Burying the lead, aka A weekend perfected not by art but by mortality

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/01/01 14:59 -08:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/michkap/archive/2008/01/01/6921032.aspx

Nothing technical, though at least some explanation of what I have been up to for the last few days for people who were (a) interested, (b) concerned, or (c) both....

The beginning of the story isn't too terribly interesting: an old friend comes in from out of town and tells me she wants to get really drunk all weekend. As regular readers here know, I had no plans. And this is somebody I have gotten drunk with a few times over the years. But that part of the story is pretty ordinary, so I'm going to start the telling of the story in the middle. After getting monumentally drunk twice without ever leaving the house, with the person who has to be one of my bestest friends over the years -- a PNL (Perfectly Normal Liz), the secret inspiration for normaliz.dll in Windows. My friend Liz....

Turns out that she is dying -- in the middle of the end game of a Grade 3 astrocytoma with poor differentiation. She just mentioned it, after we wake up on Monday morning. Late Monday morning.

How'd she manage to go two days without mentioning that she expects she might have only weeks, I tell her I may never understand.

Talk about burying the lead!

I am reading to her. Amit Chaudhuri (by request, she read my previous posts talking about him). The words seem to soothe her, even when (or maybe because) one of themes is death. She wants me to read the intro to Afternoon Raag again (fourth time for her now):

The music teacher is listless today.
He does not respond.
My mother is just a little irritated as she sings, but she
        is afraid, too, of something she does not understand.
The music teacher has merged with the sofa behind
            him, momentarily indistinguishable from the soft,
                       indifferent contours of the furniture.
with the disturbing patience and resignation of
His wife, his widowed mother, his brother, his
               brother-in-law, his sister, his four children,
the jewelled constellation that appeared at his birth,
are moving away from him. He is alone, sitting on the 
                   carpet, leaning his back against the sofa.
Behind this moment of serenity in this small, calm
with its clear, cool space flowing in and out of a
is something liquid and grieving, something that
                 cannot tolerate its own shimmering presence,
but melts away from itself all the time, like the giant
                  walls of rain, or tears, or something else.

The music teacher is dying.
He does not know it, but he will be dead in less than a 
                                                 year's time.
He will not see the rain again.
He does not know it. His ignorance of death surrounds 
                       him like a halo, an intimacy with God.
My mother does not know it.
The rain does not know it.
The world is being washed clean by the rain, 
              Something in us, human but one with the season,
is also being washed clean, tear after tear, cloudburst 
                                                  in silence.

Something about the image of the music teacher singing with the young man's mother, and this special American Beautyesque status of someone who the voiceover is explaining will be dying. I'd take Liz over Kevin Spacey any day, not just due to my glandular bias....

The alternate title of this blog is a play on words on part of the last sentence in the intro ("the moment perfected not by art but by mortality") -- THAT is the line she wanted to hear again and again.

Her eyes are now closed, but her chest is rising and falling.

It is not in my nature to stare at Liz's chest, and it has never been so in all of these years. But I am afraid that she could actually die right here before the weekend is over. So I am watching for those signs of life very carefully. I feel ashamed to be thinking that way, though I admit the shame comes from the fact that it may be true. Momentarily I have confused myself - would the thought somehow be appropriate were the stench of inevitability not hanging over the situation, daring me to breathe in? Of course not! Then it would just be weird. So why is the increased likelihood a reason for the thought to inspire shame in me?

Am I afraid that if it happens it will be me who wished it somehow? I'm not superstitious. Hell, I'm a Libra, and Libras are not superstitious at all.

I have continued reading the story, while I think all of these unworthy thoughts.

But I stop, because I think she has fallen asleep. Instead I just look at her, remembering the other times I had seen her fall asleep in the past -- maybe two dozen times since the early 90's. How could she not live forever?

She opens her eyes and smiles sadly, I think she is echoing the sad look on my face. Strikingly beautiful, she whispers softly to me:

Dear, if you take a picture of me like this, you'll be in the afterlife before me.

She has already hidden both batteries for the camera so I'm not sure what she's worried about here.

There is no way to tell her she is going to be fine here. She has weeks left (or maybe months? I know that she is not planning more treatment and she is both further and farther into this then is healthy for her -- but how to judge that in such circumstances?), at best. She knows reassurances would not be true, and so would I. And I am a sucky liar anyway.

