As the past week progressed, I began to realise what the 500th post would be. I just had to wait for something to happen, and that would be the day I'd say my half-a-thousandth to you.
Today is the day.
Five days is not a long time. Five days is how long it takes a birthday card to arrive from Ontario. Five days is a nice stay at a resort. Five days will get you, in your average four-door sedan, from Vancouver Island to....oh, maybe Winnipeg.
Sunday was okay. It was fine - not great, but not terrible. There was an update sent out, saying that she was feeling a little better - that she was not so bothered by this crushing heat that had oppressed her for days.
Monday was different. I couldn't be there, and couldn't be there Tuesday.
Wednesday I spent the day with her. The second I walked into her house, I could feel the loss of what had begun to ebb away. Time to get ready.
And then this morning. It followed a night spent in wondering and knowing, alternately. An hour or so of sleep, scattered by a 4:45 AM phone.
She's in a coma. The ambulance is on its way (I could hear it) and could I meet them (they are coming).
A fumbling of shaking hands and jeans and shoes. A dropping of keys and writing a frantic note for the sleeping household. I'm walking to the hospital.
A block to go and there's a vehicle approaching from behind - it passes and I see a flash of white, a reassuring red, a lit window through which I can see a uniform bent over the unseen stretcher.
"Are you a family member?" My mouth begins what is the heart's truth: "she's my sister" and I note this with surprise before I say, amazed that it should be so, "no....just a friend."
Paramedics ask "what's your name? Okay Shannon, you're taking her legs. We're lifting on three."
Through the blankets what I am lifting are not legs, not feet: they are two rounded, firm hot water bottles, but they're filled with ice. I decide then that this is one of my jobs...I am going to keep my warm hands on them every second I can.
Her husband is trying to listen to the oncologist. He is pain, cohering into the blurry shape of a man. He is running in silver beads all over the floor, an explosion of harm and agony.
This is one of my jobs. When it is time, I will collect him back together carefully.
He kneels. His hand on the skin of her scalp, her hair just beginning again. "It's just that I love you so. I love you so."
I ask the oncologist. "Today?" She looks at me for a half-second, assessing. "Yes. Are you Shannon?" I'm so surprised that she knows me. Everyone I meet today, for the first time, knows me.
Just a friend.
"We have a private room for you upstairs."
"A private room in a Canadian hospital, is that possible?" her husband tries a laugh, through the scream I can see just under his skin.
"For situations like this. I'll tell them there is a big family coming. We're moving you to 3 south."
I don't ask, I just come along. I've got her feet.
The room number pleases me. 321. Her husband is dyslexic, so I'm pleased for him too. One two three. On your marks.
I see nothing else about the room, because if I am in it, I am staring at her face. I am noting everything, with the intense study of a scholar. I am trying to find her.
I move to her shoulder, lay my warm and strong arm all along the chill length of hers. One hand on her head, I put my face in her shoulder. I smell the morphine. "It's Shannon, sweetheart. I am here for Bryan. Your babies are fine. We will make sure. Don't worry. Everything is going to be all right. I love you so much. I'm so glad to see you today. I'm not leaving."
An elevator opens. My friend's father. He comes inside. He shouts "No." and turns away and shouts again.
"I can't do this."
He doesn't really know me. But I can do something. Now I will pray for him.
I am staring at her face. No one will remember this like I will. No one notices she has not blinked. Her open eyes, thickly coated with yellow, will not change through these hours.
But I notice.
Her husband talks to her. His sobbing is a flail on my heart. I want to die.
"I have loved you so much for 23 years we had together. Remember when we drove across Canada? We had coffee and talked. You read to me. I loved every minute of that. I loved being with you. And now here I am with you at the end and I love you."
I am staring at her face.
People want phone calls made. There are people who should be here, who don't know yet. This is one of my jobs. I can do this. I walk down the corridor and do it.
"I am so sorry to wake you with such bad news. You don't know me. I'm just a friend."
Someone says to me, "Shannon, I need tea. Please. And Bryan should have something."
Be right back. I think there's a lounge downstairs, I'll find a kettle.
I have just poured the last of the water over a bag, into styrofoam, when there is a slamming of a stairwell door, a voice raised. "Shannon! the kids are here, we need you upstairs, they are hysterical."
I run. I wonder vaguely if I can do three stairs at a time - settle for two.
They are here, in the hallway, one just turned eleven and one about to turn eight. I try not to think about her birthday, fifteen days from this day. I can feel the panic building so I push the birthday away.
Her son is sobbing, shrieking and powerless and helpless with it. Her daughter gets to her feet. "I can't stand anymore. I can't stand it."
"Let's take a walk. There's a lovely window at the end of the hall."
Little one, I will be normal for you. Sandy, I can be normal for your babies. It's my job.
And I have not seen her for a while, but I have memorized her face. I can stay in the corridor, because I can see her here. I am seeing her.
