I don't know how much time I have left with her.
Ashley is weak and frail as I help her along, picnic 'bag' in one hand and a huge mat tucked under my armpit. Every step is tiring, her brittle legs wobble under her. Yet, she seems to be at peace, happy to be away from the pills and tubes, the poking and prodding. The doctors had finally relented, giving her the green-light when she asked if she could spend some time, her last days, outside the "prison", as she called it. Ashley left the hospital yesterday afternoon. That night, she coughed up big sticky globules of blood.
"Stay home and rest," I said when we got back to her place, queasy at sight of her crimson vomit. Though she was slightly delirious, her reply was sharp and focused; she was determined not to escape the ward only to languish at home, "waiting to die".
But I don't want her to die. Not ever. They say that there are five stages of grief and I've gone through them all, albeit reluctantly. A weary traveler, I've finally arrived at stage five, acceptance and I know there's nothing I can do to save her. I do. All I want is a little more time with her. Just another week even...
The sun shines brightly with nary a cloud in the sky. Burning rays beat down on us as we head for the shade of an old pohutukawa. She looks up at me, those big grey eyes still shining through her haggard, desolate features. A wide-brimmed straw hat shields her pasty skin. The gnarly tree extends its multiple trunks out as if in a welcoming embrace. I set out our picnic mat, careful to smooth out all the creases I can see which takes a while, a long while actually but Ashley waits patiently. Specks of dust or whatnot are banished. Goodness knows what germs and bacteria they harbor...
I make sure I smother my hands with sanitiser. It makes me feel good and soothes my anxiety-riddled mind.
Curled up in a ball and saddled with jumpers, Ashley beckons me to come beside her. I oblige of course. But first, I have to check the tree trunk is free of anything dirty before coming to rest against it. I'm not sure though so I have to get up and inspect it again. Nope, definitely no gum or anything yucky like that.
"It really is a lovely day, Ben. So much better than being stuck at in the hospital," she says, voice soft as a whisper, coarse as sandpaper.
"Or at home."
Ashley giggles like a child, only to abruptly grimace. Her face contorts in hurt. I laugh too but the sight of her in pain makes it hollow, empty. I look at her, my heart searing to envelop her in an embrace. Then, my brain kicks into action.
She doesn't like you. Not like that.
Don't ruin this time together. You don't have much longer.
And so I listen to that stupid mass of neurons in my head though I rebel just that little bit by sliding my arm around Ashley. I look at her, my heart skipping anxiously. She doesn't push me away. In fact, she seems to appreciate my gesture, leaning into me. Her head, engulfed in her favourite red and black beanie, comes to rest against my chest. My heart pumps. I can't help it.
We lie like that for a while, our backs against the bark of the indomitable Metrosideros. Lips silent. Just admiring the last vestiges of summery weather. Then an old man, wearing baggy pants and suspenders, strolls past with his stumpy-legged pooch of a dog. Man and beast lumber along, blissfully unaware of our presence.
"Oh, that brings back memories," she says. By now, she has lifted herself off my shoulder and is sitting up with a glint of excitement in her eyes.
"Memories of what?"
I'm confused as the elderly gentleman doesn't resemble anyone I know. Not that I can recall anyway. I glance at Ashley. She looks annoyed and I instantly feel bad. It's something I should remember. But what? I look back at the two, backs to us by now. Still nothing.
"Oh, come on Ben. Remember that night at… at…" she struggles to recall. "You were yelling at me when some guy and his dog came walking past at like midnight?"
My head was swirling. Tears, for so long held back, erupted from their ducts like a flood that streamed down my cheeks. The wet stung in the cold winter's air. Stumbling along, I had no idea where I was going. I'd been walking, floundering really, aimlessly for hours. I was sad, I was angry. Death was on my mind though I couldn't say it was totally unwelcome.
Why did Janine have to reject me like that? It's not that I was surprised that she said no when I told her how much I liked her and then offered to take her out to dinner. No, it was the way she said it, smirking with contempt while making haughty remarks about my OCD. Bitch.
I continued to slink along, passing through street after dreary street. The usual pissed off their heads idiots were around. Bloody inebriated scum, I wanted to spew but I kept quiet as I shuffled past them, silenced by an innate fear of those animals. Although, I later mused, perhaps I should have said something. If I had picked a fight then, maybe I would have just died there on the street that night. By then though, it was too late. The moment had passed.
Further along, I also saw hookers, littering the footpaths with cigarettes in hand and waiting for desperate guys to rock up in their cars asking for sex. I was tempted. If no girl would say 'yes' to me, why not just pay for some sex? But then I worried I might catch something from them. Didn't imagine they washed between 'acts'.
