828-3886. I recognize the number when I see it flash up on the screen. It’s one of the few phone numbers that I know by heart. We’ve been friends for twenty-two years. Hers were the last digits I learned before we all outsourced our memories to our cell phones. All the other numbers from my past have lost relevancy or don’t connect to the living: street addresses for homes we no longer own, birthdays of grandparents, channels of TV stations, pre-pregnancy shoe size, and of all those landlines long abandoned—hers was the last working phone number.
828-3886. I answer the phone. “Hey, Robin, what’s up?” When you’ve been close friends for over two decades, you can hear the bad news in the sound of their breath. “Oh no,” I said, bracing for the news. “I have cancer.” “What kind?” “Pancreatic.” “Pancreatic,” I repeat with a voice I don’t recognize. Or maybe it’s a finality I haven’t heard in my voice until now. It had started as a slight pain in her abdomen earlier in the year. The initial diagnosis was gastritis.
In recent years, Robin’s greatest pleasures had been her wine-tasting group, gourmand weekends in Napa Valley, and an annual trip to France. She’d even considered cashing out and hightailing it to a wine cave in the Loire Valley. After triumphing over a lifetime of struggle with body issues, wine and anything worth eating would now be denied to her. It seemed impossible that “cut out spicy foods and wine” had progressed to “get your affairs in order” by springtime, but it had.
In my twenties, all cancers sounded the same to me, but I’m old enough to know that pancreatic is one of those no-one-gets-out-of-here-alive cancers. I voraciously consume the obits, tallying what takes out whom, at what speed and what are the symptoms, and I know that if Steve Jobs couldn’t beat this one, nobody can.
Every time I pick up the phone, someone’s having a health crisis. In the past, when friends have died it’s seemed like the exception, not the rule, but now all bets are off. There was the cruel swiftness with which AIDS dispatched with my gay friends in the eighties and then there was Fernando’s overdose at thirty-nine; the actress who was murdered, leaving her young daughter motherless; the neighbor who’d dropped dead from a brain aneurysm on his daily run. Come to think of it, he’d just turned fifty. Now every passing year brings news of a friend’s decline or demise. Last month brought a wave of suicides.
“Have you heard about Daniella’s husband? He went off his meds and drove off a cliff. He left a note saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
“Two young children. Tragic.”
“Did you know the comedy writer, Steven Something-Jewish?”
“Steven Something-Jewish, oh yeah, it was drugs and alcohol, right?”
“It wasn’t career related, right, wasn’t he always working?”
“Have you heard about . . .”
“Yes. Tragic!” Deena’s brain tumor, Yulissa’s back surgery and Curtis’s irregular heartbeat.
“Heart? Heart is good. Just look at Dick Cheney.”
If I’m not filling out bring-them-a-meal requests, I’m dropping off medication, driving a friend to get an MRI, making an emergency sour cream run or walking someone’s dog. People are starting to brag about their low cholesterol levels with the enthusiasm once reserved for sexual conquests. I hate that I get a joke with Boniva in the punchline!
But the news about Robin hit especially hard; she was the person I’ve known the longest since moving to Los Angeles. It can be challenging to make long-lasting friendships after college, but Robin and I had stuck it out. I leaned on Robin like an older sister in the early years of our acquaintance, when our five-year age difference seemed enormous, but over time, the gap had compressed and we’d become peers.
When my sulky movie-star boyfriend disappeared overnight and changed his phone number, it was her idea to drive out to a crummy strip mall and chuck the keys to his apartment into the sewer. She knew me well enough to know that having those keys in my possession would be dangerously tempting for me, though in retrospect, I’m sure he had changed his locks as well.
Over the years there’d been times when I’d see that phone number and brace myself for the way her New Jersey nasal whine could inspire guilt in me. “Annnabeeeelle, it’s Roooobin. Where are you?” But we’d put in the time. My divorce, her career setbacks, my career setbacks, my new marriage, her new career, the birth of my son, her big breakups, her parent’s declining health. We’d been like sisters for two and a half decades and were heading into our third.