There is a friend, familiar to the children, and she takes them away. They are finished. This is too much for them.
A sudden change for the better. She has turned to her husband's voice. She has raised her hands.
I go back inside. Somehow there is only me, for a minute, and Sandy. She is restless, nerveless fingers motioning to the blanket as if to raise it. She cannot grasp it. Her eyes fixed, still open. She must be so distressed. She needs me. I still her hands and rest my cheek against her head. "Ssh. Don't worry. It's okay. It's nearly finished. I know you're cold sweetheart. It's okay. I love you."
Her hands lift. She is rubbing her scalp. The motion makes her need to cough. There isn't enough breath.
We will raise her bed a little. We will fold her blanket behind her shoulders.
Her fingers, far from her sides, are pulling down as though to make sure she is covered. Under the blankets she is bare, except for her shirt. I can see she is worried.
I cover her. My hand is on her shoulder again and I say quietly, "You are covered. Be easy."
Her mask is too tight. The oncologist steps in, stethoscope to her ears. No one breathes as she listens. She steps back. "You know what? let's take that mask off. There is air going in, but not much. The mask is not helping her."
And there is my friend. Her mouth drawn down in suffocation, her amber eyes open, her pale hands floating.
Someone else's voice. "Shannon."
I do not look away from her. "What do you need?" I say quietly. Where does this composure come from?
"Sandy's favourite Psalm. Psalm 91. Can you read it for us?"
I am standing at the death of my friend. I am standing with one hand on her, and with the other holding her husband's Bible. I can do this for them. She will hear this one more time from me, and if I never did anything well before, I will do this well. How do I put peace into my voice? I will do it.
Because she has set her love upon Me, therefore I will deliver her.
I will set her on high, because she has known my name.
She shall call upon Me, and I will answer her;
I will be with her in trouble
I will deliver her and honor her
With long life I will satisfy her
And show her My salvation.
I am her friend.
I kneel beside her shoulder. I am staring at her face. Her breath is a flutter, a quick reflex, no more than three in a single minute.
I am drawing in what she needs. I am breathing in deeply, the way she used to. I realise that I am not willing her to stay alive. I am willing her to die.
Because I am her friend.
Her husband, across from me, cries. The cancer is breaking him in two.
I am staring at her face.
There is a rush inside me and my head throbs. My throat constricts over words I know I must say, but I wish for an insane moment that everyone would just go away so I don't have to say them in front of anyone else.
I don't want them to hear. It will be hard for them to hear.
My hands are on her arms. Her ear is nearly close enough for me to whisper. She won't hear a whisper.
I don't want to say it.
I love her so much.
I don't want them to hear. They will not like it.
I can do this for her.
It is my job.
I open my mouth. I draw in her breath.
I say it. "Go in peace."
And she goes.
There are no more flutters.
And I have done this for her.
I have been her friend.
I laugh. I am so light. She is not in pain anymore. She doesn't have cancer. She is cured.
I say something else people might not like.
I get up and I go out to the corridor. I've been asked to phone many people but the first number I dial is my own. My husband answers. "She is gone." My mother is there too. "Mum, she's gone." I get to the end of the hall, right in front of the lovely window. I turn one corner, out of sight of her room, and I grip the handrail. I am on my knees in the hallway, hanging on grimly to the rail.
I'm cracking. My chest is in splinters down the middle and all the pain is going to come shrieking out if I don't watch it.
I get a grip on myself. I stand. I drag my sleeve across my face.
I dial the first number.
A vague amount of time goes by. I have told a lot of people and I am astonished how easy it is. "I am very sorry, but I am calling you with very bad news. I must tell you that your friend Sandy passed away fifteen minutes ago."
I am so sorry to tell you that your sister-in-law Sandy passed away twenty minutes ago.
I am so sorry but I must tell you that Sandy passed away about a half hour ago.
I am back in the room.
I do not look at her face anymore.
I am looking at him, instead.
"I just don't want to leave her here," he is sobbing. "I just need a minute more before I can leave her here."
When he has come out, we go in - one at a time.
I wait. I smile. I am pressing every bit of myself against the edges of that crack. There is a seam of dazzling, disastrous light in the middle of it.
It's my turn.
Even as I put my hand on the doorknob, I don't know what I will do inside. I don't know what will happen.
I step into the room and cross to her. I press my arms against her cold arms. I use every bit of gentleness I have when I cradle her face in my hands. I lay my open palms against the top of her chest, feeling her collarbones and her stillness.
I lift her hand, carefully opening her chilly fingers to slide mine inside.
I kiss her hand.
I cross to the open window and stand for a minute looking out at the sheets of cold rain.
I open it a little more, reaching a hand through.
I don't understand.
My palm is smooth and pale. Drops of water, driven by the wind, splash against it.
I wipe my cold hand against my face.
I cross to the door.
I leave the empty room.