Yesterday was the birthday of my friend Sarah. She would have been 26 years old. I woke up alone under white sheets and decided that today would be a celebration. Every moment, a celebration of life. Because I'm still here. I'm so happy that I'm still here. I'm so happy that my heart still flutters inside of me.
I picture my heart as made of paper, a red valentine that tick-tocks back and forth inside my chest cavity.
The day was shaping up to be a perfect joy. The sky was heavy with the promise of a good rain, but it never came. I went to Merlefest, the big bluegrass festival down the road, with my girlfriends. We all wore light, colorful sun dresses. The mercury crept up and up until it was sweltering hot, and the crowd of thousands pressed forward as the Avett Brothers, hometown North Carolina heroes, took the stage.
The heat was unbearable and the snow cones dripped into puddles on the grass. The music was loud, the smashing sounds of strings flying off a cello and an electric banjo and their weird, tight harmonies. Everyone mouthed along the words and danced like maniacs in tight spaces. I waited them to sing my favorite song, but they never did.
Nobody knows it but I am so sad, and that is the saddest of all, my friends. That is the saddest of all.
And every moment of that searing, sunburning day, I was haunted by these memories. How they cut her head open. How they burned her. How they tried to save her. How she died anyway.
It's been more than two years, and I'm not ready to take the approach your supposed to take when someone dies young. Live life to the fullest cause you never know when your a-gonna go! Let's live it up, that's what she would have wanted! hey ho! No, it's not that kind of greeting-card-inspiration situation. Is it ever that kind of situation?
Sarah's death was like someone throwing a diesel truck engine into the fragile spinning gears of my life. And I can't find joy in her birthday, because she's not here to turn 26. And I'm still haunted by the memories of those impossible weeks and months before she died.
I can't even think of memories of Sarah in any sense, at any point in her big, beautiful, boisterous life- before she got sick, all the trips we took and things we did -it's all overshadowed by the vivid memories of what she became at the end. That's no way to honor someone.
It's towards the end. I'm driving through the university district of Seattle on a surprisingly bright day in late January. Sarah asked me to bring her a triple shot, extra hot latte from Fuel. Whatever she asks for, she gets. She doesn't ask for much, but when she does, it's specific.
Sarah is alone by the time I get to her house. I must be late- she's not ever supposed to be alone anymore.
She is sitting at the dining room table, wearing the same lose, button up sweater she was wearing the last time I was over. She doesn't turn her head when I walk in, and when I sit down next to her she doesn't acknowledge me. She is staring down at a picture of her husband, Doug, on her Iphone.
After a few moments, she looks up. Her motions are slow, and sort of loopy. Her face is swollen from steroids and her body has gotten big and heavy. The scar from where they cut her head open stretches across her scalp like a black, bloody caterpillar. It looks thick and glistening, as if covered in shellac.
"Look," she says. "Isn't he handsome?" She sticks the photo on the Iphone under my face.
I agree that he's handsome. He's incredibly handsome. I've known him for years, from before they were married, from before they were dating. We're friends, we're all friends.
***To her wedding, she wore a long white dress that hugged her exotic curves, and a white feather in her hair. She looked like a goddess and a bride and a mermaid.
From somewhere in the house, an alarm goes off. Sarah reaches towards a shelf full of orange and white pill bottles. Hundreds of them. She chooses one, twists the cap but can't get her hands to work right. My reaction time is not immediate, I'm too busy staring at her, telling my stomach not to feel so sick, wondering if I am actually asleep and making all this up. When I finally reach out to help her, the cap comes flying off the bottle and scatter across the floor. From under the table, the dog rises and takes off after them.
I jump off my seat and drop to my knees, hands skittering across the floor like startled birds as I try and gather them off the floor before their eaten. Pills that will stop Sarah from feeling any more pain.
Sarah is trying to smile. Only half of her face is working, and barely. "You can keep those." She says. Her voice is so strange, high and raspy as if she is forming each word with her last breath.
"Sell them. Those will make you a lot of money."
She's completely serious. She looks at the army of rattling bottles and knows what the rest of us don't know yet, that she won't be around to finish them off. Since her diagnosis, she's smoked cigarettes like it's going out of style. She'll sit out on the porch with a bottle of liquor and a pack of cigarettes. She can't light the cigarette anymore, or even hold them, so we do it for her. We hold them burning between our two fingers, bring them up to her mouth and down.
What's the point.
I didn't take the pills, of course. I put them back in the bottle, brought her a glass of water, and returned the bottle to it's shelf, arranging it neatly against the others. If I had known just how quickly she would leave us, I may have had second thoughts. Maybe I would have kept them, sold them somewhere in North Carolina to get money to buy groceries.
It's not that I'm desperate. It's just that money's tight.
Maybe I would have just kept them, an hard, angry, rattling souvenir of a brutal time that felt remarkably like a dream.
I know they were just trying to save her. But I wish they had done it in a way that seemed less violent. Couldn't they have done some type of laser scan, instead of ripping into her skull? They trespassed into her brain, can you imagine? All the steroids, the spinal taps. Why couldn't we have all just gathered around her and put our hands on her body and make her all better? Why don't things work like that?
The radiation that left burns on her scalp, couldn't they have decided against that? Didn't they already know, by that point, that there was no stopping it?
I remember seeing her husband kick at the wall. "I want to punch those doctors in their faces," he said.
I wish they had done more. I wish they had done less.
All I can think about is how they split her head open and they burned her with radiation. But she died anyway.