A main difference between me and my friend and colleague Char who died is this: the day she came in to clean out her office it took her two minutes and only a couple copy paper boxes. She dumped a pile of books on me, nursing education books from 1983 that she’d been carting around, and old DSM-maybe the Third Edition? And some outdated clinical diagnostic tools. “I don’t want those, don’t give them to me, you know I’ll keep them forever, they are heavy and I don’t want them!” She did anyway.
She also didn’t cry. She was leaving her office for the last time. The week before she had received “findings” after a trip to the doctor. “Findings” in our parlance as medical professionals means there is something really there, not just the “curbside” diagnoses we all give each other in the hallway. Mine, for Char, was “old lady gallbladder.” My prognosis, “they’ll suck it out of you and I’ll come over while you’re recuperating and we’ll read together and then you’ll come back to work and we’ll fight and gossip like always.”
Shortly after 5AM the morning after her doctor’s appointment she messaged me, knowing I’m always up, she knows my craziness well. “Call me,” it said. “NOW?” I messaged back. “In 10 minutes,” she said.
A very long 10 minutes later I called, she had “findings” that were more serious than just a rotten sac of sludge and the next thing we knew her office, next to mine, was empty.
As we had ended our conversation at 5:30 AM she said, “I don’t care. As long as I can read I don’t care.” Of course she said a lot of other things but the one thing I could do was get her plenty of books. I also promised to shepherd two handwoven vestments that were of vital importance but they found their eventual homes.
(My friend reads. How lucky I am, I think, to have a friend who reads. Reads stuff I like. Reads stuff I write. Only she is gone long before my own book will come out.)
I soon go about the business looking through my books. Can I give her David Rackoff’s essays? He died from cancer last year. He writes about his therapist dying of cancer. My friend is a therapist. Can I give her Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? David Shield’s collection The Inevitable? Victoria Zackheim’s Exit Laughing? Mary Roach’s Stiff? What about all the David Foster Wallace stuff? Didion? The Road? The Hours? another friend’s memoir of her husband’s ALS? My holocaust collection?
What’s wrong with me? No wonder I’m depressed. Look at my reading material. I find a Hello Kitty tote and decide on Rackoff, Egan, some other blackish stuff just too good to pass up and my friend is just too smart to suddenly not read good stuff. She would be offended if I suddenly showed up with a filter, treating her in good taste. Rainbows and unicorns. A journal for your journey. Savor every second.
The next day she shows me to her “visitors” chair in her bedroom. We are still not used to this. I am a little dressed up. I dump out the books, apologetically. “They are a little dark, of course. But brilliant.” “Of course,” she says. “Can I be irreverent?” “I guess so.” It would be a mistake to think that impending death is going to change my friend’s intellect or her humor. “So it’s OK that I won’t be bringing you journals with unicorns and rainbows.?” “I would hit you upside the head.” “Good.”
The last time we were out together, noodles and a movie in Hanover, NH on a perfect late fall day, she had a plastic sack of books she needed help moving from her car to mine. “Don’t give me any crappy books,” I warn. “I think they are just more of the ones you lent me.” The Rackoff is in there. The Egan. “I loved those,” she said. Then there’s a bunch of crap she slipped in that I don’t want and I keep my mouth shut. I put it in a pile on the stone fence of the parking lot after she slowly drives away.