Wasting three days of her remaining time with me, drinking alcohol and eating lousy food? I feel unworthy.

If I had only that short of a time left, I would not waste three days on me -- I wouldn't have given me past that earlier talk in the airport.

Perhaps her judgment is suffering.

I feel like I have been bloated with self importance about my MS. Writing expository text like "multiple sclerosis isn't a death sentence, its a life sentence...." that ignores the fact that my friend is looking at a death sentence. And wasting 3+ days of it with me. She has said goodbye to her family/friends in Alaska, and now she is saying goodbye to me. She actually has a plan, an itinerary to say goodbye to people -- who and when. One she intends to follow, in order of "importance" to her, 'til the end.

There is no way I rate the spot she gave me.

The look on her face, in her eyes, is curiosity -- barely restrained. I prompt her to ask me her questions,whatever they are. We have no time left to "wait until next time" since there will be no next time.

"I'll tell you later, Michael," she says quietly. "Read some more, please?"

She looks up at me with the same eyes she probably had as an eight-year-old. There are almost tears in my eyes, suddenly. I manage to hold them back, albeit just barely. She smiles at me, guiltily, and says:

I'm sorry, but I noticed you were logged into your blog as yourself on that computer you let me use and I wrote a post in your blog. You aren't supposed to leave yourself signed into your blog if you are going to let someone who you know reads your blog use the computer. Think of this as an important lesson in feeling violated in the cyber sense....

She pauses, and I am momentarily angry -- but not about the blog. I'm angry that she did not tell me she was dying for the first two days she was here. There is no way we would have gone through as much alcohol as we did, I tell her. There is simply no way I would have wasted the time getting drunk and sleeping it off.

"Michael, that's why I didn't tell you!" she tells me, with some force, and continues -- "There's never time to teach everything, so the important things must take precedence. And example works quickest. Do you know the proverb: if you do not wish a thing to be read--"

"Don't blog it," I finish the sentence.

She knows I recognize the quote she stole from a John M. Ford book, smiling not only that I recognized it, but that she knew I would (I'm such a fucking geek. Luckily, she is too).

"You had to learn that lesson, you really did," she suggests.

Time to change tacks. I offer to take a leave of absence and go with her, to stay with her until the end. She is after all kind of my soul mate after all. Well, a platonic version of a soul mate. No games, no lies, no matter how long we'd be out of touch we'd always managed hook up again. Anyway we could walk the earth, like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu, only doubles style. Of course we aren't Chinese, but neither is David Carradine. I keep rushing on conversationally and I realize she has already decided to say no but is too polite to interrupt my blather, so I stop, kind of run out of steam.

"That's sweet, Michael. But some of the people I want to see really don't want to see you and some of the others, you don't want to see them. A few are both. That's the kind of thing you never paid much attention to, I know..."

"How do you mean?" I ask, curious.

"Well, you know how I never managed to be visiting all that much when your ex-fiancé was around?"

"Yes?" I say. Funny, I never had noticed that before. Though we did still talk on the phone then, I don't think I remember seeing her even once during that time.

"I didn't like her, I thought she was trouble for you, just by your description, from the very beginning when you were just friends."

Okay, now I was mad. "If that's true, why didn't you tell me? Could have saved me a lot of trouble!"

"No way," she countered, shaking her head. "Some mistakes, you have to actually make on your own or you'll never learn the lessons. You wouldn't have heard me anyway."

Suddenly I feel exhausted, too. I actually do have a few tears now, which I wipe away impatiently. Something must have gotten in my eyes. You know, there is something so unfair about all of this. I think it was just in the last few weeks that I said I wanted to spend New Year's Eve alone since the people I had been spending it with previously always seemed to disappear before the next year was up. I definitely didn't need such a literal interpretation of my words to pop up!

"Whatever happened to Jackie?" she asks, completely changing the topic.

Confusion sets in now. "You've got to be kidding, right? I never went out with Jackie, we just hung out some around OSU for a bit. She lived with Gary and his girlfriend."

"You should find her and ask her out. I think she liked you."

I shake my head at that. "You only think that because you met her -- like how Luke guessed that his sister must be Leia, not a hard feat since there were no other women in his life so of course if he had a sister she'd be the one."

