When you and everyone around you is acutely aware that you’re dying, you suddenly feel free to say really overblown pretentious shit. I love that part of it. You can be as ostentatious as you like, stare up at ceilings and declare your grievances to an indifferent God, flip your scarf around like an aging dowager in a freezing manse, and nobody is gonna tell you to quit it, nor are they gonna shuffle away the way they did when you were just a fucking weird teen and nobody wanted to sit with you at lunch.
What was once pathetic and cringe-inducting becomes weighted with profundity, and where once there was a din of chatter and mundanity, there is a still vacuum. And you can stand in the center of it and declare really pointless and seat-of-the-pants shit, like that rain has never felt like baptism, it’s felt to you only like you’re getting dirtier, and that you happily await the day when you will be bone dry, dead and returned to dust, and instead of twitching an eyebrow and looking away from you, people just nod.
When you’re really obviously dying, the people who love you look at you, hard, like they’re trying to crystalize a good picture of you in their memories. Even if they know damn well there’s no good memories left. Certainly no good images coming. It would be better for them to go back to the start of things, watch a few Youtube videos I made when I was young and sprightly and my skin wasn’t grey. But instead they look at me, the real, dying me, directly, their eyes boring holes into my brain, their blinks like camera shutters, even though of course cameras don’t work like that anymore, never have, not since I’ve been alive.
But still, I let them try to capture me. I want them to feel like they tried their hardest. That way, when I’m gone, they can feel as little guilt as possible. I am being selfish by making them listen to me prattle on and read my fucking awful poetry; letting them have some closure in return is just fair.
I had this friend, Lira. When we were young, she would lay in bed next to me and hold my hand and stare at the popcorn ceiling of her grandparents’ summer house and listen to the crickets a while and then she’d say, “Hey. Hold on. Let’s make a memory.”
And then we’d wait, and I would squint and try to suck every minute detail of our reality into my mind while her bare flat chest rose and fell. Now my life is somewhat like that. Really it’s exactly like that. One person is saying some precious overly self-important shit, and somebody else is pressed close to them, trying to freeze reality, trying to shore up as many details as possible, because it’s so fleeting.
Yesterday my mother made me scrambled eggs and tapioca pudding. Soft slippery things like that are all I can keep down. Even pure liquids are difficult. Really all I can withstand is goo. So she brought me this sad plastic plate — it had Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast on it, it was an old plate — and said to me, “Bon appetite.”
And I took the plate into my sad little blue finger-nailed paw-hands and said, “There are no good appetites.”
And she just looked down at me in mute horror and nodded and didn’t walk away. So I felt like I had to keep talking. I said, “Desire is the creation of a void. There is no discrepancy, no absence of anything, until we create an artificial reality in our minds that is more desired than the one that we have.”
My mom is an administrative assistant for a company that delivers gravel to work sites. She has a stuffed Garfield with suction cup hands stuck to the passenger side window of her car. She has a perm and clip-on gold button earrings that she bought at a garage scale in 1999. Never in my life has she understood the wack-ass shit I say.
But this time, she just handed me a plastic fork and a napkin and ran her palm over my fuzzy, baby-duck hair, which was coming back in since the chemo had stopped.
“Oh honey,” she said. “I think you might be on to something. We should all just be grateful for what we have.”
As she walked away, I almost barked at her, “Are you thankful for this? Are you really mom?”
But I stopped myself. That was something the old, direct me would say. I was so lacking in nuance. I was all text, no subtext. Instead, I called to her, “This is the only life we were ever going to live! I can see no other reality!”
And I really think that Lira would have been happy with me saying that.
— — –
But I can’t ask Lira what she thinks. I know she won’t visit the hospital. Or the hospice. Or probably even the grave. Years ago, now, her grandparents caught her dressed like the girl that she was, and she had to run out into the cornfields. She got rained on, then she hitched a ride with a woman in a van. The woman in the van had a trunk full of rugs and hand-knitted scarves and sweaters. She was headed to Ann Arbor to sell her wares at a big craft festival. She was kind, and inept, with white person dreadlocks, and she drove Lira all the way into the city. Even bought her a few meals at iHop and the gas stations she stopped at on the way. At the craft fair, Lira found a couple of lute players who took her in, and gave her a job at their coffee shop. And now she has lived a whole second life, and she’s fine.
