Almost precisely ten years ago I sat on the floor of my best friend's bedroom in the final throws of an uncomfortably hot summer, leaning on a large mobile air conditioning unit, trying to read her poetry through eyes which could barely see and with a voice which no longer seemed to be my own. I shouldn't have been able to function properly, I should have been wailing and mourning and begging for the fates not to take her. But instead I found a secret hard place inside and I let it take over me.
She never once saw me shed a tear for her. Her best friend. The one who became like a sister when we she lost her Dad and my sister went to the other side of the world; the one who never questioned, never judged and never abandoned her in so many hours of need; the one who knew all her secrets and confided hers in return; and the one she'd given her strict instructions to...
No-one was supposed to talk about it, we were to carry on as normal until the bitter end (but people had to make sure they left with something precious of hers whenever they visited). She couldn't let herself falter in her resolve otherwise she would fall apart. She set the tone which we all followed. We dutifully avoided emotional outpourings (although I wrote mine in a letter which I noticed beside her bed at the end), we respected her need to be alone even though we wanted to spend every second with her, and we left her to her quiet times when she contemplated her forthcoming battle, perhaps she was planning how she wanted to play her final scene? She made lists of who was to get her treasures, which was so incredibly important to her. In her final days when the tumour pressed so far into her brain that she could no longer speak she could be seen slowly and carefully giving out imaginary objects to the friends she pictured in her mind, deliberately placing them into the grateful palms she dreamt were there in front of her.
Sadly for her there was only me in the end, in that final scene. It was my turn to sit with her and keep her amused. By this point she hadn't slept for three days and couldn't physically last much longer. None of us knew what she thought, but we imagined she was so terribly scared of what would happen when she closed her eyes. She was so incredibly uncomfortable, sitting on the edge of the bed, propping herself up with her elbows resting on her thighs, but she refused to lie down - presumably for the same sort of reason, the fear that she'd never get up again. She wanted to live one minute and then not be alive the next, she didn't want to fade away, to turn to grey, to drift in the place between the two. Now I know I said we never discussed it, but she was virtually a part of me this girl. I knew how she felt. She'd always been clumsy and awkward. In death as in life she felt self conscious. I knew that she was so mortified by the idea of the indignity of death. She held herself upright and presentable for as long as she could and we helped her.
They had been reading her a Terry Pratchet book, but I couldn't bring myself to read the humorous story with the character called Death. I couldn't even utter the word, plus I knew I'd be a poor substitute for her Auntie who did the silly voices. So I searched the room in snatched moments, returning to my place on the floor at her feet when she faltered and swayed forward, gently propping her back up before continuing my search. I searched for something meaningful, some words which could sum up our life together and found a book we both loved as children. As I read to her I looked to her to try to see recognition of my choice, some indication as to whether the familiarity was a source of comfort or torture, whether I was playing her last moments how she wanted them to be played. She was beyond any ability to communicate, which was so excrutiatingly painful at the time when I needed my best friend the most. You imagine having a perfect moment, that timeless meaningful last exchange, but I feared that if she could hear and understand me that she would feel my words like daggers through her heart.
A few pages into my tentative and angst-ridden performance I had reduced myself to a state of agonised indecision, compelled to carry on reading what I'd started in case it was welcome to her, but wanting so much to apologise with every word and feeling sure I should be intuitive enough to know exactly what to do. I had stopped focusing on her, stopped checking that she was ok. Suddenly her hand came sharply into view. I looked up to see her slumped a little in my direction, her elbow loose and her hand outstretched. I'm so deeply ashamed to admit that I thought that she was reaching out for comfort, in that moment I was full of my own importance and I took her hand and looked into her face to give her those words of love I'd longed for her to seek from me. This was that imagined perfect tableau - the faithful friend sitting at the feet of the brave soul, giving her the strength for her final journey. But this was my wishful thinking. She hadn't finally reached out to me, in reality she had lost that final morsel of strength that was keeping her composed, she'd finally given in and allowed herself to fall. In her last moments I'd made her lose her dignity and that will always haunt me.
Realisation then hit me like a slap to the face and I welled with panic, stomach crashing to the floor. This wasn't supposed to be my moment, it was supposed to be her mother with her when she died. I rushed to the top of the stairs and screamed a banshee's wail, "come, please come!". The family and friends gathered downstairs came rushing, with her mother in the lead. She had a book of poems she wanted to read to send her on her spiritual journey, she had it all planned out. But I had stolen her moment. The doctor had turned up and gently laid her back on the bed, for she had crumpled into an indignified lump in my absence, and he said that she should still be able to hear. I was unspeakably grateful for his intervention and the hope he gave to her mother that she was not too late and she could share the most important moment of her daughter's life.
Secretly though I knew she had gone from the world, I'd sensed her go, I'd felt the air above us electrify over our brief tableau and felt the shadow of death upon my face when she fell and blocked out the waning evening light from the window behind. But her mother needed to feel part of the moment of passing too. I never wanted to take that from her so I played along.
In the end I became some kind of folk legend, the "best friend", the one who she chose to die with. I don't know if this helped or not, they all wanted as perfect an ending as possible for this deeply cherished friend and what better than a peaceful passing in the comfortable presence of her oldest friend? At the funeral people met me with awed faces and wanted to be near me. I was a physical connection to the one they'd lost. I felt honoured and duty bound to play the part, but some things I couldn't do. She was an amazingly upbeat person and had given her instructions for the funeral. People should wear bright colours, but I wore black. We were all supposed to do The Time Warp at the crematorium to mark her sense of fun, but I remained seated and tried not to feel inadequate. I could no longer follow protocol and the sense of disappointment that I thought I saw around me added to my grief to make me feel completely alone and so desperately miserable that my best friend was not there to turn to. This in turn brought on further guilt until it was a frenzied loop of self blame and misery.
For you see the difference between me and the others, the reason why I was alone amongst friends, was that they had not shared that last moment. These people had all lost a loved one from their life, but they had not watched her go and they didn't carry the awful guilt of wondering whether they'd done it right (with no-one left to ask), nor did they view proceedings through the image of the moment their friend lost her fight, seeing all of life through it like looking through a stained glass window on the world. I even saw the image on the back of my eyelids as I tried to sleep. For weeks and months.
So I mention it's been ten years, tonight there is a big party, everyone ever connected to her was invited. I didn't go, I couldn't go, I still can't face commemorating her death day. To these other people it's a date to remember the good times shared with a dear person who they still miss, but for me it marks the saddest day I've yet lived through, the day my best friend slipped away in front of my eyes, no glory, no ceremony, no significant moment where either of us saw into the heart of things. They could only imagine and wish they were there, I continue to live the confusion of wishing I hadn't seen it but also knowing that I would never ever have wanted to be anywhere else.
Storm Room - Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller
7 years ago