Tempted to Believe
Written By Cynthia Freeman
How you spend your days is how you spend your life.
Here are some of the ways Abby and I spent our days together:
As kids, talking while playing and talking while fighting and talking in between singing in choir and being in plays and musicals and visiting our grandparents and occasionally paying attention to the cute little brother who eventually appeared on the scene.
As teenagers, talking while hardly ever fighting, reading, talking about what we were reading, talking about hopes and dreams and plans.
As young adults, getting lost while driving together because we were talking, sharing an apartment in New York and talking, writing and faxing each other when we lived in different countries – this was the time before email – and talking.
As young moms, walking a block to see each other in Echo Park to talk, and taking our kids to playgrounds and museums so they could just go play and let us talk. We talked in Beijing, in Austria, in Yosemite, in Joshua Tree.
And we listened, too, through all of that talking. Being vulnerable and open with each other, everyday barriers and protective walls down. And our eyes met, across rooms, over the heads of children, across tables, side by side at performances, nearby at parties – and we each knew exactly what the other was thinking. We were known. Understood; in joyful moments and hard moments and complicated moments.
When you talked with Abby she brought out your best self, held you to a standard above sniping and snarking – she could always see and empathize with the person or concept I’d be so heartlessly judging.
She also liked things to be cozy and pretty – she called it “shnookiness” – curtains and throw pillows in our apartment in New York, planting petunias out front when she and Merlin lived off the grid in a cabin he built himself.
How you spend your life is how you live your death.
Here are some of the ways we spent Abby’s last months together: talking, taking walks and talking, sharing meals our husbands cooked and talking, reading books, and talking about books, and talking about the staggering amounts of support and help and occasional wackiness that were coming from so many people from so many realms of her life, past and present.
And when she couldn’t take walks anymore we’d sit in her living room or backyard or hospital room talking, and reading, and talking about what we were reading. And talking about how to help her family after she died and how sad she was to be leaving them and all the rest of us, and talking about how she regretted that she would not be able to help our brother and me take care of our parents when they get old.
And also, about lighter stuff, you can’t be in the heavy place all the time, and one of the many burdens of illness for her was having to be in the center of attention constantly, which she disliked even when she was well.
And when she couldn’t talk so much anymore because it made her cough, I would read aloud to her, at first new books we hadn’t read before, and then our old favorites, the books we read over and over as teenagers, about intrepid girl heroines who go on quests and save the kingdom and fall in love and have talking animals for pets.
And I would clean up the ever-accumulating detritus of the sick room and make it as shnooky as I could, and she would smile and give me the look that meant she noticed and appreciated it. And when it was hard for Abby to get out of bed, and the level of immobility and suffering was not enough of a life, and she was starting to feel ready to go, I realized that it would be more than enough for the rest of us, if all she could do was lie in a bed, and listen, because she could always make you feel heard and understood and loved.
I dream of Abby now and then. It’s a great gift and comfort to me. Sometimes the dreams are set before she was sick, in the world before her death even seemed possible. Sometimes she’s already ill, I can tell by her short hair. A few months after Abby died I had my first dream of her. We were in my house in Sunnyside, Queens, and it was August, but she was there, with long hair, to perform in a show in New York.
In the dream I grabbed her hands and looked into her eyes and said “But Abby, do you know that you died? On June first.” And she said “I know. I know.” And then she hugged me and we cried and we smiled and it was unexplained and also undeniable that she was there.
Like most people here, I want to live to a ripe old age and not suffer before I die. But recently, this is the notion that tempts me–I don’t want to die in my sleep. I want a short illness first, nothing too painful, but I want to be awake for it. Because in the booklet the hospice people give you about what happens when someone is dying in front of you, they write about this thing that often occurs: when you get to the border of the shadowlands, your death just a few hours or maybe a day away, it’s not uncommon to see loved ones who have died before you. They wave, they hold out their arms, they beckon you across. So that’s what I want at the end – a chance to see Abby one more time. Maybe we’ll even talk a little.