So, I turned them down about as politely as I could, with a horrible forced smile and a grudging "No thanks". I continued on my way to the echoes of mocking laughter.
Eventually, I began to grow tired and my legs felt like jelly. I thought about going home but I was still upset, a maelstrom of self-pitying thoughts raging through my mind. No one would care if I don't come home, I told myself. No one gives a crap about me. So, I decided I would just keep on walking.
Not long after, the entrance to a park came into view. Welcome to Moonway Park, it read. The dark and gloomy path twisted and curled around like giant intestines, lit only by dim lamps. Dark silhouettes of trees on either side swayed, their foliage rustling in the icy evening breeze. It was ages, when I was deep within the bowels of the park, before I noticed I was shivering and my teeth chattering. It was freezing. But I refused to stop. If I fell ill or collapsed from hypothermia, then so be it. I didn't care. "Fantastic, maybe I'll freeze to death in here. Or a homeless guy will stab me for my wallet," I found myself muttering with sickly delight.
As I trudged along, hands in pockets, I soon spotted someone on a bench up ahead. It was a girl. Could tell by her pony-tail and furry-hooded jacket. Her breath misted in the chilly night in between taking swigs from a bottle.
Another bloody drunk.
"Hey! Hey you! It's a birt laaate to bee out, ain't it?" she called out, slurring her words as she held up her bottle. By now, my fury had subsided and I lacked the drive to respond in kind. There was no use interacting with such intoxicated fools, I reasoned and held my tongue. I was close enough now to see her bottle held vodka. Or at least it used to.
"Hey! Don't you ignoore me you blimmin' idiot!"
The insult pricked a little. Still, I suppressed my anger, gritted my teeth and paid her no heed. Then, oddly, I began to feel a small tingle of pleasure. It actually gave me a teeny bit of joy ignoring her like that for I knew how pissed off I would be had I been in her shoes. So, I kept walking, laughing a little as she continued to spew a torrent of abuse. Her words grew nastier with every step I took. Still, I made sure not to be provoked into a callous response.
"Why don't you go kill yourself? Just go die. No one gives a rat's ass about you anyway. Loooser."
The words hit me like a wall of bricks. My legs faltered. Sorrow welled up inside me, my eyes filling with tears as I threatened to break out into a sob. I staggered forwards as I struggled to compose myself. Then, anger started to build up inside me, rapidly coursing through my veins and boiling to a rage.
She had no idea what I had gone through. No idea at all.
"You!" I yelled as I spun around, finger raised at the intoxicated girl. She was by now standing rather listlessly and waving her bottle at me like a caveman would a club. I stormed at her, seething with fury. I was going to make her sorry she ever uttered a word at me. The bottle slipped from her hand, smashing into the pavement into a million little shards. She seemed startled, nearly toppling over from her bemusement but I didn't care. In an instant, I was upon her and I let rip. I told her how she had no right to tell someone to go kill themselves, how pathetic she was to hurl insults at strangers, how our society had no place for scum like her. My tirade went on and on and on. I just couldn't stop. I was so angry, so furious that I lost all self-control.
A bark startled me mid-gush. It was a small dog, a terrier of some sort.
"Is everything alright?" boomed his owner, a burly gentleman with a deep, husky voice. I looked up to see a mountain of a man, made even more so by an immense padded jacket. His dog continued barking, the little critter leaping up and down like an oversugared child.
I was taken aback by this intrusion and my eyes involuntarily shifted back to meet hers.
It was then that I had the first real good look at the girl I was berating: her dark, empty eyes swollen from sobbing, an air of hopelessness about her. Her world must have been in absolute tatters. I instantly felt sorry. I had been cruel, viscious. My problems felt so insignificant in that moment.
What happened to her?
A blur of black and a tui comes to rest on the branch above us, its feathers shining an iridescent green in the sunshine. It surveys the area around its perch for a while and then takes off, disappearing as swiftly as it had arrived.
I take another bite out of my chocolate muffin, baked by mum in the wee hours of the morning. It has a heart of soft gooey caramel, just the way Ashley likes it. However, Ashley has barely touched hers and it lies, sad and dejected on the picnic mat. Ashley must be devoid of any apettite. So I retrieve a blue and black drink bottle and offer it to her. Ashley smiles and sips as much as she can. Which isn't a lot.
"I think we brought too much food," I joke. At the same moment, though I force a smile onto my face, I am hurting.
"Well, you were always the big eater. Looks like you've had five muffins already today."
"Four," I protest. I hated the number five.
