The Honor of Bearing Witness

Blogger: Jessica Reed – “The Westchesbian”

It’s March 9, 2019, and my wife’s friend (I’ll call her S) is dying. It’s not what I want to write about or think about, but it’s all I’m thinking about and therefore what I’m writing about. It’s the first time in my life I’ve seen dying up close. I’ve seen AIDS—back in the ’90s—through early, middle, and later stages; I’ve seen cancer through similar stages (I’ve seen fake HIV/AIDS in all its fictional stages too, but that’s for another time). But this stage, this final, agonizing, gasping stage, I’ve never been in the room with it before, and I feel changed by it.

Let me back up. I am obsessed and terrified by death. I mean, I consider on a near daily basis how I could die that day and calculate the probabilities of said death. OK, on a daily basis for sure. OK, multiple times a day. And it fucking petrifies me, that you can be there and then suddenly not be there. That you can just disappear from your physical form. That you can simply cease to exist. And I’m sure some of you are thinking, but god and heaven and reincarnation or whatever your end-of-life belief system is, which I’m sure is a great comfort and something I often wish I had, but I believe what I can see and what I see is death as the end of what we know as living.

I’ve long instructed Kim, my wife, that she is to keep me alive at all costs. Fuck DNR—call me a pirate if you want, but my instructions have been RRRRRR all the way. If I’m in a coma, you fucking keep my body running. Days later, weeks later, months later, DECADES later, people wake up from that shit! I’ve told Kim I don’t care if I’m a head in a jar on the mantle (we don’t have a mantle, but there also aren’t living heads in jars, so let’s not get too caught up in the reality), you fucking keep me alive and keep me updated on what’s happening outside the jar. This actually led to a rather awkward dinner conversation one Women’s Weekend vacation in Provincetown. Kim was all, but what if I can’t afford it? And I was all, you do what you have to to keep me alive. Sell everything. I want all the machines. All the IV lines. All the resuscitation. Head in a jar, baby, head in a jar. And Kim was all, what about my life? What about moving on? And our friend, who was several margaritas in, was all, how can you be so selfish, Kim? And Kim and I laughed because we both knew that Kim was joking and I kind of wasn’t. Head in a jar. It’s been my death mantra.

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I didn’t know S before. Truth be told, I just met her for the first time last Saturday when I went with Kim to visit S in the hospital. But through the excruciating pain of metastatic brain cancer, S’s eyes lit up when Kim introduced me, and she grasped my hand in hers and kept saying in her voice that is now a whisper, “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Jessica. Oh my gosh.”

 Kim keeps her work life separate from our life. In fact, she didn’t come out at her job until after we were married, specifically the Monday after our honeymoon. That’s not to say she didn’t talk about me before then, more that I was just Jessica: Jessica from Kim’s weekend, Jessica with whom Kim went on vacation, Jessica with whom Kim bought an apartment; the sense I get is that I was ever present without anyone ever acknowledging what they had to know my presence meant (or not; people’s ability to miss what’s not spelled out for them has ceased to amaze me). I, on the other hand, am pretty much as out as I can be wherever I am, including and especially at work, where I feel an acute responsibility to use my white Jewish privilege to steward LGBTQ inclusion in the ultra-corporate world of Big Media, and if Kim would let me parade her around my office, I would 100% do that. But that’s not Kim’s way. She has a tendency to compartmentalize, and work is one of those compartments, a compartment in which she’s spent more than 20 years, which is to say she’s known and worked with S for 20 years.

 They’ve said “Bom Dia” to each other (S is from São Paulo) nearly every weekday morning for 20 years. They’ve shared countless lunches, most recently discovering O Mandarin together in Hartsdale. They’ve had long boozy dinners with their third “senorita,” whom I’ll call C. And seeing Kim and S together (and Kim and S and C), even as sick as S is, I see the love there, the connection, and I feel honored to witness it.

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Today, S was moved from the hospital to a shithole nursing home. Tomorrow, we will help her overwhelmed fiancé find a hospice because S deserves better than that shithole. And I will feel honored to hold S’s hand and read poems to her from my phone. And I will feel honored to have met S’s mother, whose heart is visibly breaking, and to have hugged her while she cried because sometimes comfort comes more easily from a stranger. And I will feel honored to have met S’s sister-in-law who clearly adores her and calls her “Babi.” And I will feel honored to have been a small part of a circle of women surrounding S in these final days. And I will wonder, when my heart skips a beat, whether it’s some undiagnosed coronary condition, and I’ll think how awful it would be for Kim to deal with my death and S’s at the same time, all while calculating in my head what the chances of that are. But I will, for a little while at least, stop saying “head in a jar” because it’s disrespectful to S and anyone else suffering through their last days but also because it’s bullshit. Which Kim knows. And I know. And it seems less funny now.

 Bearing Witness,

Jessica the Westchesbian


jessblogphotoJessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.

One thought on “The Honor of Bearing Witness

  1. Wow ! Ok that brought me to tears. But; I recently lost two friends and I think it makes us question our own mortality and brings fears to the forefront. Thank you for Sharing. Admittedly I laughed at the head in the jar but by the end I get it

    Like

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