I did a very stupid thing, my friend says. She looks bad to me, haggard and jaundiced, though probably not worse than the last time I saw her. New: a tremor in her hands, and from time to time just talking leaves her short of breath.
You’re allowed, I say—then immediately worry that she’ll think I meant because you’re dying.
She had agreed to do a radio podcast in which she would respond to questions about what it was like to be terminally ill. A social worker at the hospital had somehow got her to do it, she says, and she should have known it was a mistake. It had gone badly, she says, off the rails as she put it, partly because she was in pain, and she was also lightheaded from not eating, she said, she hadn’t been able to keep anything down that day, and she should have known how irritating the questions would be. Or, even if they weren’t truly irritating, how likely she’d be to find them so.
Too late to do anything about it now, she says glumly.
So what, who cares? I say—and again I wish I could unsay it, fearing that she’ll hear you’re dying.
You’re right, she says. I shouldn’t give a fuck. But when your time is short and you spend any of it badly—you waste any of it doing something stupid—well it sucks. Not to mention not wanting one of your last impressions this side of paradise to be falling flat on your face.
I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think, I say—sincerely: I have never known her to give a bad impression in public.
I have forgotten to set the scene. We are at a bar. Before coming to visit a few days ago, she had specifically asked if we could meet here, at this bar where we used to hang out often, sometimes every night of the week, when we were roommates (along with one other woman with whom we’ve both long since lost touch) in a nearby tenement. My friend has been staying at a hotel, insisting that she prefers a hotel room to being anyone’s house guest, though she doesn’t particularly like hotels she has always abhorred being a house guest, and even though she has several close friends who live here and the main purpose of this trip is to spend time with them, and, if she isn’t feeling too weak—and if my heart can stand it, she said—to visit a few places that had special meaning for her, from the days when she lived here too. Our meeting at the bar, our having drinks together, will be the only time we see each other before she goes back home.
It used to be a dive, aswarm with barflies, serving cheap drinks, the only food a few prepackaged bar snacks. There was a pool table and a vintage Wurlitzer and of course you could smoke, which pretty much everyone, including the two of us, did. Now gentrified along with the neighborhood, it has an oversized binder of overpriced wines, a stale-looking tapas buffet where the pool table once stood, and a loud, jazzy playlist. There is a TV screen above either end of the bar, each on mute and tuned to a different station, one news, one sports.
The only business on the block to have survived all these years—and doing quite well, from the size of the crowd—if with every ounce of character erased. This we deplore; this we mourn. But it is still holy ground of our youth, from where how many times did we stumble home, propping each other up, more than once stopping so one or the other could vomit between parked cars. You know she’s your girlfriend when she holds the hair out of your face while you puke. We’ll drink to that.
I will not go out in mortifying anguish.
I am not surprised to hear her say this. First of all, it’s something she has said before. I had an idea that I understood, that I had accepted that probably this was how it would be. But a whole other feeling floods me now when she reveals that she is in possession of a euthanasia drug.
I don’t know what to say.
I’m hoping you’ll say yes.
To my asking for your help.
My hel—? My larynx spasms, causing me to gulp cartoonishly. And her to smile.
I’m not talking about help dying, she says. I know what to do. It’s not complicated.
What is complicated is what should happen between now and then.
First of all, she says, I can’t say for sure how much time that will be.
Understood that she wants to suffer as little as possible.
But I also want things to be as calm as possible, she says. I want everything to be in good order.
She wants to go somewhere, she says. I don’t mean travel. Travel would be a distraction. That’s not what I’m looking for. And if I did go back to some place that I loved or where I was very happy (Greece, for example, where she’d had the romance of her life, or Buenos Aires, where she’d had her best-ever vacation)—well, you know what they say. Never return to a place where you were really happy, and in fact that’s a mistake I’ve already made once in my life, and then all my beautiful memories of the first time were tainted.
I could have told her that I’ve made that mistake too. More than once.
Not that she’d be against taking some little trip, she says. But what I really want is to find some quiet place, it doesn’t have to be far away—in fact it shouldn’t be too far—and it doesn’t have to be anything particularly special, just somewhere I can be peaceful and do the last things that need to be done. And think my last thoughts, she adds as her breath runs out. Whatever they might be.
