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Stories

Since She Died

When a friend dies, your memories can absorb your every waking moment. And also your dreams. SARAH HEPOLA lives through the pain, the joy of remembrance, and the responsibility of both. Here is her story of love and loss.

Since she died, it’s been hard to write. I sit down at the computer, but end up sprawled on the bed, watching reality television. Have you seen Who Wants to Marry My Dad? It’s as bad as it sounds.

A few nights ago, flush with inspiration, I scribbled down notes for a satirical piece called “Who Wants to Cure My Cancer?” I’ve lost the notes, along with any desire to write it. They’re on the floor somewhere, mingling with the tumbleweeds of dust and cat hair that swirl every time I turn on the air conditioner.


* * *


Since she died, I’ve had to call all our college friends who live in New York and Vancouver and Washington, D.C., and other cities that aren’t Dallas. Some of them had no idea she was sick, so I have to recount the whole story: finding the tumor, the two surgeries, the experimental drugs that failed, all the unraveling of the past year and a half, how she was blind and bedridden for weeks before she died, shot through with enough meds to kneecap a racehorse. Do you know what a bolus is? You press a little button and out comes a shot of morphine. Such simple machinery for such powerful drugs.

“I don’t know how you deal with this,” our friends say when I call. Their admiration makes me feel good, like I’m strong and courageous. I suspect I am weak and cowardly, but I don’t mind the mistake.


* * *


Since she died, I keep returning to the last time we actually went out together, back when she didn’t need a walker and an attendant to move. It was in Austin, back when I was living there. She was still pretty healthy, but in recovery from brain surgery, and I promised myself I wouldn’t smoke in front of her. Then, after an hour and three margaritas, I finally told her, “Listen, I’m dying for a cigarette.” (See what I mean? Weak.)

That night, we laid together on my bed, our feet touching, and looked at her MRIs, big tabloid-size X-rays that crinkled when we moved them.

“There it is,” she said, pointing to a peanut-sized white splotch in her brain.

I thought the tumor would be microscopic, something only a surgeon could identify. I didn’t expect to see it just sitting there like an exclamation point inside her skull.

Later, she read to me from her journal, starting at the entry when they gave her eight months to live. I’m not sure why she wanted me to hear it, except maybe because she was worried people would find her words only after she died, and for her to read them aloud now was a kind of triumph. Mostly, she wrote about being scared, the tedium of the hospital, about falling in love with a man she met over the Internet. Eventually, he came to live with her family outside Dallas, where they were married secretly so she wouldn’t lose her health coverage, and he took care of her until she died.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with death. And I wonder if that’s why I became so involved toward the end of her life. To find out what it was like. That’s the selfish part my friends don’t realize when they thank me for taking care of things. That I watched every detail with a greedy eye: watched her labored breath, watched her mom place ice packs on her as her temperature soared. Only her mom ran out of ice and had to use frozen vegetables—corn underneath her armpits, peas near her thighs.

Her husband told me this story: After the second surgery, her skull started leaking spinal fluid. Like the sac that holds her spinal fluid just popped open. Finally, helpless to stop the flow, she put a maxi-pad against her head. Worked fine.


* * *


Since she died, I’ve been looking through old pictures from college. In every photo, I look little and full of drunken, goofy smiles, but she looks beautiful, with smooth toffee skin and a shock of dyed blond hair. What everyone noticed back then, though, were her eyes. Huge blue eyes ringed with long, sweeping lashes.

“Has anyone told you what beautiful eyes you have?” guys would ask at bars.

“Yeah,” she’d say, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“So, umm, what’s your name?” I would ask nervously, filling the awkward silence. But the guys would leave, shooting her a look: Bitch. She’d giggle, pleased with herself.

“That’s so embarrassing,” I would say.

“No,” she’d tell me. “You’re just too nice.”

She was a year younger than me, having skipped a grade in high school, but she acted more like a cool older sister, the kind I never had. The kind who give you sex tips and relationship advice, who scolded when you got out of line, who let you borrow clothes and clunky heels. We were separated by seven inches and four shoe sizes, but she lent me her flannel pajamas—roomy and worn to a soft, threadbare cotton. And my uniform every night until a boyfriend finally said, carefully, “Those pajamas kind of hide your body.”

Actually, I suspect that was the idea.


* * *


Since she died, I’ve been behaving badly. Sleeping late, stumbling in to work. Skipping the gym, forgetting to return phone calls, flipping through magazines and newspapers, only reading the captions. I drink too much, as if I deserve it, and then fall down and feel wrecked the next morning, as if I deserve that, too.

“You don’t care that she died,” I told my boyfriend at a party.

For the first time in the two years we’ve been together, he looked at me with disgust.

“You don’t ever want to hear about her. You don’t ask me anything,” I said.

“I didn’t really know her,” he said and lit a cigarette. At least I think that’s what he did. My eyes were starting to blur.

Sometimes, I try to find her in the stars. I ask her things, as though she’s a Magic 8 Ball: Am I doing this right? What do you think about California? Some absurd part of me feels that she should lead my life, guide my listless hand. It’s all bullshit, of course. I don’t feel anything profound in those moments. Just that I’m alive, and she’s dead.


* * *


Since she died, I sometimes have trouble sleeping.

After she got really sick, about a year ago, she had to move back home, into the house she grew up in. I would drive in to find her in a fog, laid out on a bed with tubes stuck in her. I’d sit on the portable toilet next to her and hold her hand, prattle on about my life, wondering if she heard anything or if I was just throwing noise at the growing space between us.

“That sounds nice,” she would mutter sometimes. Other times, she complained about the imaginary people laughing in the corner.

Last night I dreamt she was back there in her room, in her hospital bed. I thought she was dead, but I told her to give me a sign if she was still there, like they always say in weepy movies. “Just give me a sign, give me anything.” And her brilliant blue eyes popped open so fast that I froze. I couldn’t move to her, couldn’t say anything, couldn’t do anything but try—desperately, fruitlessly—to punch through the inertia. That dream spooked me for the rest of the day. As if I were alive and she were dead.


* * *


Since she died, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. On tonight’s Who Wants to Marry My Dad? the three daughters face a tough decision. Only four potential brides remain, and it is the daughters’ responsibility to eliminate one of them. It won’t be easy. Everyone’s grown so close.

Lately, I’ve taken to calling the show Who’s Your Daddy? and it makes me giggle, thinking about some poor bastard selecting from a pool of burnouts and deadbeats—who’s your daddy?—trying to guess which father is his. Wait. Maybe that’s a story idea.

I lean over the edge of the bed and pick up a scrap of paper. I start to write the thing, but it comes out different than I intended. It comes out sad and meandering, like a sentence that never ends. But it feels good to write, it feels good to write it: “Since she died, since she died.”