DYING by Deb Olin Unferth
7/2/14
 


He wrote and said that the friend was dying, that these were her final days, and he thought we might want to know. We did want to know. We hadn't seen her in ages, but we'd always liked her and wished her well. We'd heard she was sick (he'd written us updates every few months)—very sick—and we'd had plans, or at least thoughts of going to visit. A year ago when we first heard she was sick, we thought we'd pack up the car and drive the four hours to see her, camp out in the living room like the old days, but we hadn't. We spent a year saying that, "Let's get on the road!" She got sicker. He wrote and said maybe we could phone at least, send some friendly words her way, but we felt uncomfortable, didn't know what we would say. We thought we could "catch up," but our daily affairs seemed so mightily small in the face of her being so sick. We thought we could email at least, attach a photo, but we didn't do that either. Then he wrote and told us about how she was flying to Texas so they could pour chemo through her whole body, he told us about the experimental surgery. We listened and felt bereft, but still we did nothing.


Then he wrote and said it's happening at last, she's nearly gone. Is there anything we can do? we wrote. Anything at all? Well, he said, could we call? She might like to hear us. We determined to and sat there afraid by the phone. We discussed it. How could we call after all this shameful time? He wrote again several hours later—so she was already many hours closer to death—and said, Maybe you could send her a text that I could read to her?

A text? What could we say in a text? Imagine what she's been going through, the tremendous rounds of chemo and radiation, imagine watching your body come apart, your ambitions shrinking, your ideas about what you want getting simpler, more elemental, your joys smaller, until they are nothing but a few words murmured after another day of not being able to sit up, not being able to eat, not being able to vomit, though you have to. We wouldn't use an emoticon, one of us said in a serious tone. Not a smiley, of course, not a sad face. We could say, We'll miss you, but that sounded selfish. We could say, Good luck, but how much sense did that make? Or, We are praying for you, though none of us had ever believed in God. We are thinking of you did not seem strong enough. Besides, how much could we have been thinking of her if we hadn't visited, hadn't called, hadn't sent a photo or an email or a note? What was there to say? What was left? We wrote, We are with you. We are there by your side.

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Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the memoir Revolution, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; the story collection Minor Robberies; and the novel Vacation, winner of the Cabell First Novel Award. Her work appears in Harper's, the New York Times, McSweeney's, the Boston Review, the Believer, and NOON. She has received three Pushcart Prizes and a Creative Capital Grant for Innovative Literature.

Art:
Solomon (March 2007; Central City, New Orleans, Louisiana) by Frank Relle. Frank Relle is a contemporary American photographer from New Orleans, Louisiana.
 
 
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