Our friendship was tested when she turned fifty. She’d woken up convinced that she’d been cheated out of the attention she deserved having never been married, with no children to birthday party or bar mitzvah. She insisted her closest girlfriends accompany her to sample Syrahs in the Rhone Valley. When none of us could take the trip, she felt betrayed and abandoned. Now, facing this diagnosis, she’d taken me and the rest of her inner circle back.
“No one will ever have sex with me again.”
“No one’s having sex with you now. At least now you can attend your own group,” I said in an attempt at humor.
After an award-winning career of producing stand-up comedy, Robin had gone back to school to become a therapist and had been working as a bereavement facilitator for oncology groups. She knew the landscape ahead of her: punishing rounds of chemo and if she was really, really lucky, she might get a year or two. Later it would make me apoplectic to hear people say, “It’s ironic that a grief facilitator gets cancer.” “Not really,” I’d counter. “That’s like saying it’s extraordinary when your doctor dies; what would be amazing is if they lived forever.”
There was a certain excitement when she started the treatment, like the third season of a sitcom, when the characters face serious challenges but still fire off hilariously biting one-liners. It was just like Samantha’s breast cancer story line in Sex and the City, except Robin didn’t have a lavish wardrobe, designer shoe collection, sex, the city, or any chance of recovery. She did still have her sense of humor when she registered the domain name Tumor Humor. She was going to blog about coping with cancer through humor. Chemo was also a great excuse to purchase one or two new sweaters to attractively provide coverage for the port she’d need in her chest and cute fuzzy booties for good measure. Minus her gourmet cuisine and wine, her weight dipped precipitously, but we joked about how she was finally able to lose those pesky last twenty-five pounds.
After only a few months we went from sitcom to Lifetime Movie of the Week. Robin sprung for a human-hair wig styled after Elaine’s Seinfeld season-six layered locks, so when her hair fell out, every day was a good hair day. Glowing from the chemo, she really had never looked better. But those good days didn’t last. Her feet swelled up and the comfy booties had to be cast aside. The new sweaters hung loosely from her shrinking frame, her skin began to turn dull and gray and she still hadn’t written more than a few paragraphs of Tumor Humor. Cancer? Not so funny after all. It was terrifying. For her. For all of her friends.
Is there something growing inside me right now that will eventually kill me as well? I’ve always harbored an irrational resistance to washing off fruit. I’ve purposefully, stubbornly refused to rinse it off. Why on earth do I do this? What’s wrong with me? Pesticides are undoubtedly eating away at my insides at this very minute, though statistically speaking I will probably be bumped off by a teenage driver texting What’s up? or the last thing I will glimpse will be tile. My friend, the futurist and author Dave Freeman, had worked his way through fifty of his Hundred Things to Do Before You Die he’d recommended in his book; he’d survived running with the bulls in Spain and land diving in the South Pacific, but was taken out by a fall in the tub.
“The fifties are the weeding-out time,” my friend Arye explains. He serves on the pension advisory board of the actor’s union. “We could never afford to pay pension and health-care benefits if so many people didn’t start dropping dead.”
“Well, it’s comforting to know they’re serving a purpose for the greater good.”
I’m a child of the 1970s: I saw Logan’s Run, I know that Soylent Green is people and that if we lived forever we’d be unfairly stealing resources that belong to future generations. But when it comes to giving up your seat at the dinner table, most of us prefer to linger for one more coffee and dessert.
Robin wanted to hang on as long as possible, and she needed our help to make that possible. With no spouse, no children, she had only her friends, her chosen family. She didn’t want to return to New Jersey to her mother with Alzheimer’s, father with dementia, and strained relationship with her brother and sister-in-law. Isolation from her home and friends would kill her faster than the cancer and make any time she had left miserable, she reasoned, and the troops assembled. Neighbors began dog walking and handled the food shopping. Roommates from college, comedians and members of her wine group showed up to bolster her spirits. Her closest friends began coordinating and accompanying her to doctor’s appointments and chemo, and even sleeping over on a regular basis.