Fed, employed, and comfortable, Lira put on some weight. None of it ever went to her chest. She sent me emails that were looping, recursive, and as nonsensical as the screeds I’m constantly spewing now. She sent me actual letters, too, on pale pink card stock with little ducks and herons embroidered on them; they smelled like cheap Britney Spears perfume, which Lira had hoarded from her K-mart shoplifting days. In the letters her handwriting was swirly and hypnotic. It was hard to read at times, to be honest. She used this strange green gel-pen ink. It created, on the pink paper, the overall impression of a lush Victorian garden, one that happened to be inhabited by waitresses who wear Britney Spears perfume.
I came to admire Lira’s new life, even if I resented her for fleeing and never coming back. She told me she was taking up painting. She told me she was taking a family accounting class. Then another. Soon she was some kind of account-advisor lady, for poor families on the fringes of the city. A small picture was attached to one of the emails. In it, she was wearing a pale grey tweed suit. And plastic pearls. And pink pearl earrings. Unironically. She looked like some broke, estranged Kennedy with hands that reeked of cigarettes. I loved her, I loved her, I knew I would never see her again. By then I had found the lump in my throat.
Her family would never understand her. And my offers of a place for her to stay when she visited home fell on deaf ears. I’d ask directly sometimes, and she’d skirt the topic entirely, write me an entire poem about lentils or field mice, mail me a sachet of mint and an antique stamp of a woman on a preposterous looking bicycle.
And once I became ill, the letters from Lira got sparser. She had a boyfriend. A boyfriend! She never liked boys. Life changes change you. She said that. Well, she wrote it. It was written on the back cover of some 1960’s pulp novel about bisexual lizard women. “I have a husband! I’m not a wild and free gecko climbing the thighs of the world anymore! Life changes change you!”
She and him rented a little flat with split baseboards. She painted the grooves in between them with bright, electric blue paint and mailed me photographs. One of them ended up in a literary magazine. I mailed her one of my hospital wristbands, with a clover flower looped through one of the holes. I got a peeling old book full of Jell-O recipes in response.
I called her. We never called. No one our age ever calls. She was so busy. Full time job. She was out at work and nobody was all that cruel to her. She got electrolysis. My hand got numb. I could not write actual letters back. My brain became foggy. She stopped writing except for birthdays and holidays. Not our actual birthdays or holidays we actually observed. Things like Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, and Carnivale. On the day that I found out the cells had moved to my brain, I received a glass box from her, full of feathers and stones.
I got sick of it, if I’m being honest with you. I would email her a picture of myself in a gown and tell her very directly what was happening, what I was on, what the doctor’s expectations were, and she wouldn’t reply for ages. Then two weeks later I’d receive a foam ball covered in googly eyes, with a toothpick sticking out of it. On the toothpick there would be a little flag made out of a Post-it note.
“Keep your eyez on the prize! $$$$,” she’d write, in that gorgeous, unstable script.
I couldn’t handle it at the time. I wasn’t accustomed to impending death yet, and I was bitter, because I hadn’t yet realized all the advantages being a near-ghostly can give you. What I really wanted, in the darkest corner of me, was to steal my sister’s Jeep and steer it directly onto the highway. I’d go up, up, up to Michigan, and make a beeline straight for Ann Arbor. In my imagination I wore diapers like that crazed former astronaut who stalked her ex across the state of Florida for days.
In this fantasy I didn’t eat, I just drank milkshakes with fruit mix-ins, bought from a drive thru McDonalds in a pit stop halfway there. . Somehow I would use my phone to look up her work address while I was driving. Late in the afternoon while the sky was darkening I would cross the parking lot on foot, shaking my fist and spitting invectives.
“I know you’ve suffered, Lira!” I’d say. “But can’t you see that this is it? Actually it? This is not a game! It’s not a game! I am dying! I was there for you, really there! I’m still here! I still love you, so much!”
And I’d throw my shirt open and beat at my clammy chest, finally flat like hers in my sickness. My skin would glisten like a thawing frozen turkey and I’d scream, “Please! See me! See me! See me!”
And then, even in my imagination, in my grandest fantasy, my legs would buckle and my head would smack the ground and open like a rotted melon onto the pavement, spilling brains out.
But all I really did was email Lira, telling her she was a “fucking schizotypal narcissist” who needed to “quit it” and “stop straining so hard to be the cutest little fairy girl in the world, okay”.
And then she never wrote me back.
— — –
It wasn’t until the cancer in my brain got pretty bad, and I lost a bit of myself in surgery, that I started to understand. I was awake as they cut into me, a futile attempt from the start, and a nurse in pink scrubs was showing me black-and-white flash cards with images, words, and math problems. I was supposed to stare straight at the images and give correct answers, or describe what I saw.
