I awoke to the smell of nu-death. Old death, classic death, used to smell like rotting food. It used to be unpleasant. I've noticed in life that a lot of things that used to be unpleasant, like death, have now sort of been glazed over. Everything gets the teeth pulled out of it, gets turned sterile and emotionless. Nu-death, like many modern wonders, smells like fluoride. It nearly makes the whole thing worse. Shit, I thought to myself, I fell asleep in the hospital again.
The house seemed so empty. It was once alive with our late night parties. Because of her condition, the last few months we spent drinking cheap wine and smoking medicinal marijuana. We’d let the reggae slowly creep louder and louder as we sung over top it. We ate like munchie-starved queens. Every morning I’d wake up in mid-hangover, wishing it could last forever. Now the house was empty, as I spent most waking hours in this damned hospital watching my best friend die. Emotions, in a room like this, came in waves so strong there was no way to sort them out. Sometimes I’d be furious at myself and my morbidity for staying here to watch. Sometimes I’d collapse from the sheer pressure with which sadness can crush your shoulders and lungs. Other times, like this morning, I’d sit in amongst her surrounding life machines, quiet and brushing her hair. Peaceful.
When we met she was young and vital. When we met she was a real bitch – every girl was in the eighties, with our neon make-up and hair-spray obsessions. We were all so sure we could take over the world with stiletto heels and our good, female sense. Remember that, Josephine? Remember, Jo? I whispered, leaning towards her ear. What hideous hair we had? It used to be our only thing in common! Who knew we’d be soul sisters? They say no matter what the state, she’d hear me when I speak to her. I think that’s still true .
These last few days were breaking me apart. My hands quivered as I brushed through the last thin wisps of her golden hair. The chemotherapy, or ‘kemo’ as its called, took much more than her hair.
“You had such pride in everything, Jo.” I said, setting the brush to the side, to take her cold hand in mine. “There was a time you’d rather die than sacrifice that hair.” There were times she’d rather die than get a colostomy, too. And times she’d rather die than lose her breast. The cancer took everything in her body that gives a woman dignity, taking her spirit last. But we’d still have our nights out to the lake, and wash crystals under the full moon, and pretend to be witches, and for a moment we’d be happy and drunk without any death or cancer. Then there were dark nights, when I still thought we could win this, she’d confess to me that she was done. That she could fight no more, live no more, endure no more. I would put on my mask, the strong face that makes others strong with me, and say, “Don’t say that Jo. This is almost over.”
I was partly right.
I left her room to call work and say I’d miss another day. I made and drank a coffee. But I didn’t really do anything, except for when I was sitting with her. The rest of the time I was a ghost, drifting through the shining halls, but somehow not. It was a feeling I resented, and so I stayed with her most of the time. Days prior, I made one last picnic for the two of us. If this is it, I’d thought, she’s going out with the best party yet. I didn’t know how fast she’d fall apart. But imagine the sight of the two of us, reggae blaring, having a picnic! Everything was set with candles, and proper napkins, and I considered even putting make-up on her, but didn’t. I ate mushroom caps stuffed with crab meat, her favorite, and offered it to her, but she didn’t move. I drank it down with our favorite cheap wine, and offered it, but she didn’t move. And suddenly the music was a stupid idea, and the food was a stupid idea and the wine was a stupid idea. I wanted it to be perfect, one last time, and it wasn’t. She was here, but I was alone. I knew it then for the first time.
Later everyone was there, together and awkward. I had my time with her, and now it was theirs. Everyone wore their strong faces, though we all knew each of us wanted to die with her. Things grew quiet as the night grew old. My watch flashed 11:46 pm three times for every slow beep registering a beat of her heart. The life machines inhaled and exhaled with her, and fed her, and cleaned her. We sat with each other, and alone. Every beep from that machine felt like a hammer against my breasts. Every time that machine would breathe, and pause, pain would swell in my mind, in my eyes and in the bottom of my stomach. Then it would breathe again, and the pain would release until the next pause.
1:31 am. The loud, uninterrupted beep filled the room, as we crowded around her, and hugged each other in tears. There was a great, painful release, as we could no longer hold in the agony of watching her here. The nurses milled about her, delicately manipulating the machines and removing the tubes, to let us see her as we had remembered. But it was not how I remembered her. The Josephine I knew was strong and wild. She smoked too much, and drank too much. She was a passionate lover, and my best friend. I looked at those sunken cheeks to find her in there, somewhere. Over her placid eye lids. The soft, faded brow. And there she was: dead, cold, but with the slightest smirk.
In the parking lot, in my car, I sat for hours, thinking of that smirk. With it in my mind, the rest of it faded away: the death, the furniture, the loneliness, the smell... It was temporary relief, but it was all I needed to get me home.