And she will always carry on
Something is lost
But something is found”
- The Pretenders
The red pickup truck winds its way up the hill in Berkeley, California in the late 1990s. Nothing too unusual about it, right? Look closer. The five people perched in the back are holding on to a well-decorated coffin. And the boy in the front is blowing bubbles.
The dress rehearsal is over. The characters are walking onto the stage. First up, Adina. With a voice made husky by 42 years of cystic fibrosis, she is most definitely the director. She sits center-stage, like God who has an intimate knowledge of the primordial firmament, and through the green, projects a light. With each cough, we move in closer to hear our instructions.
There is Denise, Jim and four-year-old Tavi, with his halo of blond hair. There is Angie, a friend of 17 years, to whom Adina whispers, “when I can’t shower and wash my own hair, I’m done.” I stand with Adina’s husband, Phil, and Justin, her foster son, next to Phil’s wheelchair.
An optimistic voice whispers, “How odd Saskia that you are writing a story about death.” I turn upon her fiercely. “This is not an ordinary death, coming after years of health. This is the death of a woman who was sick all her life. Whose father stuffed pills with medicines he ordered by mail to ensure her survival. Whose very being, damp with phlegm, was lit from inside like a human lava lamp.
The optimistic voice has nothing more to say and steps away to think about what is positive in all this.
Adina was unusual in that she had warning of her death. “You’ve got probably about six months,” she was told by her doctor after a risky heart and lung transplant was canceled, and in that time, she shaped her team, not to just make meals, but to actively and raucously shepherd her across.
Our first task was to build a coffin.
Adina asked for a simple box lined with purple velvet. Once it was built, we went to work filling the inside with doodles, photos, sparkles, and messages. Her personal playbill. Her lifetime achievement award.
One night, Adina confessed that she did not want to go to sleep. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I am afraid I might die.”
She had a point.
She WAS dying. No reassuring that away. In the absence of words, we took turns holding her.
Peddling away each night, I was conscious of bodies. Of Adina’s, which I’d calmed, and of my own, which was panicking. I was living in two worlds. One where finality loomed like the mouth of the fish that swallowed Jonah. The other where toothpaste, student loans, and other reminders of the future brought me back to sanity.
The day the casket was finished, Adina came gently out of her room, oxygen in tow, and slowly climbed in. Tavi jumped in next. Handing out plates of spaghetti, I imagined I was feeding explorers discovering a new world. It was then that Adina announced that she’d like to paint her toenails. And the color she chose was the same deep purple as the casket. She painted hers, and then she painted Tavi’s.
Stop and look! Adina is dressed in a thin tank top and faint orange pants, and I am the chair she leans back on. Justin, and Phil are touching her legs and holding her left hand. With her right, Adina removes the oxygen mask. It will only speed things up by a few hours. But it makes a difference to Adina and her ownership of this narrative.
I can’t see so well, being behind her, so I lean heavily on my sense of touch. Mask off, she catches for air. And then, like an orgasm you are fighting until it explodes, her energy flies out and is gone.
We lay her body out, her eyes yellow, the blood beginning to pool at the bottom of her skin.
Do we go somewhere after we die? This is a question for those of us left behind. The day Adina died, I biked home and it felt like everything was brighter, as if my soul had tagged along for a few minutes behind Adina’s, and then returned, the dross burned away and the beauty that is living exposed.