The letter from Black's sister contains three sentences: Black is very ill. She wants you to know.... Come if you will.
Come if you will? The anger and hate drops fast, shattering in a light-spring moment. It is all nullified with this notice - the possibility of the end. NO. The resounding no echoes with the life-beat of ages as never turns to infinity. In my own heartbreak world I did not think it could get much worse. I forgot something. And what would that death mean? How would the freedom be without the hammer and the weights and the temptation to always be running full force toward the one love, the complete life of hers and mine that is the waxen-winged dream of never, here, never. Always running in circles, when the goal is way outside the circle -- a straight line we couldn't even begin to sustain. How is death different here?
No one ever scared me as much as Black did. Her emotional potential was alarming and knowing I had the power to provoke her made me constantly afraid of her. While her presence calmed me, it incited a particular kind of fear. Half awake she would come to me using the excuse of dreaming to speak in hushed tones about the falling and the breaking. Her fear would become my fear and we'd hang up barely breathing. We were most connected in losing each other. But I never had the courage to realize that here was reality and I had in some way the power to change it. Here is where it could have been different, or not.
Connecting in Chicago the brilliant lights on the airstrip come closer and the plane is wavering. The dark flat plains of Illinois grow into capillary towns and cities from here, all the same. We touch down hard. Men in fur-lined coats struggle with the frozen hatch door where our luggage is kept. Mouths shouting silently from where I sit look like people taking underwater. The crew up front is trying to open the main door. The Midwestern winds out of the east blows hard and takes the doors with it. We are all free to go.
Boston is a lost city being buried two inches an hour by mid-March snow. Windy flurries of white are all I can see out my window. I think traveling like this, not knowing what the future will bring, is becoming much too commonplace. Maybe when all this is over I'll take yoga, learn to play guitar, take up a hobby like painting, or find a wife. In the middle of a snowstorm the plane touches down at Logan, and I am too dazed to think about the frozen runway or the icy Boston Harbor at the end of it.
I take the T to the hospital. The depressed faces of these people are so damn typical and I almost want to go back and get on that California plane and forget Black. A slight woman dressed haphazardly, with wet black, salt-stained boots clutches her books and fumbles with her walk-man. When the doors open at the Northeastern University stop, a shaggy man carrying a guitar saunters in and starts singing 'Dirty Water.' People pretend he's not there. The scattered woman looks around nervously pulling her bags in closer, as if this man or everyone is threatening her. This city is not her place, but this city is where I come from. So often home had been someplace else. It was on the globe in our living room, on the wall of my social studies class, or in an atlas in the library hiding from the others high school kids. Now I feel invisible here, travelling to this person who finds me undefinable - this person who would fail to look me in the eye when she spoke to me. After a while I think Black pretended I wasn't there.
Once I strung a piece of string around my wrist to remind me of her neglect. For three months it kept me in check. Whenever I felt myself start to give I'd touch the string and my back would straighten and all conversations would cut off. It was difficult though and I often found myself falling back to her. Too much energy was spent balancing myself with holding back and giving in, measuring my affection. Then affection is not what it was. At some point it had turned bitter, hard and uninviting. We wouldn't see each other for months and I was glad for the breathing space. It marked a rift though, which never recovered.
This is exactly how I had pictured it. She sleeps, breathing softly at peace. After about a half-hour I get up and go to the window, move the curtains and look out over the parking lot, across to the small park where children are running around under a gray, rain-threatening sky. There is nothing that holds my attention out there, all slipping in and out. I turn back to Black, sick and dying before me. I feel nothing.
"You've come," she mutters, barely audible. The voice: a trumpet, a lark bird singing of the spring. And I'm reminded of the late night phone calls, the raging fights, the easy laughter and biting condescension, then soothing sympathy in saying my name again, I am hearing her voice again. I am feeling her voice again.
"How could I not," I reply silently, to meet her tone.
