Loving and Being Loved: Conversations with my Dying Friend

“I want you to be around,” whispered her small, mousy voice. She looked up at me with sad, yellow eyes and reached up for a hug.

“Let’s make sure it lasts at least 20 seconds,” I said as we held each other.

“I’m already counting,” she replied. These hugs — the ones that we both knew might be the very last ones we’d share — lasted more like a minute each. She would pet my head, and I’d hold on as tight as I could, being careful to not hurt her frail body.

She passed away last night, but I started this entry over a month ago and have had it saved as a draft. I typed out key phrases and memories from our chats so that I wouldn’t forget anything in my inevitable waves of grief. She was 37 years old.

As I sit down to write about our friendship, part of my brain is worried that by doing so, I’ll be making her death about me, and that I’m being selfish. The more rational part of me knows that this is just part of how I process grief. That, plus crying a hell of a lot. When all is said and done, she was one of my very best friends in this life, and she told me in the end that I was that for her too. I’ve never lost someone so close to me before, much less sat at their bedside while a little more of them wasted away each day. I’m new to this type of mourning. I keep combing over all our conversations from the past couple of months and gleaning new bits of wisdom each time I relive our exchanges.

She was fully transparent with her thoughts and feelings her whole life (for better or worse, just like me) — so I know she wouldn’t mind my sharing the poignant content from our friendship and our final conversations.

Here’s what stands out the most:

It is possible to prioritize the joy of others, even when your body is deteriorating.

This has less to do with the fact that she was dying and more to do with the sort of person she just was. In July, right after I’d moved into a new place, she texted me one day saying that she had a housewarming gift for me. It was time-sensitive that I get it, she explained, because it involved flowers. She wanted me to have some Zen at home, and she was excited to have mustered up the energy to create something new again. She missed her artistic, crafty side and was happy to indulge in it to provide a slice of happiness for me. I cried bittersweet tears when she showed me her gift — she could hardly walk then (due to a tumor on her femur she wasn’t yet aware of), and here she was, wanting to make me feel good.

“I glued a rock to her palms so that she’d be meditating with something grounding,” she explained proudly, knowing I’m a lifelong rock lover and collector. This was a few days before her final birthday. I brought her gifts too, but mine paled in comparison to the love she’d just shown me with hers. I will treasure these mugs and the divine feminine figure forever.
Some part of me was on high alert even then, before the cancer spread and before she was back in the hospital. I must have known, because as these sweet little flowers dried out one by one, I saved them in a plastic bag, fully knowing that I’d be tossing these onto her grave sooner than later.

Photo taken today: ready for her green burial </3

I’ve always known her to be endlessly giving. Over a decade ago, she sat with me in the ER as they x-rayed the torn ligaments in my ankle (a karaoke injury) and encouraged me to stop drinking. Fast forward to 2013, and she was the person who I first opened up to about my home life with my ex (not the one who introduced us…this was 10 years later); of course, she promptly opened my eyes and told me that it was abuse, plain and simple. She never feared wielding that hammer of truth! I needed to hear it. She said I should come stay with her and get out of there, and then she went with me to gather my things from my abusive ex’s apartment. It didn’t go well, but it would’ve been worse had she not come with me. I felt stronger with her there. She felt stronger by being there for someone she loved. I lived on her couch for a while, and we built each other up in many ways. She taught me how to do my makeup for my stage debut as Grisabella the glamour cat, and she gave me her best critiques during my rehearsals. I was a shell of a human then, still trying to remap my neural pathways from a brain injury- and she helped nurse me back to health so that I was brave enough to get on stage as part of my healing process. She took me to a variety cabaret show that I would later help run, and this small act changed my life. We had no idea that 2 years later, I’d be a sword swallower, and to this day, I trace that boldness of mine partially back to her. I used to be terrified of audiences and of what people thought of me. She inspired me when she found her self-confidence in burlesque, and that helped me find my own self-confidence in performance and leadership.

I’ve always tried to return the strength she showed me. I talked with her before and after multiple hospitalizations for her suicidal behavior, through various psychiatric crises, in addition to her experiment with ECT (voluntary shock therapy) for her ongoing severe depression and benzodiazepene-induced neuropathy. I held her later on as she cried about her own narcissistic, abusive ex-boyfriend, and as she told me all about her escape into alcoholism. We spent countless nights on the phone together, picking apart our minds and listening to each other’s analyses of scientific discoveries, illness-related OCD fears, and psychological evaluations of various situations and people. Intense personalities create intense friendships. We never had a chance in hell of being anything but real with each other.

During the dying process, it is normal for one to lose, gain, or rediscover faith.

I first met her right after she had first lost her Christian faith, and it was a traumatic, devastating loss for her. She and I got along as formerly religious atheists/agnostics at the beginning of our friendship, but it always made her sad. In the end, she told me that she believed in something larger than all of us, but that she didn’t know what it was. She said she missed the magic of wondering about what comes after life on earth, and she found comfort and solace in signs from nature and meaningful numbers. I have found myself doing some of the same “magical thinking” she and I spoke about lately. I’m still an atheist (please, pray all you want for her, but know that telling me about it doesn’t comfort me in any way) — and still, I get a little thrill thinking of some part of her being in a parallel universe, a green goddess of nature, frolicking with elephants and flowers in the sunlight. In fact, that is how I will always picture her, and it is how she would want to be remembered. It’s who she was in her heart of hearts.

credit: R.d Wat Photography

It’s always a good idea to take a road trip with a friend, logic be damned.

