June 11, 2014 by Melanie L.
Are you afraid to die?
I wondered ever since I learned of Ali’s diagnosis. This particular visit to her hospital room was no exception. I searched for an answer in Ali’s once-bright blue eyes, steroid-swollen cheeks and cancer-decimated half-smile. Does she even know? What is she thinking!? But I dared not ask.
Instead, I tasked myself with filling out her hospital food order for the next day checking those little empty circles next to the alternative choices like “mushroom barley” or “chicken noodle,” “milk” or “juice.” It was like filling out SAT practice scantrons, only this time, without the promising future.
“Do you want Jell-O?” I offered Ali.
“Yeah.” Ali’s voice was nasal, her speech slurred. It was not a fully-formed answer. The “yeah” hung in the air unfinished.
It was late August, 2011, and while the rest of the Eastern Seaboard prepared for the imminent arrival of Hurricane Irene, inside Ali’s quiet hospital room, a much smaller swell brewed beneath Ali’s furrowed brow. She was disappointed over spending her 34th birthday in a hospital. Although the nurse allowed some cake, it was an unfinished celebration.
Her disappointment had been magnified by the reasonableness of her birthday wish. She didn’t wish for a cancer-free birthday. She didn’t even wish to be home for her birthday. She had simply wished to have spent her birthday in (a physically grueling) rehab. But she wasn’t ready for discharge. Not yet, anyway. And that had put her in a mood.
I searched for clues of her internal existential dialogue amidst this new mood. What does her mood mean? Does her mood say anything about what she understands her future to hold? Before cancer invaded our friendship, we (over)shared everything. No topic was ever taboo. I left that day with my questions unasked. An unfinished visit.
Although Ali was discharged to rehab the next day, she was re-admitted to the hospital less than two months later. I visited her often and each time I wondered whether I would gather the courage to satiate my curiosity. But with an ever-present flow of her numerous other best friends, she had at least eight, as well as her large and supportive family, I couldn’t seem to find a minute alone with her to ask.
Finally in mid-October with only one other best friend, Melissa, in the room, I got my opportunity. Before I even asked though, Ali spoke. Once loquacious, now nearly mute, we could just barely hear Ali’s small voice over the din of the nurses’ shuffling feet and the beeps of machines. We leaned in.
“I’m tired. I feel like an old man. No more surgeries. I’m done. Mel, you know what I’m saying? Right? Mel?” Her eyes looked into mine and pierced my soul. I nodded. I excused myself with tears welling. Melissa followed close behind.
“What did she mean? Did she mean what I think she meant?” I desperately hoped for Melissa’s denial.
“Yes, honey, she did,” and Melissa pulled me in tight.
That was the last time Ali ever spoke to me.
Less than a month later, surrounded by family and shrouded in love, Ali’s tangible essence slipped away leaving a life unfinished. She was not afraid.