Her soft face framed by sinking too far into the pillows, smiles large and glimmers true and hopeful. She is not weak. I never gave her credit where I was concerned, but in this one moment I sense the pure strength of her-and what she really needs it for. She is utterly beautiful. She falls back to sleep. It has been a lifetime since I saw her last and I'm trying to sift through the years and the months before and what has come after. Nothing seems to add up. In this room, at this moment, time has slipped into obscurity. It is not anything I have to hold onto. What I am left with is 'us' as fragile and as satisfying as ever.
I am here fills up my thoughts at this moment. The real picture is blurred -- all light and atoms.
I have faith here in this small hospital room. I know how out of reach impossibility is, yet I trust it. It is growing in me like an Egyptian child, keeping three hundred years of death alive. I always kept its definition, miracle, deep inside me where I could not find it no matter how hard I searched. I would turn away indifferent at its mention. Now, here beside her I sit and understand this miracle as yet unborn.
It's 8:35 p.m. and I am being ushered out of the room by a nurse, "her family wants time with her." I pass Black's family in the hallway and take her sister's hand in mine. As they enter her room, Black's father looks back at me and motions me into the room with them. I sit in silence as they pray.
One piano key, one single note is subverted here with the voices of too many people talking about nothing so important as this one key, this one note singing, "How strange the change from major to minor...."
In the gray waiting room there is one of those generic prints of the skyline of Boston at sunset. The purple faced tower clock and the neon Citgo sign in the distance and the people down below obscured, cut out of the picture for this helicopter view, this poetic horizon. This picture could have been taken on that day, I think. Black and I are strolling through the city. We come upon a church and decide to stop and watch the bright Irish faces of the bride and the groom off to their lives together. Ordinary dreams, I think. We clap gleefully and walk off. Black's hand brushes mine sending heat and desire and then, as always, the inevitable chill. Ordinary nightmares, I think.
It would be a little nudge or a slight brush of the hand that would start it, send it all coming down crashing with years of pent-up emotion exploding finally out of the silent patient love into the truthful and selfish love that knows nothing of responsibility or tradition. Or it would go on alone forever, selfless and immortal.
I'm trying to conjure up what it was that created this loss. I am shot through with the prospect of never. I'm living in one house-burning moment with eyes wide open in disbelief, waiting for someone to pass by and tell me this is all just an ordinary nightmare.
Four thirty in the morning on a Wednesday and she's fully awake for the first time in three weeks, cognizant and the same.
"I'm not so sick you know."
"No? Could have fooled me."
"Oh sugar, I try to fool you."
"Can we play a game?"
"Sure, how about checkers?"
"Is California fun?"
Black takes my hand firmly in hers and swings it a bit. I feel as if we're schoolgirls, innocent and in our own world.
"I sometimes don't want to live so much," Black says.
"Why? Is living so great for you? I can say this shit. It's my right."
"Well?" she says.
"It's okay when I'm not thinking of you."
"Um. Well I see you haven't changed. Still as sappy as ever."
"You're the one talking about, about·"
"You can say it-death."
"What's the difference, right? Death, love, they're the same. This isn't so hard."
"Can I open the window a bit?"
"If you think that will help."
When she falls asleep I try to focus on her face, but it's no use and she looks too different, features muted, washed through with too much sleep and struggling. Her spark is out. She doesn't transcend this lifeless hospital drab. Her color is ashen gray, the turning shade of death.
For a moment she awakens. Her eyes meet mine lovingly, connecting again in their way and I am filled with that same fright and hope. It is her secret that I am afraid of. I am hoping she doesn't see her fear in my eyes. She falls back asleep.
The streets are black and white, snow white with dirt tracks and nightspots. The white lights shine down on snow-banked streets. I cannot see beyond to Roxbury where the poverty-stricken sleep, nor can I see up into the brownstones of South End, to the artist elitists in their soft comfy beds. Mass. General accepts them all, generally.
