“How are you?”
This is a dangerous question, today.
On the way to work, my knuckles, already OCD-torn, cracked and bleeding, are white with strain. I pinch my nose. I do all the things I know to keep my mascara on my eyelashes, not all over my face.
It isn’t easy, because today marks exactly one month.
Today, it’s been thirty days since my best friend died. Thirty days since I walked in aimless circles outside fourth floor ICU waiting, trying to keep myself from ripping apart the two Christmas trees next to the elevators, breaking absolutely everything in sight. I shook. I trembled. My bones rattled as I stood and watched my best friend’s husband get to his feet and walk to the desk, and talk to the clerk, who opened the doors. And I watched him cross that threshold knowing he had to go and do something I couldn’t bear.
I just rattled in place, knowing that it was time, and that he had to tell them yes, it’s time to take them off life support.
And I couldn’t do it.
I ran away.
I went home. I sat and waited. I couldn’t sit. I got up and paced. I hadn’t slept more than two hours in days. I paced more. My mother just watched me and cried, because it was awful to watch no matter what distance you stood at, no matter what angle you watched from.
It didn’t make sense.
It still doesn’t make sense.
On November 30, my best friend contacted me and Archie, another best friend, for an emergency Stonehenge meeting.
Stonehenge was a friend name, a thing that was what we were for each other: a big old bunch of rocks who were always there and always had been, and, as far as we’d known, always would be.
It’s a hell of a thing when your rock tells you, “So, basically, I’m Deadpool.”
“I’ve got no sense of humor right now,” I told them. “What does that translate to?”
“Turbo cancer!” This, said with genuine, honest humor, because that was the kind of person Pru was. “It’s basically everywhere.”
“It’s metastasized?” I think my eyes watered over at this point.
“Pancreas, lung, spleen, liver.”
My heart did an awful nasty thing, hearing “pancreas” and translating to “pancreatic cancer,” which meant “going to die within two weeks.” So I asked, “What kind?”
Melanoma. Oh! Well, then, there’s time. They’ll run the tests, do targeted treatment, and we’ll all throw in together to help clean and cook meals. Keep everything going while they got better.
I clutched onto Pru’s leg anyway, because I was the one who was a mess, and I couldn’t joke about it. I was and never have been the stoic friend capable of maintaining composure under emotional duress. It’s either the best thing about me or the worst, but regardless, Pru had wanted me there, crying or no.
Later that night, I tried to go home, and I couldn’t. I drove in a circle. And then I started screaming, and I punched the steering wheel, screaming “no no no no no no” because “cancer” and my best friend’s name were not allowed to exist in the same sentence.
But now they did.
Days went by. Tests, but no treatment. Conditions worsened. They worried. A motley of us tried to reassure that we had time, that it wasn’t over till it was over.
My best friend, crying late one night in the stationary aisle of Walmart, telling me “I’ve got to leave something for the boys,” me reassuring that they’d still be here. That there was time.
December came, and by the fourteenth, it was hospital time again. So they went, and they were admitted, and hooked up to tubes and bags and drugs and by the time I saw all the scary physical warnings, the things I recognized, just did not, would not accept…
I swapped gears. Shifted over into disaster-crisis, where I could be okay, be helpful, hold my best friend’s hand while we walked straight into hell.
“It’s okay. I’m here. You can sleep, it’s okay. I’m here. Craig’s here. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”
There comes a point where that’s all you can do.
I was on my way from work to the hospital when Molly sent a text that I didn’t need to stop by CVS. And then I got another, that Pru’s vitals had crashed and they were rushing them to ICU.
I stared at the numbers.
I drove too fast.
I didn’t really think about it. I just ran. South parking, down the stairs, then across. Then into the hospital lobby. Then the elevators. Trying not to think about what might happen. Just that I needed to get there. And when I did…
God, you know, it was a terrible thing, but sitting in ICU waiting, watching everyone coming in. Waving from the glass. There were so many of us, the desk attendant had to tell us to shut up.
Watching all the people who loved my best friend walk into ICU was the only thing that made the waiting bearable.
Eventually I got to go back.
You notice the weirdest things in hospitals. I saw a lot of them as a kid. Sickness, then heart surgery when I was nine. You’ll never see red paint on hospital walls. Just calming colors.
The ICU was spring green.
I walked for the longest time, till I got to a room set up like a surgical theater. And then I stopped, and I looked at my best friend in that bed. The no-longer-conscious tilt of their head, the yellow tinge of their skin. I stepped in.
I walked up.
I teared up.
I said, “Hi, buddy,” and my voice broke.
I searched for my best friend’s hand, and I grabbed it, and I recited everything I could see. Described everything I could see, everything it meant. Googled it. Recited numbers on screens. Blinked fast, blinked hard, because those numbers were not naturally possible with organ failure.
But I watched my best friend fight the numbers back up, digit by digit. I held tight and said “You’re fighting, I see it. There, you did it again. It’s going up. You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”
I held on until my turn was over.
In the morning, I returned. Called work, because there was no realistic way I could leave. I knew myself. I knew I wouldn’t.
I knew I couldn’t.
I kept coming back and standing in that room, hoping it would get better, but it only got worse.
I couldn’t do anything about it. The most I could do was call over nurses, or keep Pru from ripping out IVs, saying, “I know it’s awful, but that one goes straight into your heart. Please don’t touch that one.” And the pinch, one more piece of whatever a heart is breaking inside me, when they stopped more for the pain they heard in my voice than whatever discomfort they felt.