We had a tendency to take nonsense trips together. The last trip she ever went on with another person was when she joined me on a medical tourism trip to New Mexico, where I have full health coverage. She was on a chemo break and just wanted to GTFO, even if it didn’t make sense for her to be in a bumpy car ride for 20 hours round trip. She asked if I wanted company, because she knew I was going there to get imaging done for cancer screening. My breast was firm and tender, and I was so scared I’d be given the same diagnosis she’d been given (I wasn’t). I also needed an ultrasound to check for ovarian cancer, because all of my lady parts were acting up at once (it was mostly okay after all). I almost decided against her coming along due to the nature of my visit last November, on top of her being in between chemo treatments. She said it didn’t bother her though, and that she wanted to be there for/with me, and her doctor gave her the okay to go.

On the way there, we caught up on everything we’d missed in each other’s lives: family, love, illness, performance, mental health, and more. We drove through a freak thicket of midnight fog just before getting to Albuquerque and laughed at the surreal views of the occasional street light, because everything looked like a UFO in the dense haze with nothing else around for miles. We stared out of the car windows together and looked at the desert landscape, unable to tune out its metaphors and reminders of mortality. I wrote about that trip after we got back and published it here; I can still see her highlights on this piece, and she told me her favorite part was the bit about the eternal love affair between life and death.

The last time I was at her apartment, she showed me that she’d kept the relics of our last absurd road trip together — the now-infamous “frozen ocean” trip to Corpus Christi, TX, in the middle of the winter. Again, we both just needed to get away and create a new memory away from anything that we deemed familiar. We drove on ice the whole time and were still determined to get in the water once we got there. I’m not sure how we didn’t get frostbite. We collected beach rocks and sea stars and shells while there, and we visited the aquarium. I still have my beach rocks too.

These trips are treasured memories, and even though they were both a terrible idea at the time, I’m beyond grateful that we went anyway.

2007. Still just babies, both with opposite relationships with food back then…

End-of-life conversations are poignant and unforgettable, and they change you forever.

The grief cycle as we know it isn’t really a thing — not in the way we think of it, anyway. The Kubler-Ross cycle was originally intended to describe what dying people experience — not the loved ones they leave behind. That’s not to say we don’t all experience a touch or each stage: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; we do, but it isn’t linear. Grief is a strange part of being human. We all go through it differently, and none of us does it well. It’s messy and erratic, and it shakes loose everything we thought we understood about life.
I saw Michelle go through each stage during the past year. I can’t quite wrap my head around how much courage it took for her to embrace each day with hope, even though, as she would say, “There is no cure for stage IV breast cancer, so all I can do is try to give myself a little more time with treatments.” When it came back, the cancer was in her liver (which is a bad place for it to be), but it was nowhere else for a long time. What is it like to know that this thing is lurking inside of you, and that someday it’s probably going to spread and take over? During the final months, the cancer finally spread rapidly. I will never forget how my breath left my body the day she sent me this text:

“I have mets in my spine. :( Still waiting on the pelvis MRI results. Just wanted to tell someone.”

One of the most heartbreaking things I ever heard her say was spoken to a palliative care physician in the hospital:

“I’m beginning to think that the power of positive thinking isn’t as strong as I thought it was.”

She was finally angry. The stages of grief cycled rapidly and erratically each day, and the details of this part are the only thing I won’t be sharing, for the sake of her dignity. She stopped updating people of her status and began isolating. I encouraged her to allow more visitors, but she was self-conscious about her mental confusion and about her jaundice from her liver failing. She eventually said she wanted me to help update Facebook about how she was really doing, and that was the last post that ever came from her account. That night, before I went home, I asked her what I think is the most important question anyone can ponder:

“Do you feel loved?”

I held my breath. I knew that she’d felt lonely a lot in her life, and that she would always tell the complete truth, for better or worse. I was terrified she’d say no.

“Yes. I really do feel loved.”

I wept silently with relief, and only then did I realize that this is all that really matters to us in the end — not impotent fears about wrinkles or job loss or psych meds or money problems — we all just want to love and be loved in return, as the song goes.

Different types of love fulfill different, necessary roles in life (and death).

Yesterday, my brain finally hooked onto something it hadn’t grasped before — the fact is, Michelle and I weren’t the type of friends who had shared a lot of goofy fun together. I watched as photos and stories poured in from those who got to be with the brightest parts of her, and I questioned whether I had the right to be grieving her as much as I am. This was a bit different than survivor’s guilt. We’d had a friendship that involved us dancing in and out of each other’s lives — not always gracefully — for 13 years. We had each been there for the really raw parts of our lives, but it wasn’t exactly a trauma bond. We met through our exes, who were cousins. At the time, we were the ages of 21 and 24, and we were both going through some of the hardest times a human can experience. When you find a kindred spirit and you’re a turbulent 20-something, it’s hard not to talk late into the night about how you both “get it.” This trend continued the rest of our time together.