I tried to carve out my usefulness. Her last relationship with a foodie who had run a bacon-of-the-month mail-order business had ended two years before. He left her with a Viking oven and a large collection of wines, but without hope of entering into another relationship. I decided I would start touching her as much as possible. We’d smoke her medical marijuana and then I’d wash her hair. She’d put her head in my lap, and I’d stroke her head and massage her feet.
Within eight months, we were in Bergman territory. Every time I’d leave her, we’d say good-bye not knowing if this would be that good-bye. There were so many farewells that she was starting to tire of them. It was gut-wrenching.
“You’re losing me, but I’m losing everyone I love all at once.”
Robin couldn’t tolerate even the most soothing of music, watch television or read, and barely rose from her bed. Hospice workers began twenty-four-hour shifts.
Every day I began bracing for the call that would tell me she had passed, but it didn’t come. I was performing around the country and each time I’d see 828-3386 flash on my phone, I’d answer with the same question. Is this the call? “It’s not that call, but I think you should come over when you get back in town and say good-bye,” one of her caregivers would say. As soon as my plane would land, I’d drop my suitcases at home, drive to her place, hop into her bed, massage her bony shoulders and lead her through a relaxation exercise I learned from a Rabbi. We’re both atheists, but what harm could it do?
“Picture yourself lying on a beach. The sun warms your body. You know, Robin, we should really take you to the beach now that you don’t need to worry about skin cancer! So, imagine your soul rising up into the atmosphere, even though there is no soul separate from the body. Did you know that it was only after people realized that the body deteriorated after death, they needed to conceive of something that was separate from the corporeal body in order to support the idea of resurrection, and that’s how the concept of the soul being untethered to the body became an accepted belief? Anyway, ‘you,’ whatever that means, rise up to the clouds to Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, your soul’s true home. I prefer concrete under my feet, but whatever works—maybe it’s Bergerac or Cahors. Everyone you love and who loves you is waiting for you. I suppose that could be two separate and distinct groups of people. I’m not sure what happens if your grandmother would prefer not to spend the afterlife in the company of your grandfather, which I’m sure is true in my family, but maybe the way it works is that these souls get together to greet you and then they go of to their own corner of heaven with the people they’d prefer to spend eternity with—anyway, you greet your loved ones and you’re surrounded by love. You’re surrounded by love, Robin. Let go of any stress you’re feeling. Let go. Just let go. Now, slowly return back to your body in a more relaxed state,” I’d repeat.
I’d been doing this meditation in times of stress for years, but it wasn’t until I lay in Robin’s bed that I realized it might actually a preparation for the Big Relaxation and that it might not be a bad idea to skip the part about returning to your body, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. She didn’t need me to decide for her when to go.
The words of the dying hold a special power. Famous last words are oft quoted, even if they aren’t true. Jefferson lives, John Adams supposedly proclaimed, the rivalry between these two founding fathers following him to the death. I imagine his real last words were probably, I’m so uncomfortable . . . water, hot, where? Some non sequitur. But we like this idea, the it-all-makes-sense-now moment that connects you to the dying, which gives their life meaning and in turn gives your life meaning and thus It All Makes Sense. I’m not going to lie and say these were her last words, but during one of these last visits, she clutched my hands and these were four of the last words I can remember her saying to me.
“Learn from my life.”
I nodded my head, cried and promised I would in the way that you do to the dying.
But what did she mean? Learn from my life? She should have married Bacon Man? Would things be different? Would years of consuming even more pork products have sped up or slowed down what might have been the inevitable? Should she have moved to France? Would she have gotten pancreatic cancer if she’d taken up residence in a wine cave? Wouldn’t we be having the same conversation in room with fewer windows?
Learn from my life.
The only thing I was learning was just how much suffering a relatively small collection of fast-growing cells can cause. Soon, she wasn’t eating and didn’t want visitors, just the inner circle. She was wrung out. We all were. It was bleaker than a Lars von Trier film. It was a Friday morning when 828-3886 appeared on my cell phone.
“Is this the call?”
