slept in front of an open fire. In the morning we got up early to see the sunrise. When it was time for her to leave we realised that we may never see each other again. She told me not to worry. I knew she'd be alright. We had a few phone calls over the following months where we'd read each other poetry and share stories about life. I'd ask her how it was going and she'd tell me it needn't be talked about, but sometimes she did. Then one day she rang telling me she thought she was ready to go. She asked if I could make the thousand miles to see her. I arranged it and was there within a week, declining the morphine, staying calm while watching her die, and being her happy slave.
Apart from the morphine I assisted in dispensing, I was also rolling her joints. She reckoned it was therapeutic. I believed her. She'd given me some money and an address where I could find some good quality dope. The dealer was friendly, asked how she was going and said to say hello. I wondered if the dealer was one of the rare ones who was remaining calm. I thanked him, returned to her bedroom where I passed on his regards, and shared a joint with her.
She told me about a trip to the river. It had been organised. She'd had enough and it was arranged that she'd be wheeled to the river bank by a helpful sister in law. Her sister in law would then disappear for enough time to allow her to bring her life to an end. If she was going to do it herself then the river seemed like the best spot. "I always imagined that the best place to die would be in nature," she told me. But it wasn't her time yet. After a little while sitting at the river's edge she pulled a plastic bag over her head and then closed it tightly around her throat. "Everything was going to plan," she said, "and then the weirdest thing happened. I felt these fingers tickling my body, real soft like feathers, and then a voice that said, 'wait, it's not time yet, wait.' So I removed the bag, looked around, saw that no one was there, and now I'm here telling you what happened." I didn't disbelieve her, even if the story stretched my own perception of reality. I believed her; just didn't feel a need to make a big deal out of it. Neither did she. She rang me the day after this happened to see if I could make the trip.
I read her two books while I was there. This meant that I would lay very carefully alongside her on the bed. Even the slightest motion caused her hypersensitive body great pain, and she wished the morphine was stronger. One of the books I read her was set in Afghanistan, and the other was a story of an adventurer who came by a lonely housewife whom he shared an affair with. The affair was brief, but the memory of it lasted long into the lives of each of them. I noticed her expressions come and go as I read to her. Smiling at the escapades of the adventurer and giving away little sighs when I described a camel train in a faraway country. She was still so alive I thought. I loved her, although I didn't show her any of the sorrow I was feeling - that would have to wait.
She'd sleep long at night; this gave me the opportunity to explore the town and meet some people. There was a girl I'd been introduced to by her brother. We hit it off quickly and spent a whole night talking. About four in the morning we discovered through all of our questions and answers that her ex had left her to begin a relationship with my dying friend; turned out he wasn't coping well with death. We agreed that it was a small world. I kissed her on the cheek and never saw her again.
On day four of my trip I became anxious because I knew soon I'd have to return home. She told me that it would be okay. "Everything would be okay," she said. "Don't worry, you'll see, it will turn out just fine." On that same day she told me a doctor was coming in for a special visit to bring some special medicine. I wondered what this meant but didn't think too much about it. I kissed her goodnight at around eight and went to my bunk in a sleep-out to settle for the night. Her family had set up the sleep-out in no time when it had become clear that her illness was terminal, but now it had been a month since she'd slept there - it was easier to nurse her inside. The space was created by attaching a large and durable awning to a caravan, and within this area many of her favourite things had been placed – mostly by her design and orders I guessed; she had a way of getting people to do things. There were books and wind chimes, doilies and tie-dyed curtains, a sandalwood burner, some tropical plants, and a large and comfortable rocking chair where she would spend the afternoon watching the sun go down. There were many things that she loved there. They brought back memories of the seven years we'd spent together; the times when nothing seemed to matter, when we took each day as it was, even within the hardship and the arguments. They always lead to a tearful reconciliation and apologies – it's how life was. She wanted children, I wanted them less, and from that there was the irony of discovering she couldn't have any, while I was in perfect health. It was how love existed for us then. It wasn't always pretty, but it was love. She'd forgiven me for leaving, and we still loved each other, but life had opened different paths for us. There were these thoughts and others that carried me into sleep that night. It was 2 AM when I was woken by her tearful sister. Her simple words were, "she's gone, come and say goodbye because they'll take her away before morning." I walked into the room; her eyes were closed and peaceful. I'd never seen a body before - I never guessed it would be so serene, although I knew deep in me that death wasn't this easy for some. For me it had become a gift; I was lucky, a map had been drawn. I kissed her brow, hugged her sister, and then left the room and walked outside where I cried for two hours; just deep welling tears that didn't hold any painful sorrow. They were simple tears of goodbye.
The next day the funeral arrangements were announced. She was being buried on the Friday, I was leaving on the Saturday - she'd told me it would be okay; "don't worry," she said. "You'll see - it will turn out just fine." I wrote a note which became her eulogy. When I finished writing it I was given a note that she'd written for me. Our thoughts and sentiments resembled each other's very closely – it was like I was reading my own words as I was looking through hers. That felt eerie and strange, although when I thought about it later, it made sense - we'd known each other well. She told me to never lose my innocence, I thanked her for helping me keep it.
Her family wandered around the empty room for the next few days reminiscing in a slow process of clearing. There were a few things she'd left for me; some ornaments, books, old photos and a few CDs. And of course there was the note. I was grateful of everything I'd been given. I knew that she'd been writing a lot too, and asked if I could make some photocopies because I had the idea of writing a story about her one day. They told me that they didn't want it to turn into some kind of morbid treasure hunt. I was hurt by that but I understood and didn't ask again. I wondered if some of her family were still angry at me for leaving her and figured that this was likely so. I supposed that they had accepted me being there because it was a dying wish, but that this was as far as the acceptance went. I think about her family sometimes but I have never contacted any of them again, and none of them have contacted me. I guess death separates as much as it binds. It was a gift for me; that's all I know - one of the greatest gifts I've been given. One which encompassed both her life, and her death.
Short story by Eli
Read 1009 times
Written on 2010-06-01 at 11:46
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