My friend is dying.
In a more abstract sense we’re all dying but her timeline is much shorter. Than what, I’m not sure. It’s daily roulette, for all of us. Most days there is one in the chamber. Then some Tuesday morning you wake up to all six and if you’re lucky it’s so fast you don’t have time to utter ‘fuck’ before you’re dust. It’s a special, providential punishment, I think, when you have time between the trigger-pull and the hammer-click, space for regrets.
‘Live each day like you’re dying’. This is very bad advice. I would be alone and possibly incarcerated, facing a handful of defamation suits and certainly one count of arson. But the sentiment is brave, prismatic, and wise. When you’re dying, and reach the horizon of your last days, there is a freedom that cannot be found in any other circumstances. The moment approaching is not a cancelled appointment, a break-up, a flight. There are no take-backs or changes, no later departures. Whatever we have done or not done, the consequences will be someone else’s belongings to clear out. We can live vibrantly and unafraid, knowing this. We can whisper truths like an oracle, and if we can’t mend regrets, we can at least own them, show them to our loved ones like an ugly necklace or a bad haircut and say, “Don’t. Don’t own these things. Don’t settle; find those beautiful things you’ve always wanted.”
Does Natalie have regrets? Until last week, not really. A lousy boyfriend. Early-twenties credit card debt; these weren’t regrets, just the uncomfortable chiseling away that turns us into adults. No, no regrets. If anything, since her diagnosis, she was living more, better. She joined a local meet-up. We took weekend road trips. She bought lush wigs in ombre colors; violet to lavender that made her look like a fantasy Disney princess with her pointed chin and little elfin ears poking through. She got a tattoo. Natalie poked her breast when the bandage came off, laughing. “No one can say I’ll regret it when I’m older!” Her laughter was genuine. Mine was not.
So she was living big and not having regrets. Last Sunday, for the first time, she couldn’t get out of bed. She just frowned at me and at her body, and we both stood there in her frilled white bedroom perplexed like there was no good reason that her leg muscles had become noodles.
If you just help me up, she decided. Once I’m going, I can keep going.
Natalie told me this, but she didn’t tell her body. Or if she did, it didn’t listen. She was almost on the floor before I caught her. This, for me, is the hardest stage. Her mind does not have cancer. It is sharp and vital, capable of mathematical calculations and composing dirty poems with a rather clever rhyme scheme. It’s my friend’s mind, but it’s inside a corpse.
Her breathing has become more labored. It’s only obvious when she speaks in long sentences which she hardly does because fatigue has come to stay. That’s unfair because this is the hour when she needs long sentences, a whispered hush of the confessional. It’s how hope and wisdom and even regret is transferred before death, a sort of verbal last will.
Does she have regrets?
Of course. And she’s at the edge of the horizon, where she can admit them.
I finish changing her socks, pretending that the individual rainbow toes don’t weird me out, and then I sit and hold her hand. Do you want to tell me?
She nods. Matt.
I remember the summer of Matt, though his name and that summer left the encyclopedia of my life years go. But not Natalie’s, and I feel kind of like a traitor for my lack of solidarity. It’s been bothering her, eating a hole somewhere in her heart. As her best friend, I feel it should have eaten mine, too.
Nat and Matt. They were romance reality tv for our friend group. Steam, drama, tears, tenderness. They were circa 2006 relationship goals. And just when we were all so invested and ready for season three and even a grand finale, it fell apart. Love turned to hate like frost spreading up a window pane. Why seemed very simple to me at the time because I had a clear Side. I was on Natalie’s side and with clear loyalties came a clear grudge: whatever she was upset about.
From here, the Many Outrages were committed. Showing up at our bar with another girl. A house party where, for the forty-three minutes we stuck it out, Matt pretended Natalie didn’t exist. He shook hands with the guy beside her. He said hello to a sweaty-faced blonde girl who had already vomited in the kitchen before we left. His eyes passed over Natalie like she was already dead.
Vitriolic emails. Scathing MySpace messages. They must have matured a little, or at least modernized because their Taylor-Burton drama moved over to more grownup Facebook. Then it stopped. But it didn’t end. Natalie spent the summer on a thrift-store sofa in our apartment. Like that sofa, she lived in shreds. She worked. She ate if I fed her. Sometimes she put her head in my lap and I played with her hair sympathetically while not feeling very sympathetic. In the way only a best friend is allowed to think things, I thought she was dumb for being sad about Matt Whatshisname, of all people. By the end of July, sometimes I worried about leaving her for the weekend. I called her mom. Things got regular, but not better.
Has he written you? Have you written him?
She laid on that ratty green and orange brocade sofa and just shook her head. It could have been a No, an I Don’t Know.
