Gone

By Cecilia Duijts Lindahl

 

My friend was dying, and we didn’t talk about it. 

We planned trips that I knew we would never take. Italy. India. We sat in her kitchen, looking at maps spread out on the table in front of us. Spread out like a future. She wanted to see the rows of fishing nets in Cochin; she wanted to do yoga on the beach in Varkala, next to all the cows; she wanted to be saved in an Ayurvedic hospital in the mountains, drinking oils, getting massages, surrounded by waterfalls and jungle.

We had the whole trip planned. I gave her a book about Kerala, and she was furiously silent. We never bought any tickets. 

I share my life with a small group of close friends; we don’t live together but we live life together. She was one of them. She was family. She had other families like this, friends I didn’t know before the cancer, and now spent hours with them every week. Her name was Ulrika. She loved me back. She loved all of us back. 

She made dinners she couldn’t eat because of the pain; she bought champagne she couldn’t drink. She sat there, watching us eat Jerusalem artichoke soup and freshly baked bread with Västerbotten cheese. We sipped Veuve Clicquot Vintage Brut and she laughed. She took morphine and slowly stopped laughing, falling back into the almost pain-free zone, her body resting for a little while. And we sat around her, drinking and eating. Loving. 

She taught me how to live. She bought Bombay Sapphire gin in the tax-free shop in Doha, when she, Sofia, and I were on our way to Bangkok a year before she got sick. She smiled at the people at the reception desk of our hotel, standing straight, wearing her hat over her red hair as if she were a celebrity. We got upgraded to a suite. 

We sat on the balcony overlooking the Chao Phraya river, watching the sun set, getting drunk on Doha gin and Thai tonic water, eating roasted almonds. She killed cockroaches like a boss. She swam lengths in the pool every morning, wearing her hat. She bought sapparot and dtang-moe from the street vendors, watching them cutting the fruits, their hands fast as butterflies. She ate pineapple straight from the plastic bag, dipping it in chili and sugar. She laughed at the speed of the vendors, their knives making a kaleidoscope of reflected light on her Prada sunglasses. She was exhilarated by the sweetness of the fruit. It was her first time in Thailand. And her last. 

During the short years of her illness, she was all I could think about. Her illness was everywhere, in everything. There was no time, no space, for anything else. 

I went with her to the hospital, every time, Ulrika looking out of the window in the dim office, construction workers moving around silently on the scaffolding, painting the window frames. Us, trapped as if in a dirty aquarium, the green net filtering the sunlight, the muffled voices of her mother and, what was her name, the oncologist - Maria? - talking beside her. 

“What do you mean it’s inoperable?” Ulrika’s mother slammed her fist down on the X-rays. 

I looked at Maria, the wet glistening teeth in that huge mouth, shark’s teeth, wolf’s teeth, thin lips almost smiling. “As you can see, it has spread, all these little dots here in her lungs. And here, the liver." She pointed at the black and white picture, and I followed her claws moving over the X-ray. Those are Ulrika’s lungs, I thought, her lungs; they look like the Milky Way, a million stars glittering in neverending darkness. Ulrika put her hands on her chest, tried to inhale. I wanted her to expand that universe within, but she doubled over coughing.

The phone calls could come at any time. Her mother called me at five in the morning; I had to rush to the hospital, or I had to take the dog so her mother could rush to the hospital. We, her mother and the ever changing, organically fluid group of her close friends, had to make food for her and bring it three times a day. Ulrika couldn’t eat the pre-packaged “food” they served. How can hospitals serve inedible food? They spend billions on drugs and machinery trying to make people better, but can’t manage to feed them. 

I miss her in a totally selfish way: I see something, and I want to tell her about it. I wish she could comfort me. I wish she could give me advice. I wish I could hear her laugh at the stupidity of it all, helping me cope. I try to miss her in a more selfless way. To miss her for her sake. And intellectually I do. I hate what she had to endure. I hate that she isn’t here anymore, living her life, doing her things. But when I cry, I always cry for me. 

Not that I really cry much. I try to cry. But I don’t. Except sometimes. I never know why, but when it happens it’s like breaking the surface of the ocean. I’ve been holding my breath forever, swimming, lost, under water, not even realising that I’m underwater, holding my breath, and suddenly I'm surrounded by air, and I can breathe. I never cry for more than a few hot seconds, alone in my kitchen or in the bathroom. I need to get a dog. 

Her lungs filled with fluid; she couldn’t breathe. She told me to stop being so dramatic about it. So I stopped. I hadn’t realised; I never spoke to her about it. Maybe what she was really doing was telling the world she wished she could stop thinking so dramatically about drowning. Instead, we talked about the graphic charter of the X-ray ward. They used Comic Sans as the font on their signs, completely ignoring the graphic identity rules of the hospital. We bitched a lot about that, because it was her job. She had two litres of fluid in one of her lungs, one and a half in the other, and she looked at the signs, wheezing, “Comic Sans! Those signs could kill patients.” 

