Life, Death, Something in Between

Metarie Cemetery, NOLA

Every city is a person. San Francisco, for example, is a cooler-than-you power player by day, club kid by night with a serious drug problem and crushingly low self esteem. He’s beautiful, but the kind of beautiful you regret finding in your bed in the morning when his makeup’s come off and you see what he really looks like. Sacramento is his younger sister who wants to be as cool as her older brother and tags along to his parties, but she really just doesn’t get it, and won’t, ever. She’s self important and destined to be either a politician or homeless, depending on whether she’s willing to sell out or not. Portland simultaneously hates himself and thinks he’s better than everyone else, writing mostly bad but occasionally amazing poetry, while drinking whisky flights and watching the rain mist over the concrete outside his rent-controlled studio apartment downtown. He’s beautiful, quirky, and surprisingly athletic, which is amazing considering you’re pretty sure he lives mostly on coffee.

New Orleans is a man who laughs too fast and too hard, talks too much and too long, drinks to work up the nerve to socialize and then keeps drinking until he’s sick, the sort of drunk who can turn on you without warning. He’s a fantastic pal to hang around the town with because he knows everyone and doesn’t mind introducing you, an amazing cook able to whip up the most amazing meals faster than you can blink, and overall will show you a damned good time as long as you’re buying. He’s got a timeless sort of tired beauty, the grace of a man who’s been through some really rough times, and the charm of a desperate charlatan in need of some quick cash. He spends way more than he earns in an effort to make himself seem far less tired and sad than he feels, and he dates twin sisters Life and Death. When Life has partied herself out and goes home in the morning, Death visits by day and they stroll among graveyards and quietly share memories of happier times.

He needs the love of both women to be allowed to be who he is.

New Orleans is a larger than life, boisterous, beautiful place. In some places, the beauty is plastic and painted on, but there nonetheless. In other places, it’s quiet and stately and dignified; beautiful if you notice it or not. Everywhere you look, death and life are married and inseparable. Among the touristy, horrible glitz of Bourbon Street, there’s a smell of sick and decay and deteriorating sidewalk rubble to trip you up at every turn. Among the quiet graveyards around City Park, plants grow between the cracks of the crypts, the living wander freely, and the whispering of traffic is never far off.

New Orleans remembers what it’s like to have a healthy relationship with death.

We visited a very beautiful paper and pen boutique in the French Quarter, called originally enough – Papier Plume – and spent a fair bit of time looking at the most elegant instruments for committing ink to paper. Beautiful glass fountain pens, calligraphy pens, ink of every shade, and journals of artisan paper for keeping track of your life in. Everything you need to spill your living thoughts on to dead trees. As a sort of team memento thing, we all three bought glass fountain pens. We spent more time deliberating on ink than we’d spent choosing the pens, and I’m grateful and surprised that the shopkeeps never got the least bit impatient with us. I found shades I loved, but was dismayed that they weren’t permanent ink – they would fade in light or run when wet. The shopwoman asked why I was so set on permanent ink.

Colin looked back at me for a moment unsure of how I wanted to proceed. I smiled gently. “I ..have a terminal disease,” I explained, “and I mean to use these to write my farewell letters.”

She was quick to recover, immediately understanding and warm. She expressed her condolences, particularly when I mentioned ALS specifically, as – with so many people I’m finding – someone she knew had been lost to it. We made our selections, and she sincerely wished me luck. I appreciated it, and told her so. New Orleans was such a wonderful melt of life and death, that it wasn’t awkward to have that conversation. I only mentally dwelled on it at all in order to marvel at how normal that exchange seemed, before putting it away in my memories.

Several times I felt like I ought to have been somehow overwhelmed by it all, achingly sad to know that it’s the last time I’ll be in that city, thinking on life, death, the afterlife while sitting in St. Louis Cathedral, waiting to be moved enough to weep, and never really feeling like I needed to do so. I felt very comfortable and at peace there. I did not need to mousecreep my way through social interactions, because death was a part of life there. No explanations, no apologies needed, just a warm bath of understanding at the very core of the city. Time enough to relax and revel in a healthy attitude towards death before returning to a world still terrified of it.

I could never live in New Orleans, but it was delightful to be in his company for awhile. I’m grateful for the chance I was provided. Seven days being allowed to be what I needed to be, with two amazing people who love me to the ends of the earth and with whom I feel safe enough to relax my constant need to assure everyone I’m okay, and admit when I’m overwhelmed and need to sit down a bit. Seven days to live and eat and breathe and sleep for a week in a city that made me feel welcome and …normal.. enough to drop my guard in public for a little bit and just be unapologetically weak and flawed and alive.

A chance to be a dying woman in a city perfectly okay with death.


I joke a lot about “membership has its privileges” when I get some special attention over my disease. Closer parking spaces. People holding the door for you longer than they normally would. Things like that. I definitely notice I’m getting special treatment, the more debilitated I get, and “privileges” is becoming kind of a tired joke, but I’m learning daily how differently people get treated when they’re “less than perfect”.