They were eerily similar difficulties, at that: we both had debilitating OCD, we had both gone through hell and back with benzodiazepene withdrawal syndrome, our peculiar family backgrounds were alike, and we were both scientifically-minded and had been forced to be our own medical advocates from an early age. Our struggles with crippling anxiety and depression were matched in intensity, and so were our twin abilities (and desires) to dig deep for self reflection and analysis, even though it was hard. It was the only way to heal, and we both knew it. Know thyself.

She was the Ruth to my Idgie. We had both been through some shit, and we lifted each other up with mutual empowerment.

We knew ourselves and each other — perhaps better than any others knew us. In fact, we had a hard time being in each other’s lives consistently when things were going well. We went a couple of long stretches without being in contact, and it was during those times that we were each living our best lives. We both always knew that the other was out there somewhere, doing what she needed to do, and it felt good to know that somebody else in this great big world got it. (I will miss that feeling.) We were always happy for each other’s successes, because we were both acutely aware that those were hard-earned times of happiness. I found the following message from her in my messenger app, which dates back to April 7, 2016:

“ I didn’t contact you hoping to develop an instant friendship or with the thought of anything like that.

I contacted you because I was so moved at how happy you appeared to be and how you have made so much progress in healing and because I hated how things were left between us. So I wanted to reach out and tell you because I believe that communication is so crucial and healthy and we should definitely tell people good things when we think them. As a whole we seem to be so eager to speak when something is bothering us and tend to hold back on sharing when we feel the positive feels. Like you said in your blog, be you. Be your authentic self. Be personal. That is how I am too. I also forever value the people I have loved and continue to love them even if the circumstances are we never see one another. I don’t get close to many people. It is a big deal to me.”

At that time, we hadn’t been in contact for about a year and a half. We wished each other well, expressed genuine happiness for one another, and went our separate-ish ways with only love and zero conflict. It would be another 2 years before we exchanged another message, and this was after I found out she had gotten (and beat) breast cancer — but that it had come back in her liver at stage 4. I found out through a mutual friend, but I didn’t want to be that person who contacts someone just because they’ve experienced something like that. After careful consideration, I knew she would know my care extends far beyond that, and I sent her the following on July 4, 2018:

“Hey Michelle.

I hope it’s okay that I’m messaging you. I really just wanted to say hi and let you know you’re in my thoughts a lot, FWIW. I didn’t have any idea you’ve been going through all of this until [mutual friend] told me.
I’m so sorry you’ve been experiencing this, but I’m glad it seems you have loving people (and animals) by your side.

I don’t want to create a trauma bond or just focus on the bad stuff that’s happening, so I will add that I’ve thought of you a lot over the years regardless of health, etc.

I’m sending you positive, healing vibes, and I hope that you smile today. I will if you will. :)

All the best,
Rachael”

Two months later (on September 6, 2018), we were grabbing lunch together for the first time in years. We had no way to know that one year and two days after that, she would be gone. It could’ve happened sooner or later than it did, and we still wouldn’t have been ready.
Neither of us knew then that I’d be requested and allowed at her side during the last weeks, holding her hand, chatting with her about life, the universe, and everything, and of course, exchanging those nice long hugs. Who knew it’d be me — especially when so many others who’d been there for the good stuff were not allowed this same privilege? After the cancer spread outside her liver, she told me I’m the first person she tells all her medical things. That’s when it finally clicked and I saw clearly what she needed from me, and I knew I needed to jump in- into the deep end together one last time. She said since I’d already seen every side of her, she wanted me to be there for this part too. She knew I would neither run away nor expect anything from her that she didn’t have the energy for.

Needless to say, I felt honored, and I still do. I can only hope that I did right by her in return. I’m still wrestling with it, but in the end, we realized we were both like the sisters the other had never had. Maybe that’s the role we fulfilled for one another: true grit, and the best hugs that ever existed. When the chips are down — really down — you never know who or what you will have the energy for. There was no pretense, no distraction from the impending doom, and no bullshit.

We were fearless in opposite/complementary ways. She had a calculated grace about her, and I always came in skidding with bruises and skinned knees. We shared some specific kinds of pain, but that means we also shared some specific levels of joy that can only be felt and understood if you’re familiar with rock bottom. I won’t pretend our friendship was a flawless story — that would do it an injustice. It was no disco party or carefree fairytale. It was more like a lifelong Day of the Dead celebration, full of dark jokes and eerie chatter. She held my hand as I got screening done for cancer, and I held her hand as she died from it. When the energy was there for words to be spoken, they were beautiful and tragic and existential. I’m just glad we got so much valuable time together, and all I can do now is share the love she shared with me.

2006 and 2018. Goodnight, sweet friend. I love you.

Sociologist / mental health blogger / sword swallower [timepiece324@gmail.com]

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