I held her hand. I stood in the waiting room when she was getting her chest X-rays, trying to breathe, so difficult that my lungs filled with imaginary fluids, my eyes dry, burning. 

They drained her lungs, bags hanging off of her bed, filling slowly with red and yellow fluids. We went back time and time again. The doctors told her they could glue the lungs to the pleura, but we had Googled that. They only do that when you’re dying. She refused to die, so she refused the procedure. 

She was exceptionally intelligent. She read books I had never heard of. She had her own publishing company. Then she started working as a communications strategist. Then the chemo fried her brain in seven places. No one knew it was possible. She had seizures. She forgot where she was, and when it was, but she was too polite to complain. When the nurses asked her how she felt, she answered, “Fine, thank you!” They didn’t think anything of it. I told them to wait.

“Do you know what day it is, Ulrika?” I asked her.

She smiled at me and said, “Monday.” It was Thursday. 

“Do you know why you're here?”

She looked around her and asked, “Where am I?” 

I looked at the nurses. “She's not fine. She's polite. There is a difference.”  

I don’t know how people survive hospitals alone. We never left her alone; staying with her was a full time round-the-clock job for us. She was violently allergic to penicillin. It said so in her medical record. We Googled all the drugs they gave her and stopped them twice from giving her penicillin. We could never relax. 

As the illness progressed, she stopped being polite. She was too exhausted.

Ten days before she died, a doctor told her he couldn’t give her whatever treatment she'd asked for, because it would kill her. She screamed at him, “Don’t you tell me I’ll die! I’m going to live!” 

She was so thin then, I didn’t recognize her when I came to visit. I thought no one could be that thin and still live. Every time, she proved me wrong. In the end, she was reduced to skin and bones. I had heard the cliché many times, but I had never seen it before. Her legs were two femurs with knees attached, thin ridges under the orange hospital plaid. At 180 centimetres tall, she weighed less than 40 kilos. She couldn’t sit up straight in her bed, because the muscles in her back didn’t work anymore. Her face was unrecognizable: yellow skin tightly drawn over her skull, yellow eyes almost closed. She didn’t talk -- until she opened her eyes and screamed at that doctor. She was sitting hunched in her bed, the thick metal needle in her back, the plastic tube over her pinkish hospital gown, the plastic bag slowly filling up on the bed next to her. 

She left the hospital that day in an ambulance; she went to her parents’ house. She refused to go back. “I hate that hospital; it’ll kill me! I’m going to live!” She didn’t want any visitors. I stood helpless, 120 kilometres away, watching my phone. She didn’t drink anymore. And then she was unconscious, unconscious for a week, getting a morphine shot every fourth hour because she still felt the pain, moaning from deep under, though she never surfaced again. How can anyone live for a week without water? I thought that was impossible. 

Then I got the text message. We all got the text message. And then there was a funeral. I didn’t cry. I listened to the opera singer, and wished I would. I listened to the speeches, and I watched all the crying strangers, people I knew so well, now strangers. It all felt like theatre to me. 

We took her ashes with us to a restaurant and got drunk, with her in the middle of the table, in a cardboard box inside a plastic bag, from ICA, I think, and I almost felt something. I went home. I slept. I woke up. I went to work. 

I keep thinking about how she called me one day, a few days into her last round of chemo. “My hair is falling out again now,” she said. 

“Do you want me to come over and shave your head?” 

“Yes, could you?” 

She sat on a chair in her bedroom, the balcony doors open, trams passing by in the busy street below, the voices of people, the rustling of leaves. A beautiful sunny October day. The wind soft around us. I cut her hair short with a pair of scissors, and then I cut it to millimetre length with an old Philips electric clipper. When I asked her if she wanted me to shave her head with a blade she nodded. As she stood up, her now steel-grey hair all around her feet, she looked at me. “It’s not how many years you live that matters,” she said. “It’s what you’ve done with the years that’s important?” 

I heard the question mark I knew she didn’t intend to put there. “Yes,” I said, and I hugged her. She hugged me back, really quickly, and then she walked to the bathroom. 

“Be right with you!” I said as I closed my eyes, breathing. 

 

She sits on the toilet now, backwards, resting her arms on top of the water canister. I shave her head slowly, rinse the blade under the tap, add more shaving foam than I need. She hums softly to the music on the radio, the last pieces of her hair flushing out with the water. Down. Slowly disappearing one tuft at a time.

And then it’s gone.