I relax my grip on my glass. So all she’s asking is for me to help her find this ideal place. I ask her whether she’s sure about wanting to be in a strange place rather than home.
I think it will make it easier, she says. So long as it’s a comfortable, safe, attractive place. I’ve done a lot of my best work—my best thinking—away from home, on visiting fellowships, for example, on meditation retreats, even in hotels. I think it will be easier to prepare—to focus on letting go—if I’m someplace where I won’t be surrounded by intimate, familiar things, all those reminders of attachments, and so on.
Of course I could be wrong, she says, and this could all turn out to be some kind of fantasy. But I’ve thought a lot about it, and it feels right to me. Am I making any sense?
I think so, I say. And you need my help finding a place, or helping you get settled in?
No, she says. I can do that myself. I’ve already started looking.
She lays one palm flat on the table and presses her other hand on top of it to quell—or hide—the tremor.
What I need is someone to be there with me, she says. I’ll want some solitude, of course, it’s what I’m used to, after all, what I’ve always craved—dying hasn’t changed that. But I can’t be completely alone. I mean, this is a new adventure—who can say what it will really be like. What if something goes wrong? What if everything goes wrong? I need to know there’s someone in the next room.
Epic struggle to keep my composure, to choose my words.
I agree, I say. You shouldn’t be alone.
But, I ask her after a pause, wouldn’t it be more comforting to have someone there who was closer to her? Someone from her family? Back in the days when we’d haunted this bar we might have been joined at the hip, but although we’d always stayed in touch she and I had gone our very separate ways over these many long years, and what she appears to be asking is baffling to me. Plus I’m still trying to absorb the shock of her revelation about the drug.
Someone from my family, she repeats flatly. Well, that would be my daughter—I don’t have any other close family members—and I couldn’t possibly ask her, it wouldn’t be right. It’s not just that she and I are anything but comfortable with each other. But precisely because of that—because our relationship has always been so troubled—to be blunt, it would be too much of a mindfuck. She might agree, out of a sense of duty. But given the hostility she’s always had toward me, I don’t know how she’d ever cope with her feelings. No, I don’t see how I can justify putting her in such a position. And there’s the added complication of her being the main beneficiary of my will.
Our waiter approaches to ask whether we’d like another round, ignoring that my friend’s glass is still full. (This is just for show, she’d said earlier, waving a hand over her gin and tonic. I can’t drink on these meds. You’ll have to drink for both of us.) My own glass was drained some time ago and no sooner is the waiter gone than I reach for hers. For a moment she watches me with an amused expression, then says, I know your feelings won’t be hurt when I say that you weren’t my first choice.
Her two closest friends have said no. They could never be a part of any kind of assisted dying, they told her, not even indirectly. Even though they understood why she had come to such a decision and how much they, too, did not want her to suffer, they could never stand by while she took her own life, they would try to stop her. No, they said. No. No.
This is how it is with people, she tells me now. No matter what, they want you to keep fighting. This is how we’ve been taught to see cancer: a fight between patient and disease. Which is to say between good and evil. There’s a right way and a wrong way to act. A strong way and a weak way. The warrior’s way and the quitter’s way. If you survive you’re a hero. If you lose, well, maybe you didn’t fight hard enough. You wouldn’t believe all the stories I get about this or that person who refused to accept the death sentence they got from those nasty stupid doctors and was rewarded with many,
many more years of life. People don’t want to hear terminal, she says. They don’t want to hear incurable, or inoperable. They call that defeatist talk. They say insane things like As long as you stay alive there’s a chance. And Medical miracles happen every day—as if they’d been keeping track. They say, If you just hang in there, who knows, they might find a cure. I never knew that so many smart, educated people were under the illusion that a cure for cancer is just around the corner.
Not that I think they all really believe what they’re saying, she goes on, but they obviously believe it’s what they should say. Quite a few people tried to convince me not to stop working. You have to make every effort, she says those people said to her, you have to keep working. You have to carry on was what they meant, she says. Carry on as if all were well and maybe then all will be well. Like, fake it till you make it, says my friend, laughing herself out of breath. Chemo might give you acne and a mouth full of sores, but you must keep putting on lipstick.