"Leave it to you to come up with a Star Wars metaphor, dear. How about Amy? She came all the way from Connecticut to visit you, I believe??

"Yes, that's true. Because she wanted to see if we could be more than friends. We decided we couldn't," I pointed out.

"How about Maryann? or Renae? or Melissa? or Tina?"

Boy she was dredging up the past. "Okay, in order -- was dating my best friend from high school and is last I heard sorta seeing her ex-husband who she has a child with, kissed once and that's it but no sparks, broke up with to move to Seattle -- prototypical location relation[ship], briefly considered a relationship but thought it would interfere with work so we mutually decided not to go there."

I needed to get us off this line of attack, quickly -- otherwise she was going to be naming every woman I even met in Columbus a decade and a half ago, and then move on to Seattle! "On the whole, trying to fix oneself up with past not-so-much-flames and almost flames and never flames and the flameless is not an effective dating strategy."

"That's probably true," she allows. Suddenly she seems sad about me not dating any of these people who it either didn't work out with or didn't ever happen with at all.

I decide to change the topic yet again. "What does it mean to start a new year in such a.... well... negative kind of way?" I ask her.

"It means there is nowhere to go but up, assuming you decide to live your life at some point."

"Fair enough," I offer, "but that is the opposite of like every superstition that exists for New Year's Eve."

"I thought you said Libras aren't superstitious."

No way to win this argument, I decide. "Maybe it will be good to have something genuinely tragic to clear out all of the self-involved crap...."

"Michael, it's eight hours to midnight. You may as well talk about that stuff on your mind now, while we can."

She has already ruled out the parties available to us at Showbox and Trinity and my neighbors' apartments. A quiet night is all she wants -- no sense celebrating a year you know you can't finish, or the previous year (when you found out), she says.

I tell her we will talk. So we do. It doesn't take too long. I think I proved my hypothesis about paying attention to what's important -- most of what days ago consumed me now seems kind of not worth bothering with. Afterward, we talk about other things, like how her family feels about this itinerary of hers (they don't like it, either). Something we have in common.

I look at the clock, it's only three hours to midnight. I get up to grab some food from the kitchen.

"There are some practical matters we can talk about," I suggested. "Travel on January 1st is hardly stress-free. Did you want to put it off a day?"

"Sorry, Michael -- no time. I have to go see Bob tomorrow. Unless you plan to say goodbye the way he will, I don't want to put him off any longer."

Bob and Liz were legion, at least in volume if nothing else. She claims he is the only one she completely let herself be with, no filters and no pillows to muffle sound -- she claims she was unable to have an orgasm until she met Bob. The point is clear, and I have no energy for crossing those lines, even jokingly. Already at this rate we'll be asleep before midnight. "You win," I allow.

"Advice for you, Michael -- when you turn a woman down, she never feels like she won...."

The chuckle slips out of me. "I know you don't mean it. Anyway, remembering how you described Bob, you'll need to save up all your energy if you're gonna visit him, hon."

She suggests "Can you dance to a song or two, at least?"

"Of course! Well, at least until I fall over. If I get to pick the music, I mean." No sense being too eager here, I realize -- she used to love Journey, if memory serves.

I lasted a lot longer than I thought I would -- I don't collapse until we hit song number nine, and the line of the Jimi Hendrix song where I collapsed ("And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea eventually.") may have had more to do with that then actual exhaustion. That song was her idea, not mine, by the way....

We don't fall asleep until after midnight but we did not do the New Year's countdown, and we're both up and awake to head for the airport in the morning.

"Do you want company at the gate?" I ask, reminding her how easy it is to do that.

"No," she says, "I'm okay. You get home and write this weekend up. I want every word you blog to be true -- don't spare my feelings, it may be my last appearance I'll be able to read about later."

I kiss her, for real -- possibly the first real kiss we've ever shared -- and tell her "I'll do my best -- so help me blog."

"That was really nice," she shivers. "Trying to make me regret no staying another day or having you come with me, are you?"

"Not at all," I respond, smiling, "I'm just trying to punctuate the departure."

She smiles, a little sadly. "I was about to say that kiss was inappropriate, but I changed my mind. You know, that must be the first time you didn't see me as dying since I told you I was, if you know what I mean."