It got better but not for a long time. We skipped our ritual of Trashed Thanksgiving. It involves filling a turkey with a bottle of bourbon and some other retrospectively questionable events. Christmas at the Sterling cabin was cancelled. But it got better somewhere.
Natalie had other boyfriends. None of them were serious, or spectacular. We didn’t care if they got renewed and none of them did. Natalie was never very broken up after, not enough to miss our raging-lush holidays.
So what about Matt does she regret?
“I never wrote him back”. Natalie admits this to her lap, to the pink roses of her shabby chic comforter.
I didn’t know he’d ever written. It probably wasn’t sincere. One note after all of his crap…?
Proof of contrition is thin, in my opinion.
“Oh, lots of times. Three or four a week. He called, too. Maybe once a month, until I blocked his number.”
I’ve only just remembered this person but my annoyance is equal to years of being deceived. What did he say? What did he want? Nothing good, obviously, because she never answered.
“To get back together. To be forgiven. To explain. Just sit and talk.”
“And? He called you names or insulted your mom. Right?”
She looks thin and insubstantial. “Sometimes he begged. It was awful.”
I don’t have to ask why. She knows what’s rattling in my brain.
“I was just so fucking angry. For months, I didn’t exist anymore. Then he wanted to be sorry.”
Was he sorry?
She nods. He sent a birthday gift. He sent a Christmas card. “But he wasn’t sorry enough.”
Tears paint her cheeks. It’s more than mellow anguish. She’s too exhausted for sobs I know she feels inside. I wanted him to feel how I felt. To wait and wait and hope. The small blue and white crescents of her eyes where they show through drooping lids are bright with sorrow and shame. “I’m a horrible person. Maybe that’s why I got sick.”
I get angry. I present exhibits A through R on why she is not a bad person and that cell mutation and genetics are not the karmic result of a single unkind act.
“So it was unkind.” She looks victorious.
“It was, but you don’t get to scapegoat it.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Write him back! Do you have his email? We can find it. We can find a number. You can fix this.”
“I can apologize but I can’t ever fix it.” Her eyes are closed but she’s not off the hook.
“Saying ‘I’m Sorry’ is a fix.”
She searches through the morass of a fifteen year old hotmail account and finds his address. She dictates and I type. It’s strangely intimate, being this conduit for reconciliation.
Send. We hold our breath. A half-minute eternity. When her phone dings, tears prick my eyes. I fumble open the message.
Delivery Status Notification [Failure].
It feels like a judgment on the whole situation. “It’s not a good address. Sorry Nat.”
It doesn’t look like she’s heard me. “I wish I’d worn more pink.”
“We could look for something. A sweater, maybe.” Inside I’m a mess. Is she sad, angry? Are we going to try something else to find him?
“A dress. A pink dress is what I want.”
She’s cold all the time. A dress is totally impractical and probably just what she needs.
“Nothing with too much nap. You’ll get tangled in bed and be trapped until the fire department shows up.”
“No. I want something over the top. Like a ball gown.” She pats the open space beside her on the bed. “Let’s pick what I’ll be buried in. Mom can’t do it. It’s so hard on her.”
You’re not dead, I scream inside. And I want to know what we’re doing about this Matt business.
As Nat clicks Buy Now on a rose tulle dress that looks like a cupcake, I feel like I know what we’re doing about it. It’s already been done.
She doesn’t have regrets now. Natalie, always the more zen and level-headed between us, has made her attempt. She believes the Universe has rejected it. It’s the way things are meant to be.
Historically, I hate the way things are meant to be.
Natalie falls asleep and Dee, her mom, comes for night duty. We hold each other, my second mom and I, and cry softly on the porch where Nat can’t hear us.
Alone in my car, I furiously google Matt Whatshisname. I search until I find a listing with the right former city, a reliable area code. It rings forever.
A woman answers. I pull the phone away to hang up. Why? I don’t want to inherit Natalie’s regrets about things left undone. “Hello”. I was hoping to speak to Matt Whatshisname…
Sorry. Wrong number.
They are all wrong numbers. The Universe refuses to budge.
I’m not peaceful about it.
At home I sit in quiet, mostly for the sake of a threatening migraine, and plan this post. I have to get it out, but not to our circle of friends. I need space from the ubiquitous sorrow, a demilitarized zone to examine what’s happened, the terrible thing I’ve discovered in my search for Whatshisname:
Atonement has an expiration.
Like our lifespan I guess we assume we have forever, or at least eighty or ninety years. Isn’t there time? We can be sorry when we’re finished being proud, angry, wounded. When we are ready to be done; not when the other person is ready to be healed. Not even if they beg.
I don’t know. I feel like this weekend I have some apologies to make.
See you all on Monday.