It’s a terrible thing, watching someone you love in that much agony.
I thought a lot about drastic actions. Stealing a bunch of morphine, pulling out all the IVs, and hightailing my best friend out of there. Things that tricked me into feeling better for five minutes, better than the realization we’d already passed whatever threshold would have allowed for a more comfortable death.
Half of me knew.
Half of me would have fought God, the Devil, or both if I could.
Eventually the family was called back. I hesitated at the door, unsure till Craig said “You’re family. Come on.”
That was the morning I watched a dialysis machine running in a futile figure eight, noticed one of the catheters was gone, and another had stopped collecting anything.
The vitals were stable, steady.
But the doctors said “let’s talk about this in another room,” and Pru fought through whatever fog they were in enough to say “Where are you going, I don’t like this, I don’t like this secret meeting”
And I said “We’ll be right back, right back, it’s just loud in here, we’ll be right back”
I didn’t come right back.
I sobbed in an anteroom while two doctors laid out what was happening. That it was time to bring in everyone who wanted to say goodbye.
That it was time to say goodbye.
So I called an emergency meeting of Stonehenge, and the three of us held each other’s hands. Pru’s eyes were clearer, more lucid.
Lucid enough to ask, “Am I dying?”
And lucid enough that when we said yes, they sighed and said, “Well, that fuckin’ sucks.” Strong enough, there enough to tell me “None of that” when I started crying, because our time was limited, and they had many, many more goodbyes that would need to be said.
Even in that state, Pru remembered that I could not, can not handle the word “goodbye.” It was always “see you later,” or “see you soon, good buddy” or “I love you.” We were both prickly as hedgehogs, and we danced around each other’s spines a good bit, but “I love you” was holy. There were a thousand reasons why those were the only words I wanted to be the last I gave, they last they heard.
Even while dying, Pru remembered.
“I love you. I love you so much.”
That was the important thing. There would be time to grieve later. Now, we had the space for one last, good memory. One last good moment together.
Eventually, thirty minutes ran out.
I was holding Pru’s hand.
Time was up, but they didn’t let go.
Everything they had. One squeeze after another. It must have been ungodly painful, but they didn’t let go. I cried. I said “I love you” over and over until it ran together, stopped making sense.
Pru didn’t let go until they went unconscious.
Archie caught me as we walked away. As I folded in half with knowing that was the last time.
That was the last time we’d tell each other “I love you.”
That was the last time I’d hold my best friend’s hand.
Sometimes, I want to go back. I get this feeling, like if I go up there, sneak into the ICU, if I can somehow go back there, I’ll find the door they exited through. Like something out of a story I could write, that door would appear, and I could have another five minutes, another day, another conversation, another hug, another “I love you.”
But I just end up screaming in the parking lot, punching the steering wheel, till the scream turns into the cry, and the cry turns into a plea, and the reality of it settles back over me.
I could say a lot of inspirational things here, about how we keep the people we love alive within ourselves. How we take them with us, how we honor their memory by living, by doing, by loving in their stead.
That isn’t what happens.
I clutch onto the wheel like I’m drowning, and I talk to Pru, because all I want in that moment is to feel like I’m close enough to have a conversation. And I say the things that I can’t help but say, because I can’t keep them in:
“Please stop being dead, just stop being dead, please”
“I wish you could come home”
“I miss you”
The same things I text late at night, when I can’t sleep and I’d curl up on a grave if there was one, because the ache feels like it’ll kill me, too.
I wake up, and sometimes I forget. I forget, till I remember, and it starts over again.
Some days, it’s easier. Some days I remember these tiny, funny things, and I share them with people. That was the thing about Pru—there was something about them that even a stranger can tell what a god damn delight it was to know them. How lucky those of us who got to know them were. Because it’s unmistakable.
Dozens of people, crowding ICU waiting.
Nearly four hundred people in the group Pru initially set up to coordinate our voluminous efforts.
A hundred plus at the comedy benefit.
And the pouring out of people at karaoke after.
I’m glad I made it through that song for you, good buddy, even if it resulted in the loudest, ugliest scream-cry I’ve ever had in public.
It still hurts.
It’s always gonna hurt.
But we promised, didn’t we?
Til the end of the line.
It feels like you’re gone, but…
You left behind quite a legacy, you know?
I’ve got a lot to do, to make you proud.
And even though it’s fucking agony, and absurd, and I’m fairly certain I’m gonna scream-cry my way to and from work for a few days, well…
I’ve got to keep going, no matter how hard it gets.
Even though every step forward feels like it’s taking me away from you.
Even though every tick of the clock makes me wish I could make it run backwards.
Even though it feels like I’m leaving you, somehow.
I know you’re waving. Cheering me on. Cheering us all on.
I will, good buddy.
Just let me stay here a little longer.
It’s busted all to hell, but you gave me my heart back.
I won’t let this harden me.
All the armor fell off, watching you die.
You’ve done a pretty miraculous thing, cracking me open like this.
I’m not the only one.
A lot of us who were lonely aren’t lonely anymore.
A lot of us who kept shutting people out aren’t shutting anyone out anymore.
The thread that was you cinched through us and drew us all together, simply by merit of being people who loved you.
There are so many of us, because there was so much of you.
It was more than enough.
You were always more than enough.
I love you, Pru.
We all do.
We can’t stop.