I go back to my parents' house to sleep. Black is all over me. Rising up through sea foam on the Atlantic, she is breaking through gasping, hanging on to sunbursts of hope. The end of her world is there beyond the horizon with a door to the outside. But I'm confused, not sure if this is her near-death experience, not sure if she needs my help or if she wants it. And the door could signify anything, it doesn't seem good but it doesn't seem evil either. I fade out of the dream. When I wake I'm not sure if she's dead or not. Then it occurs to me she's dying in the hospital right now, alone. I rush to her side.
The streets again, the snow again, but it's dawn and they won't let me in. Reason, I think, there are always so many reasons why I can't see her. The sick heat smell starts getting to me. It'll be an hour before I'll get to see her so I venture out for a cup of coffee. As I bring it to my lips I trip and spill it all over myself. The shift into an angry tear-threatening state is slow and subtle, but once solidified becomes frustratingly hard to shake. Things people said two weeks stick in the middle of my back and I want to rush to a phone and respond. It always seems to take weeks before I figure out what to say in response to people. If only conversations could be extended that long. What I am really angry about, though, is death. Death that interrupts the everyday and dreaming. How will death effect the dreamer, I wonder. And I'm worried about myself without Black. It's sad and counter productive, this mirror of seeing my own pain and fear in hers. It cannot do her any good; I know that for sure. I think it will be important to pretend when I go back in there. Except I don't understand what that means exactly. I don't know if I should pretend to be happy or pretend to be sad.
I think of God. I don't question, at these times, his or her existence or heaven or hell, but focus on the life force. I repeat my prayers, the ones I remembered from childhood Sundays, and meditate into their saving grace.
I wish I could crawl through time, reenter the sweetness and innocence of our first meeting. I wish she hadn't touched me so irreversibly. What is a soul mate? Do soul mates exist? It's a hunch, a connection that cannot be proven or identified and yet it's the most genuine and easiest thing in the world to deny. No use in dwelling on the irony or walking around the house crying about it now. The best thing to do is revel in the realization that this is where life's mystery lies and at least you're lucky enough to participate.
When I enter the room she awakens and is still trying to get her bearings. She looks at me as if I'm supposed to explain why she's there, why she's so sick. I can't tell if she's lost the ability to speak or not.
"Black...Black are you okay?"
"No, I'm not. Hello, I'm dying."
Even now, when she's on her deathbed she's still biting with honest humor and I'm still the fool, saying the wrong thing.
"I don't have a thing to leave to you, you know," she says, looking at the wall opposite me.
"Black, I don't want anything. Please don't talk like that. You're going to be fine."
"Stop doing that," she yells, turning to glare at me. "You have to stop being so naïve. I am not and will not be fine."
"Why am I here?"
"Because I can't leave you anything."
"Yeah, I know, you said that."
"It's just this. That's it. Do you know what I'm saying?"
"Yes," I whisper, barely able to speak.
"Now, come here and hold my hand."
"Come on, can't a dying girl get a last wish?"
It was the end of summer and near the bitter end for us. We were arguing on the phone. For all Black's claims to numbness and resolve, I was the most stoic with anger. I was hurt beyond all recognition. In my passive aggressiveness, I became nothing but anger. I could hardly speak.
"You shouldn't be treating me like this," Black cries, "I·I don't know how to react, I don't know what to say when you act like this."
"I'm sorry," I whisper.
What else can I say and we're nearing the end. It's all but over. It will all go on, life will run its course, but we are over or never began and everything is alas the same. One last sacrifice though, another chance to fall to my knees. One more trip to the beach or a walk in the park, along the Charles, down Newbury Street, or up Mount Vernon. One more lost night waiting for the other to start it or end it. One more piece of blame misplaced. And it doesn't really matter anymore. When the word is spoken: no, everything is shut off. We can act like it never happened, like it was never felt and go on with our lives. But I know there is a shift, whether it shows up in Tarot cards or rears itself before sleep, I know the metaphysical world has recorded the change and will make up for this loss in some parallel universe. What I don't know is if either of us shall reap any rewards for our troubles.