"Whatever," she rolls her eyes. She's right though, I realise as I count in my head the number of muffins I have gobbled. I'm angry, not at her but at myself. I feel like I've done something horrible having consumed that fifth muffin. It's stupid I know but I can't help it.
Not long later, Ashley begins to complain of headaches and of feeling nauseas. We brought a supply of drugs along. These have no effect on the cancer killing her. They are only there to help her die more comfortably.
I feed her the appropriate medication. Ashley doesn't look in the mood to talk. She just wants to rest. So, I unearth my set of portable speakers, connect them to my iPhone and start playing a playlist of our favourite songs.
"Dreams are to be chased, don't be afraid to chase your dreams. No, no, no…"
It's her favourite song and I'm brought back to the times when she would play it on the keyboard.
"Well, here we are. My humble home," Ashley said as she turned the handle. The door creaked open with a groan, revealing an unbelievable mess. It was as if Ashley lived a life of squalor. Crumpled shirts on the floor, coffee table littered with magazines and empty cans inhabiting the carpet. Somehow nestled among the junk was a keyboard, looking decidedly out of place. An urge began to rise inside me to just start tidying up and cleaning. When I saw she wasn't looking, I had to reach out to push an off-kilter DVD back into alignment on the shelf.
"Would you like something to drink?" Ashley asked and I withdrew my hand in a fright. I wondered if she caught me. She didn't seem to notice though and added, "There's er… some Coke in the fridge or if you like, you can just have water out of the tap,"
I was parched so I accepted her offer. I went for the soft drink, refusing to trust water that hadn't been boiled.
When she scurried off into the next room, I sensed an opportunity. Working swiftly, I gathered as many rogue magazines as I could and stacked them into a neat pile. This I achieved just as she strode back out with my drink. My heart was pounding furiously. I have to stop this! It's stupid! my brain yelled at me.
Coke in hand, I was then taken on a tour of her tiny apartment. There were only three rooms: the living room, a frankly inadequate kitchen and a cramped little corner masquerading as a bedroom. However, she introduced each as if they were sections of a huge mansion. "Luxurious master bedroom", she gushed upon entering the room. Ashley then joked about how she spent more time sleeping on her couch than she did on her bed. I wasn't surprised.
After we'd been around the whole place, Ashley led me back to the living room. She strode to the keyboard and motioned for me to sit down beside her. I complied, though I felt a little tense to be that close to a girl, especially one as pretty as her.
Ashley flicked the switch at the wall and the instrument came to life, its LED screen lighting up. She placed both hands on the keyboard and began playing. Like magic, a string of notes emanated from the machine but she then stopped abruptly. Ashley apologized sheepishly for her mistake and started again. But once more, she hit the wrong note, a second clangy interruption. Determined, Ashley gave it a third go and this time, her playing was flawless, treating my ears to a melodious masterpiece whose crescendo left me covered in goose pimples.
"That… that was amazing, Ash. Just… wow…" the words came stumbling and tumbling out my mouth.
"Thanks, I've had years of practice," Ashley laughed.
"I love music, Ben. You know, I used to have these silly dreams that one day I'd play in an orchestra or something. Or have my own concerts," she added. A flicker of sadness lingered in her eyes for the briefest of seconds. Then, she looked away.
I wondered for a moment about what I should say, how I can be comforting without being creepy. "It's never too late, you know. You're still young and you're really good from what I can tell," I said at last, pleased with the response I had managed to conjure.
She didn't look at me when she said, "I'll never be able to do it. There just isn't time. I'm afraid it is too late for me."
My first thought was, rubbish, Ashley's young. Only in her twenties like me. What nonsense this about not having the time to chase her dreams. But before I could word out my thoughts, Ashley spoke again.
"Ben, I think it's time I told you. I have a tumour in my brain and they said they can't operate. Too high a chance of killing me they reckon. I'm going to die in… in five, maybe six months at best."
At first, my brain didn't comprehend, couldn't comprehend what she had told me. An involuntary "What?" escaped my lips. She looked at me, her soft grey eyes meeting mine. Then, my mind finally deciphered what she had said. Going to die. The words played themselves in my head again and again. I refused to believe it. Surely she's just joking, I told myself. "No… are you serious?" I blurted out at last, wishing and hoping that a "No" would come from her.
She took hold of my hand and nodded. I tried to speak but Ashley place her fingers over my lips. I pushed her hand away, saying that there must be something they could do. Chemo, radiotherapy, experimental drugs. Something. I demanded to know if she sought a second opinion. Ashley remained silent. She didn't answer my questions and I was growing increasingly hysterical. I wanted to cry. My head was spinning.
At last, I stopped. It was like talking to a wall. I wanted to scream at her, Talk! Why aren't you answering me?