They had to be certain they weren’t damaging my brain’s linguistic centers while they zapped the little cancer bugs away. I had to be in good working order otherwise there’d be no reason to save me. If the cancer was too closely tied to the parts of me that gave me coherence, they’d have to just let me die.
I think that would have made Lira mad. She’d rather have a half-brained, zombiefied, chaotic me that lived forever rather than one who is sensible and very near death.
Anyway, the nurse was holding up a card with a silhouette of a man walking a dog. The man was a shadow, the dog was scruffy and large. Both were in profile and walking on a hastily drawn sidewalk that faded into splotchy nothingness on the edges. A single tree spread grey limbs into squirts of cloudy ink in the distance.
“What do you see?” the nurse said. Her voice was flat, it didn’t really have the inflection a question, but you’re supposed to end questions with question marks when you write.
“A shadow man and a dog,” I said.
She started to nod and pull the card from the front of the stack.
“A long plane of thin shadow, reaching out to the ends of the earth,” I said. My voice was oddly monotone now, too. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the surgery on my brain or because I was mocking her. “A small black cauliflower arising from the void, reaching into the next dimension. The shadow man is headed into the edge. But when he and his beast get there, will he go to the other side?”
The nurse blinked at me.
“Or will he be free?”
And surgery stopped right then.
For hours afterward I was quizzed and gently questioned and touched on the arm and made to stare into flashlights, but nobody could make sense of what the hell was wrong with me. I remember grinning so hard for so long that my teeth were completely dry. I knew the date and how to draw a clock. I could name myself and my mom and the President. I could do my times tables. I was not upset.
But I also would not shut the fuck up with irrelevancies. The clock I drew was filled with black cats. The President was deserving of a short atonal song complete with thigh slapping. When they gave me a sheet of multiplication problems to complete, I transformed each (absolutely correct) numerical answer into a house, a tree, a person, a boat, and then filled in all the spaces with other tiny number-figures, until the whole sheet was a vast birds-eye-view of a heavily populated town, looking something like a Where’s Waldo page. And then I asked for colored pencils.
They brought me soft foods and considered administering a sedative. My brain was all stitched up. I thought it looked kind of excellent. My mom was crying. My sister was staring out the window, hair limp and covering her face. But I tried to stand up and as I feel onto the tile, my ass exposed to the frigid recycled air, I was telling them that this would really be a good look, just wait, once my stitches were rainbow-colored and bright and the gaps in my flesh were filled in with colored mosaic cement then I’d really be striking, I’d really be something, it would be a great way to die.
— — –
The tests were conclusive. There was no sensible biological reason for me to be like that. A psychiatric evaluation suggested that my ridiculous demeanor was the result of an anxiety or perseveration, but he couldn’t say why it manifested the way that it had. The nurses grumbled about it in the hallway, leaning over Styrofoam cups of coffee, dissatisfied with his open ignorance.
“Who’s to say how people choose how to cope?” he said. He was a really pleasant guy. Bald like Mr. Clean. “We just know she’s getting something out of it.”
I was. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen. I said that I finally understood my friend Lira. If I could have just been like this sooner, we could have been a team. Just us against the world. But my words didn’t interest them. When you’re crazy you’re no longer allowed to be self-aware. The psychiatrist smiled and sat down close. He was willing to let my words wash over him. But the nurses were really afraid I was gonna become An Issue, so I stopped talking like that.
It took a death sentence but now I can be like her. I went home to wait out the neurological storm. A few more visits, a home nurse, some scans. It was clear my brain hadn’t been damaged, not by the surgery. It was just a matter of time before the malignance took up too much space, though, made my tongue sluggish, turned the words “love” and “sad’ into “refrigerator” and “salad”, made swallowing hard.
So I decided to get every last honest word out of me. I’d be direct all my life. But I’d always been afraid to share my weirder ideas. I called people over. I threw a party. I wore a frilly pink dress that made me look like an anime maid, with big yellow novelty sunglasses. People held disposable champagne glasses filled with screwdrivers and chortled uneasily. The room felt very full but also very empty, because I no longer had peripheral vision.
“Never focus on the foggy things on the side,” I told everybody. My words were slurring. “But, fuck, don’t focus on that less blurry shit swirling right in front of you either. Focus on making it focus on you.”
And everyone seemed a bit uneasy, but they didn’t look away, so I asked for a slice of red velvet cake and a piece of printer paper. And I smashed the crimson into the cheap, heavy stock and it looked like blood and foam, something Lira would appreciate, so I requested a padded envelope.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.