I wasn’t at the hospital for the surgery, but Melody and her husband, Mischa, sat in the lobby beside the operating room for the whole three hours while Dr. P. threaded a tube from Friedel’s groin up through the artery, all the way to her neck, and put in a stent. When it was done, Melody called me to say that it had gone well, that Friedel came out of it smiling, and that Dr. P., also smiling, declared, “I’m proud of her!” Melody said, “Friedel’s powerful life force triumphed!” Death receded.
When I got to her hospital room twenty minutes later to celebrate, there was a bustle of activity around her bed and nobody was smiling.
She had had a stroke immediately after returning to her room. The entire left side of her body was affected, her face was slack on that side and her speech was slurred, but she was conscious. A clot had lodged in the new stent. The Grim Reaper approached again.
The back-and-forth was terrible: getting ready to lose her, getting ready to have her back, getting ready to lose her again. I made myself imagine it. We won’t go to New York together next summer after all, I told myself.
We have only metaphors to talk about death, but the Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong. Forget I said it. It makes us think we’re separate from death and that death is our enemy. On my bureau, another metaphor: A Mexican Day-of-the-Dead diorama, a scene in a box just a couple of inches high, in which a skeleton doctor delivers a skeleton baby from a skeleton mother while a skeleton nurse stands by. It reminds me that birth and death go together. Death keeps giving us life, killing old cells to make room for new ones. And what’s hiding under my skin? My skeleton, who lies down with me at night and gets out of bed precisely when I do in the morning. Still, it was harder to remember that death was not my enemy when I feared that it would come for Friedel.
The Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong. It makes us think we’re separate from death and that death is our enemy.
I just had time to squeeze her hand before they wheeled her back into surgery. During the emergency angioplasty, the second one in a day, Dr. P. shot massive doses of anticoagulant into the artery to “melt” the clot. It worked. Over the next few days, all the symptoms of the stroke disappeared and Friedel’s speech went back to normal. Her vitality returned. She practiced walking up and down the hospital corridor. She became exultant. She was going to be discharged in a couple of days. She called her brother in Germany to tell him the good news. Her friends visited, brought take-out food, all of us celebrating that she would be going home to her cat, Mitzikatzi. She thanked us for being a real family for her, for sticking by her no matter what and helping her pull through. And she reminded us over sushi, “Don’t forget, I don’t want to survive a serious stroke.”
Early one morning I was preparing to visit her, putting into a bag some things she had asked for—clothes for when she was discharged, and a novel—when my cell phone rang. “Friedel” came up on the screen.
I answered. “Hi, Friedel, I’m just getting ready to come and see you.”
“I’m sorry. This is not Friedel. This is Dr. P.”
My heart lurched. He told me, gently, that Friedel had just had a massive stroke. There had been extensive bleeding in the brain and she was now completely unresponsive. He said, “Do I have your permission not to intubate her?”
I managed to ask in words I don’t remember whether she could possibly recover, and he said no. If she lived, she’d be completely helpless. Even though there was no question in my mind about what to say, even though any one of her dear ones would have said the same, still, in that life-and-death moment of accountability, my mind searched wildly for an overlooked escape route for Friedel, as if there might be a passageway through heating ducts in the hospital basement. How could I break the spell that had been cast upon her and get her, alive and laughing, out of the hospital and back to her lentil soup? I was alone in my bedroom, holding on to the telephone, with no one else to refer to. Here was another chance to express my love. A choice that was not a choice. Friedel and I were not separate in that moment, though she was dying and I wasn’t. I had no doubt about what to say, and I was grateful for that, but I had to take responsibility for saying it. I had to be brave for all of us. Allowing Friedel to die forced me to grow up, to go beyond myself.
“We have to let her go,” I said through my parched throat. Dr. P. said she’d probably “pass” in a few hours.
Friedel, still alive, was lying on her back, mouth open, eyes closed, freed from the tangle of tubes and technology that could no longer help her, and the skin of her face looked soft and smooth. Her breathing was labored. A paisley shawl I had given her was spread over her torso. I and four other close friends stood around her bed and sang old songs and took turns holding her hand. One friend came with copies of the Heart Sutra, and a few of us chanted it together. Friedel was not a Buddhist, but I don’t think she minded. Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. (Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone to the other shore. Oh, awakening.) The chant encircled us as we encircled Friedel. It comforted me to chant something that humans have been chanting for about two thousand years, a chant about the impermanence of our separate lives and how there are no boundaries between us.
Friedel was breathing raggedly and the nurse gave her some morphine, but it didn’t settle her. A little more and her breathing quieted. We kept telling her we loved her, in case she could hear us. She was alive, with us, even though she was unresponsive.
Then she stopped breathing. The nurse felt for a pulse and shook her head: “She’s gone.” We stood still and silent as our tears came. One of her friends said, “This is the saddest I’ve ever been in my whole life.” We sank back into silence, and half a minute later, Friedel exhaled with a loud burp. We all jumped with fright. The nurse said that often happens—it was just the release of the air left in her lungs. Her mouth gaped open and a trail of mucus came out of one corner.
Death is outside of time. It takes the person who dies out of time, and it takes the living out of time, too.
What the nurse said—and the Heart Sutra, too—was true. She was “gone.” Her body was in the same spot, but everything was different. A body of absence lay on the bed. Where did she go—the one who had been breathing? And not just where, but how? How did she get out of here?
It seemed we stood there forever. Death is outside of time. It takes the person who dies out of time, and it took us, the living, out of time, too, for a while that was neither long nor short. We kept standing there, and we cried, and we looked at each other, and each one of us kissed her forehead that had turned pale in a moment. You could say there were five of us around her, but we were not a number, not countable. We were not distinct from each other.
During that last week of Friedel’s life, the wheels of love had been gathering momentum as we kept coming to cheer her on. By the end, as we stood around her bed, the air in the room was the substance of love. The blankets and chairs and even the various pieces of medical machinery that she was now blessedly unhooked from—everything was made out of love. I saw that that’s what matters: to give oneself away to love. In the midst of uncertainty, love is certain.
The death of someone close to you is like an alarm bell: Wake up! This is it! Do what you care about! Love is what matters!
From Alive Until You’re Dead by Susan Moon © 2022 by Susan Moon. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc..