The phone rang, the name displayed and I answered. It was her. In those days, it was usually her, and I never missed a call.
She was crying.
She wasn’t known for crying. She was known as a force of nature to be reckoned with when people did stupid things at work, the person who you could rely on to bring a shovel if you had to get rid of a body, a person to rely on in your darkest moments. She was a lot like me, and because of that and other things we shared an intimacy that I did not completely understand until that moment.
The voice I knew so well cracked with strain and need. It hurt me to hear her, but I was tethered to the need for wifi for work. All I could do was listen, talk, and tell her I was there for her even when I wasn’t there. We’d discussed the problems she had with endometriosis before though she didn’t like talking about it. The surgeons were going in again, having already taken out one ovary months prior to help her with the pain I watched her fight through for over a year. They wanted to, in her words, “hollow her out”, taking everything else. Alone in a world strange to her, she sobbed on the phone, “What should I do? What should I do?”
There are times in life when you care enough about someone in a bad situation that you just want to reach in and take all their pain, even if it means carrying it yourself. This was one of those times. I knew she wanted children. I knew the pain she was in was real, so very real, and that her strength allowed people to minimize her pain. I knew all of this, and connected only by the equivalent of two cups connected by string, unable to do anything else, I said… “I’m here.” That was it. That was all I could do. I had no right to make the decision for her between possibly helping her pain versus her not having children. It was bad enough that she had to go through it.
Hours passed, we talked about this and that, but underneath it all was that. She had already known what she was going to do when she called, she wanted to know someone else thought it was ok and whatever she chose was ok. There was no guarantee of anything as with most things in life, except that the surgery would mean no children and the pain could well remain. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
For her, it was scary, and for me, it was about her. Her life. Her quality of life. I told her that and said she had to choose between children or the possibility that the pain might stop; I could not tell her what to do, I could not help her with the decision about her body, about her pain, none of that was mine and I couldn’t even pretend to make an informed decision. She knew me. She probably even knew I would say that.
I heard her pull in her breath as she often did before making a hard decision, and she said, “I’ll have them do it.” A finality. A decision made. A life changed.
That conversation still haunts me. As intimate as it was, it was painful. Intimacy includes pain and sharing things that hurt. While it was not the most intimate conversation we had, I remember it well because all I could do was be there for her even when I couldn’t. I could help her by not helping her, by… allowing her to work her way through to her decision.
In the end, the pain didn’t go away for her. I was there for that too, quietly present on the bad days. Then the bad days seemed to stop, but I would find she had made another decision, one I was not party to.
She killed herself.
She wasn’t the first person I knew who had killed herself, but she had been the closest. Sometimes people think it bothers me, and I tell them that I was fortunate to have had someone like her in my life. It’s true. There was no anger about it. I did not consider it selfish.
I considered it something I wish she had talked to me about while I understood why she had not – because then that conversation would be the one that haunts me, where I would tell her I didn’t want her to go, where there would be an empty spot in my life where she once was. It would have been completely self-centered, about what I wanted. And if she had suffered, I would have felt the responsibility of that suffering, that pain that she bore for so long. That would have been terrible, too.
But that conversation… well, that conversation ended up being something I remember because of all of that, and I knew for that conversation, she had chosen to allow me to be a part of it.
Being present is sometimes the best thing we can do, and we live with that because living without it would be worse.
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