Shaking my head, I respond, "I've had good teachers. But I wasn't thinking about you dying when we were dancing either, until the end. Though I was a bit distracted about remaining upright."

"Do me a favor, Michael. If you ever do manage to open up that cynical shell and get involved with someone again, make sure they enjoy cuddling and dancing and kissing -- those are like some of the only times you can be consistently real other then occasionally. Otherwise its unpredictable and random, in conversation or blogs. Women want those things reliably, you know?"

With that, she leaves, smiling and crying simultaneously. As I watch her walk to the security checkpoint, it suddenly hits me that I'll never see her alive again. Funny how a guy who hasn't cried for years can find himself tearing up so many times over a weekend.

Damn I need a drink. I'll skip it since drinking alone in the afternoon on New Year's day sounds awful and is probably even worse than that.

Everyone leaves, eventually, I suppose.

Farewell, Liz. You are one of a kind. Thank you for giving me a moment perfected not by art, but by mortality.

(For Liz)


This post brought to you by and  (U+7231 and U+611b, simplified and traditional forms of a CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH)


(Starting tomorrow I'll have a back log of technical posts that I put off for a few days, but I expect that I might end up taking another break after those run out -- I am feeling very empty and uninspired at the moment, from an authoring point of view)

# Surge on Tuesday, January 01, 2008 7:41 PM:

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream...

# Michael S. Kaplan on Tuesday, January 01, 2008 8:32 PM:

Hi Surge,

Eerie reference, isn't it? I think I remember learning that Poe wrote the poem when his wife was dying (from tuberculosis)....

# John Cowan on Tuesday, January 01, 2008 9:01 PM:

For what it's worth, 爱 is one of those few characters that actually isn't radical-phonetic, and makes sense in English when dissected:  it's from "friend" (two hands) and "walk".  It's pronounced ai4 (falling tone), which seems very appropriate to me.

# liz (pnl) on Tuesday, January 01, 2008 11:55 PM:


Thank you for this, with all my heart. And for a perfected weekend, despite the mortality. She doesn't know what she's turning away, she has no idea whatsoever.

Love, liz (b.k.a. Pretty Normal Liz)

# Michael S. Kaplan on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 12:34 AM:

I'm glad you liked it, hun. :-)

No comment on the other -- I have to find a "she" before I can comment meaningfully....

# tonytoews on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 3:21 AM:


Words fail me.  Wow.


I only know that you're a friend of Michael's.  But that's good enough for me.   Have the best time you can possibly have.  

I have no idea what else to say.

Tony Toews

# Serge Wautier on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 3:54 AM:

When my wife and daughters wake up this morning, they'll probably wonder why I kiss them longer than usual. I won't tell them I suddenly remember an ex girl friend whose first words every morning are Carpe Diem. And that I'm thinking about someone else they don't know.

# Andrew West on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 5:17 AM:


That was so good that I read it to my eldest daughter as a bedtime story last night (not the first SIAO post I have printed off for her) ... although she was a little shocked by all the alcohol abuse, as she was sure you only ever drank Limonata!


For what it's worth, that baloney about 爱 is crap.

# KTamas on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 5:44 AM:

This is your best blog post. Ever.

I'm speechless.

Also, damn dust got into my eyes.

# Michael S. Kaplan on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 5:54 AM:

Andrew -- I hope you skipped the swear words, at least....

You can tell your eldest daughter (how eld is she? I forgot to put a rating on it!) that I am mostly about the Limonata other than the occasional situation like this. Though some people have been trying to get me to drink water occasionally, too. and I humor them....

# Larry Linson on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 11:08 AM:

Michka and Liz,

May your hearts always be full, may your memories always be of the good things, and may your spirits ever continue to soar.


# Arvin Meyer on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 2:48 PM:

Liz, Few of us get to die so eloquently. Thank you for enriching my life with yours.

MichKa, I don't read many blogs, but I'm glad I didn't miss this one. You have shown that mortality can be an art.



# Paul Cowan on Wednesday, January 02, 2008 5:39 PM:

Absolutely beautiful; even though neither of you have any idea who I am and wouldn't know me from a bar of soap, thank you for sharing this.

All the best to both of you.

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