The only way people seem able to deal with this disease is to make it a hero narrative, she says. Survivors are heroes, unless they’re kids, in which case they’re superheroes, and even doctors, who are just doing their goddamn job, are said to be taking heroic measures. But why should cancer be some kind of test of a person’s mettle? I can’t tell you how much trouble I’ve had with that, she says. There’s almost nothing anyone’s said to me that hasn’t been some banality or cliché. I quit social media because I had to get away from all the noise. Some of the worst comes from the cancer support community— think of your cancer as a gift, an opportunity for spiritual growth, for developing resources you never knew you had, think of cancer as a step in the journey to becoming your best self. I mean, seriously. Who wants to die listening to that crap.
An exaggerated shuddering motion as she catches her breath.
There comes a point, she goes on, when, if it’s really what you want to hear, your doctor will give it to you straight. Incurable. Inoperable. Terminal. Personally, she says, though no one ever uses it I prefer the word fatal. Fatal is a good word. Terminal makes me think of bus stations, which makes me think of exhaust fumes and creepy men prowling for runaways. But back to what I was saying: I’ve done my research. I know what I’m in for if I let nature run its course. Palliative care can only do so much. I don’t see the point of lingering in hospice, getting more and more helpless until I can’t do anything for myself anymore. People ought to be able to understand that this is my way of fighting, she says. Cancer can’t get me if I get me first. And what’s the sense in waiting, she says, when I’m ready to go. What I need now is someone who understands all this and who’ll promise to stand by me and not go and do something idiotic like flush the pills down the toilet while I’m asleep.
It occurred to me, she says, that maybe I should look for someone who’s not so close to me right now, someone I trust but who I’m not used to seeing all the time and who’s not used to seeing me. There was another old friend who came to mind who happens also to be a doctor and who in many ways would’ve been ideal. But she can’t just leave her practice. That’s been another consideration, my friend says: people have jobs.
Including me. But, as my friend is quick to mention, it’s summertime. School is out.
I say, for something to say, that I wish we weren’t in a public place.
Ah, but that was deliberate, she says. I thought it would keep us from getting—overemotional. But also, I couldn’t resist when I thought of that time you and I sat right here in this bar and discussed this very subject.
I have no idea what she’s talking about.
Introduction to Ethics. You don’t remember? The professor divided the class into pairs, and each pair had to debate a given ethical question. Ours was on the right to die. Sanctity of life versus quality of life. We worked on it together over a couple of pitchers of beer. Remember? You argued that a person had a right to take their own life under any circumstances, not just in terminal cases. It was the individual’s business and nobody else’s, least of all the state’s. I remember that this made me nervous, she says, because back then you were depressed a lot and you could also be very impulsive, and hearing you argue so passionately for suicide freaked me out.
I am so stunned I almost jump to my feet. Not that I haven’t seen it before: a person tells a story from the past that they vividly recall when in fact the story is completely invented. And not that I think my friend is lying; on the contrary, I know that she has just spoken in all innocence. I know that what’s happened is this: her imagination has supplied her with a memory to help make a particular way of thinking about a traumatic situation more coherent. It’s perfectly likely that she and I once discussed the question of a person’s right to die. It’s more than likely that I’d taken the position that she said I had. Maybe I really was the chronically depressed and impulsive young woman that she recalled. But she and I had never worked together in this bar or anywhere else on any such course assignment. I have never taken Introduction to Ethics.
All of which, however, I leave unsaid. Indeed, I don’t say anything about anything. I am not feeling well. Two drinks guzzled in a row. But it’s not just the alcohol that’s making the room spin.
I know what you’re thinking, she says. You’re thinking, I can’t believe we’re having this conversation! It’s a big thing I’m asking, I know. A huge responsibility. You don’t have to give me an answer now. Unless, of course, you can?
I shake my head. Seeing how hesitant I am she says, Oh, come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?
To which I can only shake my head again.
All right then, she says. I’ll be going home tomorrow. I’ll call you when I get there.
As we are walking out of the bar I stop and say I’d better go to the restroom.
Are you going to be sick? she asks.
Maybe, I say over my shoulder.
Do you want me to hold your hair?
From the book WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH. Copyright ©2020 by Sigrid Nunez. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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