“This isn’t that call, but Robin says she needs help and this is the weekend she wants to do it.” It was another member of her inner circle. I didn’t think twice. I told my husband and son I didn’t know when I’d be back, packed an overnight bag and rushed out of the house. I knew what was being asked of us, even if wasn’t spelled out. We all did. This was going to be The Good Death, carefully orchestrated, carried out by loved ones. One by one her five closest girlfriends arrived and the hospice worker retreated into Robin’s spare bedroom.
Robin was skeletal. I would never have recognized her if she weren’t propped up in her own bed. She was dressed in a white nightshirt. Her sheets and blankets, all white. We gathered in her bedroom. This was the group that never made it to France with her. The air was charged with adrenaline and sorrow. Later I would wonder if we weren’t all anticipating the relief that soon this ordeal would be over for us as well. One of the girlfriends opened up a bottle of Drusian Prosecco.
“I hope that’s not my good stuff,” Robin hoarsely whispered.
“What are you saving it for!?” We all said at the same time.
We toasted her. We kissed her. We told her we loved her. It really felt like a celebration as we started upping her pain medication. The plan was vaguely expressed to me, but as I understood it, she would fall into a coma and her do-not-resuscitate order was in place. I wasn’t really clear on the legal ramifications of what we were doing—I’m still not—but each of the five of us pushed the pump as we stood by the bed. Each one of us wanted to make sure our fingerprints would be on the button on the morphine drip. We didn’t want any one person to be culpable.
“We should really confuse things—let’s put the dog’s paw on the pump!” someone exclaimed. It might have been me—I think it was me, but it was hard to tell; we were giggling and crying and working together as one unit. This is exactly the way I want to go, I said to myself: in a circle of love.
By this point she had Paxil, Wellbutrin, morphine, oxycodone and Haldol in her system and still she was totally lucid.
“You’re incredibly drug resistant,” someone said. “You should have done heroin!” Okay, I said that. Her first job out of college had been as a page on Saturday Night Live, working with some of the great drug addicts of all time. Oh, the parties she’d excused herself from. If only she’d known. Was this the learn-from-my-life moment?
We sat by the bed while Robin dozed on and off for the next few hours, but she wasn’t going under. Every time she stirred, all five of us would jump to help. If she wanted her mouth swabbed or needed to throw up, we attended to her needs. If someone had told me the night we met in 1989, throwing back drinks in a Century City screening room to celebrate the comedy special that she’d produced, that one day I’d be pumping morphine into an IV drip into this vibrant woman’s arm, I would never have believed it.
“I finally have my big Hollywood moment. If I get an itch, I have five people to scratch it.”
It was almost midnight when we began to make plans for the inevitable and we realized we faced a twenty-first-century predicament. We didn’t have the password to her computer. I suggested “Languedoc,” a wine region in France that Robin loved and is hard to spell but awfully fun to say, but that didn’t work. We tried the name of her niece, other grape varieties and even artisanal cheeses— Mothais, Idiazabal and Zomorano. Nothing.
“Wake up, Robin. You can’t die yet, we don’t know your password.” I shook her awake. She looked us and with perfect deadpan comic timing, she told us, “It’s Robin.”
We puffed her pillows, smoothed her comforter and settled in for the night. I stretched out in the hallway outside of her bedroom with another friend. The other three women were camped out in the living room. A baby monitor was turned up so we could keep tabs on her. It was three a.m. when we heard her. She was close to falling into that deeper level of sleep that would lead to the big sleep, but she kept rousing herself. She called. Two of us went in to her.
“I need to get up and walk. I need interaction,” she said as she tried to lift herself up. “No, Robin, you can’t get up,” my cohort said flatly. Something inside me went numb. I said nothing. Silently, robotically, I shifted her position on the bed. I tucked her in tightly. I turned my back to her. I walked out of her bedroom and closed the door behind me.
Only later would I remember how utterly fragile she looked. How totally dependent she was on us. How her bony hands had pulled at her nightshirt to cover herself when I moved her. How her swollen genitals were a shade of deep purple, like raw liver. How her attempt at modesty was the last gesture I would witness from my friend of twenty-two years. No more for you. That’s what we were telling her and telling ourselves. I hadn’t gently guided her to “just let go.” I’d cut her off. What is right word for the complete absence of anything funny? It did not All Make Sense, and she couldn’t let go. Just let go.
