I can't steal her clothing because she's a size zero and I'm a size 16. I was a size 8 when we met and we both loved our thin bodies, dipping into lakes, hot tubs, swimming holes. But I've been on meds for years that fatten me, and now menopause. ALS has done the opposite to her: She is subzero. When I help her to the toilet, I feel the nubbles of her spine, the tender wings of her shoulders. She walks with her walker like a somnambulant drum major: knees up, marching slowly, so she does not fall. She has fallen a lot: cracked a toilet seat with the back of her head, given herself a black eye.
Years ago she fell and broke her wrist in many places. She called me at an airport. I was coming home from somewhere; where? She chirped about her terrible luck, making it into a funny story: rushing out of a hot tub to get away from a lecherous friend, slipping. It is not a funny story when I type it here. Typing makes it sound terrible. I am expert at telling terrible stories. She never wants anyone to feel sorry for her.
The thing about the scarves is I can wrap myself in them, round and round my neck. I can lower my face into them and smell. They smell like her.
"This smells like Cai's house," my son says.
She'll be dead in three weeks but till then, verbs are present tense. She's a stickler for grammar.
"What does that smell like?" I want to hear someone else describe it. He knows she is dying in three weeks. He knows she has planned it. The only other person who has died is my dad after long, sad years of assisted living that scared my son. Also the cat. My son cried when the cat died, but only after half a day passed and he noticed the cat was gone. He has known Cai all his life. She doesn't play backyard sports with him — even when she could — so she is not his favorite of my friends but he loves her. He likes to joke about all the books she's published. He likes to say "Aren't you jealous?" He likes to say, "She's so much better than you."
"Good," he says of the smell.
I steal books off her shelves. She has mountains of them. I call it borrowing. "Can I borrow this?" But I am a slow and picky reader. I dip in and out. I will not be done in three weeks. Things that will outlive her: the spinach in my freezer. The half bag of fertilizer in my shed. My unfinished book draft. The bulk bag of prescription food for the (not dead) cat's allergies. My other unfinished book draft.
Her scarves are fancy, fancier than mine. My clothing is utilitarian. Hers are about pleasure. She always had exquisite taste in clothing and jewelry and housewares. But she wasn't a snob. She isn't a snob. She'll be dead in three weeks but till then, verbs are present tense. She's a stickler for grammar.
I am selfish in my grief: Who will deliver cupcakes to my door when I'm depressed? Who will correct my every lay to lie? Who will take me to birthday pedicures?
"You better haunt me," I say.
She wants to be cremated and sent in an urn to the fancy Boston cemetery where her parents are buried.
"What about us?" I say. By us, I mean her husband, son and me, 3,000 miles from Boston. By us I mean me. "Who's in Boston anyway?" I say.
"Bostonians," her husband says.
Things that will outlive her: the spinach in my freezer. The half bag of fertilizer in my shed. My unfinished book draft.
We three laugh, though Cai's is a seal straining to bark. Her voice was the first thing to go before hands and throat and dragging feet.
I know everything there is to know: Two doctors have approved the drug she'll spend $750 to ship from the single pharmacy that dispenses it. The drug will go into her feeding tube. She has to depress the plunger that will send the drug into her feeding tube to stay within the law. The drug will first put her to sleep and then kill her. But anticipating death is like anticipating Minotaur or anticipating ribosomes or anticipating nebula. I lack the neural pathways.
We need to cry together, she types into her phone beside me. Deep breath, she texted on the same phone from the neurologist's office nearly two years ago — the specialist neurologist, the neurologist of last resort — minutes after the diagnosis and the moment before she told me. Even then, she wanted to tamp down the drama. All I want is drama. My friend is dying, I tell anyone who listens. My dear friend is dying. My best friend is dying. I want to wring it out. I want to rain it down. If I could self-immolate in it, I would for the spectacle. We cried together once in a room full of other people crying too.
Spectacle doesn't work between the two of us alone. She says, "I don't want to think about it too much because then I won't do it and I want to do it." She wakes up in mucus, unable to breathe. Her bones hurt. Her fingers that she uses for writing, for speaking, for everything, are barely working. My job is to say yes to everything that makes no sense, that I can't see my way to. My job is to be not me, not anything about me.
I name the stupid people who didn't appreciate her enough – who don't appreciate her enough – and enumerate the ways I will tell them to fuck off to in her obituary. In her eulogy. I say this like it's funny. Which maybe it is. Maybe all this is funny, like her stories are funny, no one feeling sorry for anybody.
I have three scarves, a stack of books, and November's orange toenails, already chipped, slivers of bare nail pushing up from the cuticles. Soon I will sit at this same desk in this same body in this same life, type She laid on the couch, crushed, and wait.
Cai Emmons died peacefully in her home surrounded by friends and family on January 2, 2023, using Oregon's Death with Dignity law and with the help of EOLCOR (End of Life Choices Oregon). Here's her farewell message to friends and readers. Miriam has since stolen a gel pen, a half pad of Post-it Notes, and an insulated grocery bag from Cai's home.
about death and dying in America