"Ben, I know this is a shock to you. It was to me too. When they first told me, I was like 'Whaaaat?! You're telling me there's nothing you can do?' I was pissed off. So, so angry. That's why I was in the park that night. I told myself, 'Screw this. I'm just going to get smashed if I'm going to die from this tumour in my head. And I don't even drink that much normally. But, I think I've kinda gotten over that mad, angry, crazy phase," she explained, her tone soothing. That only made me feel worse. I should have been the strong one, the one offering words of comfort, not the other way round.
"It's okay, mate. I'm glad you're here. I think you're the only friend who really cares," Ashley said as she began a new song on the keyboard.
The car trundles along the open road. Ashley's feeling so buggered that I had to carry her to the car. I drive slowly, to cause her as little discomfort as possible. She's suffering enough as is. Her eyes are shut tightly, a telltale sign she is in pain. I want to help her, briefly entertaining thoughts of taking her back to the hospital. But I know there is precious little they can do for her. And so, I keep driving on, past a big green supermarket and McBurger on Jaunty Street.
With the sun subsiding close to the horizon, I put on my sunnies to shield my eyes from the glare. Ashley begins to squirm. She groans feebly and holds her stomach.
"Ash, are you okay? We can stop for a while if it'll help," I say and pull into the parking lot of a 24/7 diner. Ashley opens her eyes when we come to a stop. They are red and choked with slime. With great effort, she forces herself upright.
"Ben, I just wanted to thank you for today and for everything. For being there for me. I know it wasn't easy for you… You've been fantastic, absolutely fantastic. You're like a bro to me," she says before shutting her eyes again.
I'm slammed with a mix of emotions. My spirits are lifted by her words and then crushed upon the realization that she's doesn't… she's never had feelings for me. Like a bro to me…
I was riddled with anxiousness as we arrived at The Steakhouse. It was the first time meeting any of Ashley's friends. Her cousin, James was coming along too. In fact, he was the reason we were going to dinner at all.
Ashley looked gorgeous in her blue, one-shoulder satin dress. Her head was bald from chemo but she didn't care one bit. Neither did I.
A woman with her hair done up in a bun and dressed smartly in black escorted us to our table. As we approached the table, a spiky-haired man in a sharp suit rose to greet us, Ashley with a hug and me with a handshake. Which was unfortunate because his hand felt sticky. I prayed it was only sweat. He introduced himself as Ashley's cousin. The woman sitting across from him also greeted Ashley but said nothing to me. Her eyes stared coldly, in sharp contrast to her dazzling, shimmery dress. Ashley told me that the girl was Stephanie, a fellow "townite" she used to go out with.
I excused myself to the restroom to wash my hands.
When I returned, having scrubbed my hands clean, I found James yarning about his recent travels abroad. His apparent adventures in Paris and Germany seemed way too thrilling to be true. I had never been to any of those places but I knew bullshit when I heard it.
Finally, after I had a second glass of water, she showed up. "Hi, I'm Monique," the blonde with long, wavy hair announced with a double-handed wave. She seemed a lot friendlier than Stephanie.
With everyone in attendance, Ashley announced that we should probably order our meals. Menus flipped open as we surveyed the cuisine on offer. I decided to have good old steak and potatoes. After the waitress left with our orders, the table was once again buzzing with laughter and conversation. Not that I said anything though. I just didn't know what to say, even when Ashley addressed me directly. As time wore on, I began to feel more and more awkward just sitting there. Dejected, I became preoccupied with the arrangement of cutlery in front of me as I realised they weren't aligned properly; fork at a slant, knife askew. So, I reorganised and repositioned until I was satisfied. It calmed me to see them all neat and tidy like that.
I looked up and was shocked to see Monique staring directly at me. I blushed in embarrassment. Her face said it all. Eyebrow raised in disapproval and a nasty smirk spread over her face, she must have thought I was some kind of weirdo.
"Spaghetti bolognese? With a little chilli?"
It was the waitress with our meals. What a relief. As we ate, I kept glancing at Monique. She did not look at me and appeared to be preoccupied with her food. Still, I couldn't take it easy. I was paranoid. It felt like every eye was fixed upon me, scrutinising my every move. Obsessive thoughts multiplied and one by one, they creeped into my mind, becoming increasingly tough to ignore. I noticed the discoloured spot on my napkin, wondered James had sipped from my glass while I was gone before, was sure that my hand had somehow come in contact with mucuous from my nose.
"What are you doing?"
This time, everyone was staring at me and moments passed before I realised that I was wiping my hands on my pants. I stopped at once, face afire and most definitely scarlet. Bloody freak! I admonished myself in silence.
