A friend of mine died last month. We weren’t particularly close, but I liked her a lot—we’d have coffee near Union Square every so often and she’d talk about her budding music career and I’d talk about my long-gestating novel. I tend not to enjoy unifying conversations about art that include me. I admire the obvious external talents of actors and singers and basketball players more than the writer’s drudging isolation and, karaoke daydreams aside, I don’t crave the immediacy of reaction that performers chase. But my friend’s genuine enthusiasm for what she called “our craft” was infectious and I always got a creative jolt out of seeing her. She was too earnest, too well-liked, too attractive, to have ever generated evident self-consciousness.
A year ago, my friend found out that she had a really dire, painful kind of cancer. She spent the rest of her life enduring a sequence of atrocities—bone marrow transplants, hotel stays near the Mayo Clinic, experimental treatments that gave her a false sense of hope, multiple resuscitations. Hers was the kind of suffering that eventually pushes you into a null state somewhere beyond empathy. Gradually, I got used to the idea that she would soon disappear. Each text was a bit more valedictory; I was more relieved with every one of her email replies.
When we know someone is going to die, hope dwindles as a matter of course. Reality steadily evaporates the well-spring of optimism. We can and do pre-mourn for people who are still alive, and the pain manifests as a single scoop of a sine wave: very difficult at first, even worse at the end. If it was tough for me, a mid-level friend at best, I can’t imagine how her boyfriend dealt with her decline. They hadn’t even dated that long before she got sick. He’d only had a smattering of weeks with the beautiful, talented person I’d known for a decade. But he stuck by her, quitting his job, suspending his life.
My friend and I were talking on the phone a couple of months ago (I never saw her in person again after the diagnosis) and I asked about her relationship, expecting to hear the usual cancer boyfriend platitudes. Honestly, I was looking forward to them. There’s a reason clichés become clichés. But instead, she said that she was seriously bored of him and was considering breaking it off. She even laughed about it. I was shocked. It wasn’t just the scars and the baldness and the imposed isolation. My friend was 99.9% sure going to die—how could she not wait it out for what would be, best case scenario, half a year, so her boyfriend, who had been so good, wouldn’t have to live on knowing that the woman he’d most loved had dumped him while she was terminal?
But then: who’s a deathbed really for? So many of life’s passages, the graduations and the weddings, are really meant for other people to bear witness to our change. But the body shutting down, the last connections to reality severed—should that be a private experience for the patient or a public transition for her loved ones? Now me, I’m someone who believes in nothing. You end and the universe that’s yours ends with you. So I understand why my friend didn’t want to spend her last days with someone she’d lost interest in. Why waste time on him when she could share a little more love with her loved ones?
My friend died before she could go through with the break-up. After all of that slow suffering, it happened fast. Her boyfriend couldn’t make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye. Of course, I’m glad she didn’t end up dumping him. And I’m changing enough details that I hope he’ll never find this. But I don’t know—as always with her, I was compelled to write something after we talked. I laugh whenever I think about the ballsiness of it, of her. I most appreciate the way she told me. It was as casual as sitting on a Union Square bench with iced coffees in the summer watching skateboarders whirl round: “I don’t quite think it’s working, but I’m not sure why.” And it’s a retroactive revelation of why I was so drawn to her; she never did have time for false narratives.
Adam Dalva is a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA Program, where he was a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellow. He was an Associate Fellow at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. His work has been published in The Millions, Public Books, Lumina, and elsewhere. He is also a dealer of French antiques.