I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I haven't read any of Shriver's books, even though her comment pieces in various magazines and papers have always stood out to me just as this one did. Having heard of her via several recommendations to read We Need to Talk abut Kevin from a couple of years back, I wasn't even aware until last year that the author was female (real name Margaret Ann.) Shriver has a knack for completely baring her soul while keeping her writing succinct, factual and candid. The piece that caught my eye was this one, a confessional outpouring of regret at not spending more time with her best friend before she died of cancer. Outpouring isn't the right word, actually - it was a critical analysis of her own behaviour during her friend's terminal illness. With cancer seemingly everywhere, it can seem overexposed or not 'niche' enough (in the businesslike world of planning and editing a magazine) to gain sympathy with a mainstream audience, but this wasn't a cancer awareness piece - this, it seemed, was a bid for atonement, a small act that might cancel out her professed neglect prior to losing her friend.
It might seem self-indulgent or distasteful to use the death of a loved one to talk about your own feelings, but how else do we make sense of something as cruel and superior as cancer? After years of finding we cannot combat it, even where we can stall and delay it, the topic has fallen fairly silent in the media in favour of more exotic conditions or winnable wars. The article is about a universal fear of those around us dying, and how people use their busy modern lives and commitments to avoid immersing themselves in such everyday tragedy. I recognised myself in the writer. I have always had a slight neurosis about hospitals (I hesitate to say phobia) and not because I find myself overwhelmed with feeling and compassion for their patients, but because, well... they're full of ill people. This is not an attractive trait, and one I had to overcome many times when my elder sister's genetic disease deteriorated over a period of years. The sterile smells, the neon lighting and the whirr of machinery is imprinted on my brain, and I do fear selfishly for my own eventual demise. The thought of slipping away in the habitat I can least endure is a terrifying prospect. And all this without ever suffering a serious illness or a hospital stint since my fairly uneventful birth.
So Shriver's tale of how she let anxiety about her dying friend lead her to distract herself with her career and her schedule really struck me. When my sister was ill, I feel I was there as much as someone at university in another city could be there - I remember reading through Measure for Measure out loud by her bedside while a ventilator breathed for her, and making notes for my exam the following day. I remember people in the waiting room kindly asking what my essays were about as I scribbled them from a plastic seat, waiting for visiting hours to resume. But I also remember the elation of being 'free' to return to my new friends and social life the minute she was stable, and I do remember the fleeting disappointment, even resentment, at missing the new term's parties and socials. I would never have dared admit it at the time, but I was scheduling her in along with my exam timetable. Maybe I can only admit this now because she did get better (thanks to the wonders of organ donation) and as a product of my relief at still having many more years to make memories with her.
The problem is, drama and literature would have us believe that good people rush to the bedside of a dying friend or relative, dropping everything and cancelling all plans to make their last days or months a little easier. But the spanner in the works is the long, drawn-out nature of modern death. No one deserves it, and it shouldn't be an excuse, but it is simply impractical and impossible to be there and undiverted for months or years of ill-health and uncertainty, and the guilt we suffer for not being there enough can be unbearable. Shriver's guilt is that her career as a novelist was just taking off as her friend Terri was diagnosed, but would Terri really have wanted her to put that on hold to sit by her through the bad times? Another problem for the writer was that her friend couldn't or wouldn't bring herself to consider the inevitable, leading their meetings and lighthearted talk to become heart-wrenching for Shriver:
Pretending that the treatments were working and she was going to come through this injected an artifice in our relationship at odds with the confidences we'd shared for 25 years.
She notes that the last bit of time they had together, the two women 'spent an appalling proportion of that final visit talking about mashed potatoes.' I can understand how hard this must have been as the friend, but I am also of the belief that the way someone wants to play out their own death is the way it should be. If they want to be their own cheerleader, rooting for a miracle, then everyone around them should wipe their tears and grab their pom-poms. If the ill person wants to talk through their greatest fears and cry for all the things they'll never see and do, then their beloved should provide the Kleenex and a listening ear. I don't think there should be any guilt on Shriver's part, because she was giving her friend what she needed at the time, even if that was potato-mashing tips. There is no right way to support an ill loved one. Every person copes differently, and no one else can say how you'd feel and what you'd want if you were the one sentenced to your final months. All you can do is make time, scale down, and adapt. For those who recognize mine and Shriver's instinct to flee the situation, you are not a bad person. You are simply the person who dares to admit it.