It Won’t Be Long

So do you ever wonder what happened to the doctor we visited in his office that one day–remember that? I kind of vaguely wondered, and eventually something he’d said that I hadn’t tracked on at the time started to make sense. He was Claire’s doctor when she was fighting the cancer. Now that she wasn’t treating it anymore, there wasn’t anything for him to do. Now it was a palliative specialist who had worked with her while she’d been in the care facility who was in charge of her in the hospital, too.

He was a young-ish guy, I felt, for that line of work, and his name was Lenin, but he pronounced it like it was French, Le Neen, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Dr. J.R. Lenin. His hair was cut extra short, like a rookie cop, but that was the only severe thing about him.

He took me and Court aside a day or two after the cops dropped their investigation, and asked us to ask questions of him. He sat us down in the extra room where they’d said the other of us could sleep as long as they didn’t need to put a patient in there. We sat in chair and he leaned against the hospital bed and said, “You can ask me the hard ones.”

So I went right to, “How long does she have to live?”

His smile was kind. “Right now, we really don’t know, but one I can answer is, no matter how long she has left, I’ll be doing my best to make sure her circumstances are mitigated–”

Court interrupted him. “How about, how can we prepare ourselves emotionally for her departure?” Departure. It was the wrong word–right first letter, though.

I don’t actually remember what he said in answer. I went off in my own little world, trying to imagine what it would be like to have her gone. One day someone’s there, and then one day they’re not. At least this one we saw coming? Unlike Jordan. Jordan had no idea that he was getting high for the last time.

I was glad all over again that Ziggy had decided to quit all drugs entirely. Especially since when I tuned back in to the conversation and Dr. Lenin was saying, “Do you know what she told me? THe thing she’s the most afraid of is that dying is going to hurt.”

“Huh. She told me the thing she’s the most afraid of is dying alone.”

“Well, those two things are related. She imagines that if she dies alone, she’ll be in distress with no one helping her and she imagines that will be terrifying. Emotional pain may be indistinguishable from physical pain in this sense.”

“I feel really weird,” Court said. “She kept saying the one thing she wanted to live to see was me graduate college and now I feel like because I did, she’s going downhill.”

“I know it may feel like you’re somehow responsible for her decline,” he said, “but first, let me assure you that you’re not. And second, even if we accept that a person may have some influence over when they go, that would only mean that she held on longer than she would have for you and what we’re seeing as decline now simply would have happened sooner.”

Court nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

I looked at the scar on my hand instead of at the doctor. “Did anyone investigate whether her overdose was actually s…something else? That maybe it wasn’t an accident?” I added hurriedly, driven by some misguided ideal about courage. “I mean, do you think she tried to take things into her own hands?”

He raised his eyebrows, like maybe he was re-thinking his offer to answer the “hard questions,” but then he answered, his voice calm and gentle–almost Mr. Rogers-like–“I don’t think there’s a benefit to worrying about that. After all, we can get into how conscious was she of her choice and did she really mean to and a heap of other possibilities, all of which would be highly distressing to discuss with her. No, I find it more likely she just convinced herself that she needed, or maybe deserved, more than her regular dose.”

That sounded like Claire-logic, didn’t it? She’d skimped on her meds while at the end of her trip to Boston, so to make up for it she took extra. As if painkilers were calories.

“If it comes to it, I’ll be setting her up with a pump that will let her give herself a little spritz of opiate with the push of a button. She’ll be in control of it so she won’t have to wait for a nurse to administer it. It’ll be rate limited so she can’t overdo it. If there’s anything really important you want to talk to her about, I recommend doing it before she’s on that system, though.”

I nodded. I knew how difficult it could be to communicate through a drug haze. “Is this cancer likely to cause a lot of pain? I know it made her unbearably nauseous…”

“Symptoms vary from person to person. You already know about all her GI tract distress. The thing is, the pancreas also affects the liver, kidneys, and gall bladder. Her bile ducts are blocked. Toxins that aren’t flushed build up in the muscles and bloodstream and that can be excruciating.”

My muscles hurt just thinking about it. “What should we do for her?”

“You should probably ask her that,” he said. “But I think, Courtney, you already asked the bigger question, which is what can you do for yourselves. Don’t neglect your own physical or emotional needs, and reach out when you want someone to talk to.”

She told me later he didn’t just mean talk to each other, or to him. He’d given her the contact info for a bereavement counselor.

Remo arrived that night. While Court was “on call” at Claire’s side, I took him to get some dinner since they hadn’t fed him on the plane. “Couldn’t get a first class flight and didn’t have time to grab something before I had to rush to the airport,” he said. I wasn’t even sure whether he’d come from LA or Atlanta. He’d been back and forth.

I gave him the Cliff Notes version of our talk with the end-of-life doctor. “He said we should make sure we’re taking care of our own emotional needs and we should ask Claire what she wants from us.”

“Hoo boy, is he not aware what a can of worms that could be?” Remo replied over a plate of chicken wings. “Did you ask her?”

“She’s already told me,” I said. “She wants someone to be there when she dies and she wants me to write her a song, you know, to be played at the funeral.”

“Huh, really.”

“Yeah.” I shrugged. “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how we go about booking the church”

He wiped buffalo sauce off his fingers with the WetNap they’d given him for that purpose. “You think it’s like booking any other venue?”

“That’s what I’m asking. I have no clue. I mean, how do you book it if you don’t know when you’re going to need it?”

He shook his head gently at me. “No one knows in advance when they’re going to go. Trust me, this is not a unique situation. Let me handle that, all right? It’ll give me something to do.”

“Okay.” Of course he was right. And there was also a funeral home to contact and all that stuff. I was happy to let him handle that kind of thing. My voice was wry: “I guess you’ve got your thing to do and I’ve got mine.”

“Yeah. What’s funny is I’ve thought about writing a song for her but you know, the kind of things I’d write wouldn’t be appropriate for a church service.” Then he shook himself a little, going suddenly red-faced. “I mean, musically! I didn’t mean it like that.”

I couldn’t help it. That made me laugh. I was quickly incapacitated by laughing and hid my head in my arms so the waitress wouldn’t think I needed to be sent to the funny farm. But my uncontrollable laughing made Remo laugh, too, and we sat there laughing until we were practically crying.

We had to stop when the waitress brought me a steak, and I calmed down enough to handle a sharp knife and eating some meat without choking. But I was still kind of smiling.

Until Remo said, “So what are you going to do? For the song, I mean.”

The truth sobered us both right up. “I have no fucking clue,” I told him.

No fucking clue.

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