Black is sitting barefoot in the sand with her faded jeans rolled up. Her feet are dug into the moist earth. I'm toeing the shoreline, watching the sun dance on the horizon. Black looks over at me and smiles. I feel her absence and the nature of change in her smile. Still in this night, which is not a monster but an alluring friend, I am joyous and expectant. I walk toward her. I am on the beach at night, young and in love. How can I not be hopeful?
What I don't see now is my mother's death, Black's death and worry for every person who shares my blood, worry that is so far outside the tragedy of love. It will be the coming night millions of years from now that will cause me to forget. It will not be about love or pride or vanity but a stiff neck up all night sick and too close to myself with fear for the uncontrollable death of everyone except myself. My death is wrapped into something else, confident it flies on its own. We will not measure up to this terror though, will we? And I fear this summertime beach, our late-night talks and your light will not be enough to fend off their end, and so ours.
All day the sun is hiding gray and lost but as it goes down, the light stretches out pink dusk beautiful across the hardwood and it is not bright but taut, showing strength in its struggle and I'm happy in this moment to know that at least he's fighting, even if it is too late. Standing heaven firm and proud, my grandfather was dying. I hated it, gritted my 10-year-old teeth in the knowledge of his imminent departure. Still in his presence I was at ease. I would sit by him every day. He'd smile and joke easy about the death nest growing inside him. He'd talk about all the places he was going to take me and I believed him, thinking those places were not so much physical locations but realer, more interesting than the zoo or Disney World.
He was an alcoholic. The family didn't much talk about the cause of death and it may not have even been the drinking, still it was the shame I remember. Whispers outside the waiting room. The red-hot face of my mother angry at the nurses disrespect. "If there's going to be any dignity," she cried, "it should be in death." And yet here it was being stripped away from us, from him. In that moment, sitting in the waiting room, waiting for him to die, I decided to live life, not for dignity at the instant of death but for the dignity that comes in living life honestly and fully. Papa didn't give a damn for dying and I wouldn't have wanted him to be anyone else. I loved him for who he was and for how he could make me laugh through my tears.
Ironically, Black was less attractive to me when she seemed to want me. Her desire for me was where my faults shone through: my lack of self-love. Going through this was learning. It was what I always knew she would provide: a good education in life's basic and unfortunate lessons. Still, her death was unbearable.
"Please, Black don't."
I have given up all bedside manners by this point. I'm desperate. The logical part of me knows not to ask why, understands that I can't do anything at this point. But still I rail against the descending death angels, throw my arms around her feather-light body and sob out of control.
"Now you know you're not supposed to do that," she says in her familiar scolding manner.
"I know, I know."
"Oh come on," she says, turning her small body toward the wall. "You won't miss me so much."
"We're already dead to each other anyway, aren't we?"
If there were a door I could open, a button I could push that would take me with her I'd use it. Maybe there's a death clause in life, an escape route that unlike suicide, allows you to go as a companion with the one you love. Perhaps instant death is about meeting an unknown soulmate. At the time of their death, which could be taking place on the other side of the world, you are exploding in the sky or struck by oncoming traffic. Maybe instant death is about a deal in which God accepts your silent plea to be with the one you love.
I wanted her to tell me that she didn't love me. I wanted to be set free from the idea that there had been a chance. That chance had me waiting day after day for her to return, to awaken. Even here, now I'm in denial, thinking she could still fight this disease, sit up in the bed and throw her arms around me. But the cancer has taken root. It started six years ago and had it been detected then, it may have been reversed. Now it was eating its way through her insides. Now she was in pain, but silent pain she learned to deal with over time.
"Should I get your family?"
I knelt down beside her bed whimpering like a baby. I felt a sick string of emotions: fear, greed, anger, hate, rage, love. They would pass in and out of each other within seconds. I could stick with one, fear, focus on her face, her eyelids fluttering up and down, the smile unchanging and hold still till the other took over. Greed, how much I just wanted to be with her. Anger for her leaving me. Hate for the reasons. Rage, she would pass with my murderous rage. Love, I would leave her with love.