Lila’s family and mine sat side-by-side watching our town’s Fourth of July parade. As clowns marched by, tossing peppermints to our children, Lila said to me, “I don’t get why my boob is itchy? I stopped breast-feeding months ago.”
Lila often got plugged ducts or red blotches on her boobs. The doctor would write a scrip to kill the germs that had gotten in her and it would clear up.
But this wasn’t that. This was breast cancer, stage four.
My family moved from suburban Atlanta to New Jersey when Lila was three years into her fight with cancer. When I got word that it had her liver and wasn’t letting go, I flew back.
I don’t get to see her my first night.
Tomorrow morning would be better, Lila’s husband, Grant, tells me over the phone.
When tomorrow morning comes, I get a text message: Sorry. Maybe you can see Lila this afternoon. We are moving her into hospice.
I text Mary. She is Lila’s good friend, maybe best friend. I only know Mary because Mary knows Lila. I don’t even know why I have Mary’s number, but I do. I text her because I know she will know what is going on, and I do not know what the hell is happening other than that my friend Lila is dying. Quickly.
Mary, it’s Amy. I don’t want to bother Grant. Let me know if I can come visit Lila in hospice around 5pm. Okay?
Mary says, okay. I say okay, see you at 5.
We all keep trading “okays” when nothing is okay.
My friend Rachel comes with me to visit Lila. She is my ride and a mutual friend of Lila’s. We arrive at 4:55.
The hospice looks like a gated community of connected condos, only without the gate. And if fake flowers had a scent, they would smell like the hospice lobby. A lady with perfect blonde shoulder-length hair sits at the reception desk. She’s smiling. She uses polite words like ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘good afternoon’ as she welcomes us to the hospice and asks us to sign in. I have Rachel sign in for me. She writes my name in big, loopy letters and I hardly recognize the name as mine.
Miss Manners points us through double doors to the Dogwood Cottage, which has nothing to do with dogwoods and is just a corridor of rooms, not a cottage. There are paintings on the corridor walls. To me they are just smudges in frames.
Rachel and I pass lots of doors, all of them wide open. No sound comes out of them—even though there are people inside each room.
Lila is in Room 9. Lila is sleeping. Lila does not look like Lila. She has grandmother hair four decades too early. Her face is grimacing like she has a full set of clothes pins pinching her body. She has blue glitter on her cheeks, traces of her kindergartner’s arts and crafts project.
Rachel talks to Lila in a low tone without tears. While Rachel’s talking, one of Lila’s legs, heavy with bloat, falls off the side of the bed. Grant pushes the nurse call button to summon help, and two nurses show up in under a minute. Six years ago, when I visited Grant and Lila in the maternity ward after she had given birth to Hannah, it took several button pushes before a nurse would come. In hospice, it only takes one. They slide Lila’s leg back onto the bed. As soon as they leave, it slides back off again. Push button. They show up. Leg back on bed. Rachel finishes her soft, polite monologue and it is my turn to sit at Lila’s bedside.
I have a loud voice, even when I am trying to be quiet. I use it when I talk to Lila. I talk about how we met in breast-feeding class. How, of the four couples there, her husband was the only one not named Joe, and so when it came time to introduce himself he said his name was “not Joe.” I talk about parades we watched and Easter egg hunts our kids did in her backyard.
I tell Lila the potted hydrangea she gave me last summer when she came up to visit me has grown to be four feet by four feet. Rachel says she is surprised I didn’t kill it, which hurts. We are all hurting in this room. That comment is Rachel’s way of hurting less. Mine is talking in a voice that sucks at whispering.
And Lila’s way of hurting less is dying.
I give Lila a hug. I am not the type that gives hugs often. They make me uncomfortable. But I press my small, healthy breasts against her inflamed chest and hold on tight.
“I love you, Lila,” I say all up close into her ear.
Lila opens her eyes and says, “I love you, too.” Then she is asleep again, otherwise known as dying.
Like I said, I’m not much of a hugger. But, this time I don’t want to let go. But I have to. It’s time to leave, and I can’t make time any longer than it is.
Wendy White Lees is a freelance writer and editor. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey where sad songs and coffee make her smile.
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