"Ah.... er... I..." I mumbled, unable to tell them that I had to, that I didn't want to spread the germs from my nose. I was all alone, exposed. I had to get away, hide somewhere. So, I said I had to use the bathroom and left the table abruptly, almost running all the way to the toilets.
Just before I opened the door, I felt a hand grab me.
"Hey. What's the matter, Ben?" It was Ashley. At first, I was reluctant to tell her, afraid that revealing the true scale of my problem would scare her away. But, she told me it was okay, that whatever it was, she wouldn't judge.
So, for the next little while, we stood outside the men's loos and I told her everything about my condition and how much I hated it. I had just gotten to my dislike of multiples of 5 when Stephanie and Monique came our way.
"What are you guys doing? That's the men's you're standing outside, you realise?" Monique sniggered, her nostrils flaring like a pig's. Stephanie giggled like a child.
I looked at Ashley, breath held, wondering if she would reveal my 'secret' I'd just shared. Surely she wouldn't? I wasn't sure.
"Oh, nothing really. Ben here was feeling a little sick so I thought I'd stick with him for a bit."
The morning begins as a drizzly, dreary affair. Thick, grey clouds hide the sun and everything is painted in dull, drab shades. As I peer out my window dripping with rain, I sigh. What a shame. Ashley was such a fun, cheerful soul. She doesn't deserve a day like this.
I made sure to set my alarm extra early this morning. Just as well that I did as it took me a full hour and a half to get ready. The shower alone took forty minutes. Twice, I wasn't sure I had washed my hair properly. Another twenty I spent on reading through my speech trying to get it absolutely perfect for her.
As I step out the front door with mum and dad, it seems to have brightened up a touch. The rain has lifted and rays of sunshine pour through a gap in the haze like a well from the heavens. Eventually, the gloomy carpet retreats, pursued by an advancing front of blue from the east. By now, we are halfway to our destination and I have thought only about Ashley. Cars, houses and people whizz by but I don't really take notice. It's all a blur until dad pipes up, "Righto, we're here."
The church is a small quaint building with white walls and topped with a reddish-grey tile roof. There are already a number of people there. They have gathered around the front of the building. I recognize a few of them: Raz and Jackie, David, Monique. Most are dressed in black. A man is greeting them. Some shake his hand while others reply with a smile and a nod.
When we walk up to the man, he welcomes us and tells us that the service will begin shortly. I'm thankful he doesn't offer me his hand. After that, we enter the open front door. It's not quite what I expect, almost appearing bigger on the inside and sporting a slick and modern look, quite unlike its seasoned exterior. Rows of chairs, a dozen or so, give way to the stage at the front. Most are occupied so we scurry to the nearest available three, three-quarters of the way back.
We wait and we wait but when I check the time, only 10 minutes have crept by. Then, there is some commotion at the entrance. I see movement outside. People are coming in. As they enter the church, I realise they are carrying a casket. Ashley's casket. Tears burst from my eyes as they bring my friend, my best friend past us and all the way to the front. Mum has me in her embrace and I grip her tightly, sobbing into her blouse.
The service starts with the pastor giving a short sermon. He quotes passages from the Bible and says a prayer. The next man who lumbers up to speak is stout and plump, face adorned with a bushy moustache and beard. He looks so familiar but I can't pin down how or where I have seen him.
"When Ashley was born, I couldn't be prouder…" the man began. It's her dad, I realize, the one she didn't want to tell about her cancer because she thought he hated her. As he continues talking though, it is clear all he has is love for Ashley. I can't help but feel sad she couldn't hear it from him herself.
He speaks for about fifteen minutes but it's not all somber and sad. Brian has the audience in fits of laughter as he recalls tales of his daughter's mischief. His eyes then turn red when he says he's sorry, sorry for not trying to reach out after their fight. He's talking to Ashley, hand on her casket. Tears trickle slowly down his face. When he pauses, I can hear a few people in the audience sobbing.
A couple of other family members say a few words and then the moment arrives.
I am introduced as the next speaker and I rise from my seat. As I stride to the front, nervousness and sorrow strike. My chest tightens a little and my stomach is in knots. Still, I make it up there. Bright lights blind me and I blink, my vision dotted with purple.
The microphone booms when I clear my throat. I'm about to pull out the notes for my talk when something tells me: Speak from your heart. I look at her, sleeping so peacefully, and I know what to say.
As I talk, I can't help but think that from somewhere up there, perhaps under the shade of a pohutukawa, Ashley is watching with a smile.
Photo credit: taken by Sandy Austin, found at http://tinyurl.com/oa6hwn2 and used under the following license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/