By seven a.m., after a fitful sleep, one of the girlfriends realized we had a problem. Or, rather, we were the problem. “She’s not going to be able to do this unless we leave; she’s going to keep reaching out for us and it’s only going to get harder. On all of us,” she said. One by one, we departed. The call came the next morning. Only the hospice nurse was at her home at the time of her death. During the days that followed I became furious with Robin. Why did she ask this of us—I wasn’t even her “real” family! I’m a comedienne; I’m the last person you’d want to decide when and how you should depart this lifetime. Maybe I’d misunderstood what she’d wanted; she was on so many drugs. Maybe what she’d really wanted was for me to beg her to hold on and keep fighting? Why hadn’t I said good-bye when it really was the time for good-bye? It was supposed to end in a circle of love! I was wracked with guilt.
Robin’s obituary read that she’d fought hard but lost her battle with cancer. Learn from my life? One thing I learned is that if I ever get cancer, I’d prefer it chronicled like this: she lived it up as long as she could, then bitched and moaned and cried and cursed her fate like everyone who has cancer.
Her blood relations arrived to close up her affairs, pack up the family silver, the china and the good jewelry. They oversaw the selling of her town house, but her voluntary kin were left with the job of cleaning out her sock and desk drawers, dispensing with the detritus that the dead leave behind.
It felt dirty, pawing through her closets, looking for something to take to remember her by, especially after hastening her death. But, what? Her shoes had scuffs on the bottom, the inside linings of her purses were stained and torn. I’d always thought of her as well dressed, but everything in her closet looked tired. The majority of your possessions will immediately lose any value when you die, especially clothing and shoes. Maybe that’s what she meant by Learn from my life. Would anyone want this after my death? is a question I ask myself every time I go shopping now, and it regularly saves me from buying stuff I don’t need. I took home the books that I’d authored and had inscribed to her, along with her collection of inscribed books from other writers. I couldn’t bear to think of them ending up in an anonymous thrift store, though it’s likely her books, along with the contents of my bookshelves, will end up there one day in the hopefully distant future. If the future is completely paperless, my books, which now include Robin’s copy of The History of Saturday Night Live in which her name is spelled incorrectly, will spend eternity decomposing in the Puente Hills landfill just outside of Los Angeles County. I left with a few choice bottles of wine in tow.
Witnessing the passing of our friends, our pets, and our heroes is increasing in regularity and its giving rise to all manner of negotiations. Especially regarding our own demises.
I met up with my single friend Lauren for lunch and when I inquired as to how she was doing, she blurted out, “I don’t want my cats to eat me. I really need to get married.”
“If there’s ever a stretch of time when I haven’t heard from you for more than two days, I’ll stop in and make sure you’re still alive,” I promised her.
“When we can’t wipe our asses, or if forget who we are, let’s make a pact, we’ll jump off a cruise ship together,” Gia, my attorney, who is the same age as me and a fan of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections suggested in an email.
“We’ll have to be certain we’re really far out to sea; if we’re too close to port, we might hit the bottom and break a leg.”
“Yes, that would be even worse, a broken leg on top of everything else.”
“Right. And, Gia, if I kick the bucket before you, take my suede Stuart Weitzman boots; I just had them reheeled.”
After a few weeks of watching me suffer, my husband, Jeff said, “You did the right thing, but I don’t think I want to be left alone with you if I’m ever really sick.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Come on, let’s toast to Robin. She’d love that,” he said. We opened a Benton Lane 2008 from Robin’s collection. Jeff was the first to take a sip.
“It’s undrinkable; it’s turned.” We opened a Château de Claribès Sauvignon Blanc 2009, same thing. The Russian River Pinot Noir had cork rot, so we couldn’t drink that one, either. Thank God she never knew; it would have killed her.
Excerpted from I See You Made an Effort, by Annabelle Gurwitch. Available from Blue Rider Press, March 6th, 2014.