I went through Security Theater this morning, to get on a plane to come to New Orleans for a vacation. (Hello from New Orleans!) Megan and Colin were my partners on this venture, and Colin did a fantastic job of running interference for me. We researched what was needed for someone to go through security with a cane and braces, and Colin was marvelous at stepping up and informing the various security peeps of what was expected.

Sidenote: Post 9/11, this was the most pleasant TSA experience I’ve had.

I didn’t have to remove my braces, they swapped my metal cane with a wooden one so I could walk through the metal detector, and then had me (try to) stand in the imaging machine – not backscatter, it turned out, some other technology. Megan’s going to research that. I wobbled. They patted me down a lot and swabbed my hands and shoes for explosives, and then a really nice TSA officer collected my things for me and led me to a chair to wait for the other two.

My cane and braces got us in the fast track through security. My cane and braces got us boarded first. Pre-boarding, bitches! My cane and braces get me more attention and consideration than I’ve ever had. It is just weird to me still, to be granted privilege and special status because my body is betraying me. “Here, you have less time, literally, than the rest of us. To the front of the line, please.” I’m grateful for the consideration, it sincerely does make my life easier. But it feels weird and alien still, because there’s that edge of “I don’t deserve special treatment” and “I don’t NEED special treatment” and on either side of that chasm is a yawning abyss of “Shut up, yes you do.”

I’m not sure what the point of this is. I guess part of me is a little appalled that it takes something like a terminal disease for people to notice and be nice to you. And I’m just as guilty of it. I’m far more likely to smile at a total stranger with some sort of affliction, like – hey, you’re okay, man, you’re cool. I’m on the other side of that now and… it’s not insulting at all, but it’s a little sad. Like, why wouldn’t you hold the doors for that dude but you’ll hold them for me?

And I joke about “membership has its privileges” but..really, it seems only fair that the universe dishes out SOME gentle allowances to soften the blows. Even if it’s only in letting me on the plane 20 minutes before everyone else. For every fall, there’s someone to help me back up. I’m happy to be in New Orleans on someone else’s dime, and I honestly couldn’t ask for two more considerate and compassionate travel companions who are on point and looking out for ways to make my life easier. (They were always there, though. ALS didn’t do SHIT for me on that front.) So I guess, if the universe is saying “Sorry bout your terminal disease, have everyone letting you on the plane first as a consolation” isn’t that bad. At least it comes with something. And I am grateful for those little mercies. They really do soften the blows, and make things just a bit easier.

I’m privileged to have those small mercies.

Thrown Off, and Thankful

I don’t say this nearly enough. I am grateful. SO SO SO (imagine about a hundred more SOs here) GRATEFUL for the people in my life that have stepped up to show their love, to see how they could help, to not bother asking how but just doing something.

I’m going to New Orleans this month, for a week, on Megan’s dime. Because she loves me and wants to travel with me and I love that city. We’re going to eat ALL the things. I’m going to Disney World next year, which Danielle and I had been planning for our 40th birthday celebration for awhile, but Danielle has just taken the reins of this thing, asked me what I wanted to do, and planned everything out. She’s even fundraising so that I don’t have to pay for all of it. My dear friend Melody came to visit for a week, all the way from New Hampshire. Just to spend time with me. The lovely Linnea, my first best friend/partner in crime, is coming this weekend.

Dying makes you pretty popular, it seems.

And I always thought of myself as not that special, I mean – sure, nice person, okay, but extraordinary? Hardly. And here are all these people taking me places and coming from far to spend time with me, telling me without words that I AM kind of awesome, shut up.

It’s amazing, and overwhelming, and yeah. I’ve probably said it all a hundred times, and I’ll say it a hundred more. I love everyone in my life. I love the people who have made an effort to visit, I love the people who couldn’t quite get it together to do so, but wanted to. I love the people taking me to real places, I love the people who have gone to imaginary places with me.

This isn’t an easy journey for you guys. I know damned well. It’s easier to ignore me and hope I’ll quietly go away (SPOILER: I am going, but sure as SHIT not quietly). It’s hard to have the conversations with me, it’s hard to hear the jokes. It’s hard to know someone who is dying, and not let that depress the shit out of you or chase you away. Some of you will drop off the line when things get really horrible, and that’s okay. I’m grateful you are staying for as long as you can. Because I know that it’s hard. It’s one thing to say, “I have a friend dying of ALS” in conversation, and it’s another to admit to yourself in the small hours of the night that someone you know is going away and there’s nothing you can do about it.

You’re so incredibly strong for dealing with this. For doling out what kindnesses you can. I did not expect you to, and I’m grateful you stayed. You’re amazing people. Each one of you.

So thank you. For being a point of light, for being a celestial body in my universe. The cosmos is infinitely brighter with you in it.