In Memoriam ... Phatiwe Sharon Cohen
I was maybe ten miles away.
I did not get there in time.
On May 12, 2005, between the time Sophie called me to tell me Phatiwe was dying and the time my sobbing, hysterical self had navigated the suburban Boston roads to the hospital, she leaned over to do god knows what... and a tumor in her body pushed against an artery leading to her heart, and she collapsed upon herself.
They kept her on life support for themselves -- and for me. To wait for my arrival. Minutes too late. To hold the hand of the woman my 27-year-old self considered her best friend, because she was. I was hers. She was mine. We sat in my Honda Civic late at night, parked on the side of Whichever St., and we told our stories. We laughed. We cried. We worried. We imagined futures where she was okay. We imagined my life far, far into the future.
It was the first time in my life I was grateful to have gone through surgeries, so that I could comfort her, knowing of the pain, the shock, the horror of waking up with the body you did not go to bed with. It was the only time my knowledge was ever useful. Could ever help anyone else through their own suffering. I think maybe I helped her sometimes. I think. I hope. I imagine.
When I arrived at the hospital, having parked in the garage, trekked to her floor... Sophie told me she was gone. I took too long. I was too late. I held her hand, her still, yet warm, hand. And I told her I didn't have anything to say... I had already told her everything there was I could think to talk about. I loved her. That was all there was. It was all I could say again. I love you. I squeezed her hand. I cried.
I walked out of the room, leaving her father to say his final goodbye.
In the waiting room, I wailed. I cried like the universe was collapsing around me. She was gone. My mother and father arrived before the end of that day. Friends traveled to meet us. I remember picking out her funeral clothes. I remember sitting in the front pew, shaking with grief, watching everyone else say goodbye to the first person I ever... the first person I ever died with.
When someone chooses you as the one who dies with them, they take more from you than they realize they ever will. They know it will be hard. But they of course cannot know the aftermath. I fell apart during that year she died. And it took me five afterward to put myself back together again. To be able to hold someone's hand and be consumed with excitement and possibility instead of fear and loss.
I moved to New York weeks after she passed away (sorry Shamus, but it worked out for the best, no?) and abandoned my job, my life, the home I had built for myself. I had been recruited by a technology magazine weeks after Phatiwe's death, and when I told them no thank you, I was moving to New York, they said "fancy that, our headquarters are in New York..."
And so I left. I left and I never went back. I have never, in five years, visited her grave. I wouldn't know where to find it. I won't go back to our haunts. Our neighborhoods. Our friends had moved away over the years -- by the time she was sick, everyone was gone except the two of us... She and I went through her death alone. And I say I don't visit because when you live in New York, everyone comes to you... Which is true in its own way. But I also have buried that city in my soul. It was where WE lived. And where SHE died.
Five years ago today.
I have a gold Oriental (tacky enough that its the only way to describe it) fan that hangs on my wall in my bedroom. My bedroom is otherwise entirely tasteful. I have a photograph of her and me, standing at the base of my parents staircase. I have an envelope of photographs I took to display at her funeral that have sat untouched for five years, and I have the letter she wrote me.
It seems a cliche. The letter one leaves for a loved one at the end of things.
But she left one for me. One that I read only once and then put away. She hoped I finally saw how wonderful I was. (I just read it again. Now it just makes me smile...)
Who was she? She was a spitfire. She was fucking feisty. She drank Long Island Iced Teas. She listened to the Rolling Stones while hustling people at pool. She talked about gin and tonics like they were the gospel. She loved super-sweet Dunkin Donuts iced coffees in the morning -- which I learned that summer between my graduate school semesters when I built my days around waking her up and driving her to work, stopping at a different Dunkin Donuts every day. Our late night drives, drinking Starbucks grande Mocha Valencias (caffeine bombs!) while listening to Tribe Called Quest and driving around our white, upper class, somewhat-Jewish neighborhood like thugs. Falling asleep to "The Matrix" every night as soon as we put it on and then waking up during the big fight scene, turning it off and finally going to bed.
The time I had a date and she asked me to meet her first... and she told me she had cancer... And I still went on my date, drinking martinis like a fish and begging him to forgive me for being so terrible.
I called my parents, begging them to save her.
And on this day, five years ago, a broken shell of myself called our friends and told them she was gone. And then came to me and held me and my mother made us pulled pork and breakfast and took Michael to the ER when he had a weird lip infection. I remember saying goodbye. I have a few images of the cemetery. But mostly I remember being in the car with my mother, shaking with fear that some part of me was dying too. And maybe it did?
And now, five years later, that part seems to be one of those innocent parts that doesn't know dark things. And I miss her entirely. Sometimes I smell her smell -- black girl hair and a musky perfume -- on the subway and I do a double-take. I feel her presence around me. But I also do sometimes on the treadmill, when I am full of hate for the exercise and I know she would want me to keep going, because I really want that for myself. And that's all she really ever wanted for me.
Thank you, and God care for your soul always, Phatiwe Sharon Cohen.
I miss you every single day, even when I don't remember I do.