Saying Goodbye to Hannah
Trigger warning: This story is my personal retelling of watching a very close friend die. I add this warning because I understand this is a very difficult experience for anyone who has gone through it. I’d hate for this to punch you in the gut while you are idly procrastinating at work. I also know that many of you who may read this knew our friend Hannah and all her jagged edges. I write this through my own eyes, as my own experience, and am in no way suggesting this is universal. I have only my memory to go by as the experience was too painful to write about in the moment. We all know that memory can be a false guide adding importance and weight to moments when perhaps there was none.
Leaving for this road trip, I had to say heavy goodbyes to so many people. It made me think about all the times we have to say goodbye, whether those goodbyes are truly final.
I promise my next blog post I will write a lighter story about those sweeter goodbyes; ones that are more like 'see you laters' than forever. I promise to talk about sitting in my friend’s beautiful old south New Orleans living room, and how we made rice and dal in my rice cooker, and how I rode my bike around the city, but first I need to tell this story.
I headed to Emory Hospital to say goodbye to Hannah a few hours before I boarded a flight on a solo trip to South Africa. I got out of the Uber in front of the gleaming white glass entry and clipped my bloated camping backpack around my waist. I thanked the driver and trudged the unfortunately familiar walk down two long corridors and up the elevator to the hospice wing.
The automatic glass doors swung open and I stepped in, my boots squeaking against the tile floor. The nurses glanced up from their stations and smiled at me, having seen me quite a few times in the last few days, they silently directed me towards the communal hospice waiting room.
I slid through the door and took off my heavy backpack dropping it unintentionally loudly in the corner. “You’re going on your trip today.” Hannah’s mother said to me from behind the sunglasses she had taken to wearing even indoors, as if behind their frame this nightmare was all a sepia tinged screen instead of reality.
“Yes, I’m catching my flight in an hour. I wanted to see Hannah before I left. I thought about canceling the trip but…” I trailed off.
“Hannah would want you to go, she loved to travel.” Her mother said wistfully.
It was true. In her short 28 years Hannah had touched almost every continent and following her fatal diagnosis she spent months in London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, trying to pack a lifetime of the world into a few short months. She even attributed an ill fated beach trip in China to giving her the fatal sunburn, that lead to the swollen mole on her lower buttox, and eventual malignant melanoma.
The family hugged me in the desperate way you do in these situations. One by one everyone greeted me with a hearty bearhug and melancholy, “how are you?”
I missed this intimacy a year later when in a grief stricken passion Hannah's widow and I fell in love for a brief few months; drunk on suffering and life giving desire that burned hard and extinguished in a cloud of smoke drowned in water. Her family never forgave me for that betrayal, of sullying the man that had for so long been her savior. A fact that still sears, but one I have come to understand. That is a story for another day.
“Can I see her?” I asked quietly.
I walked down the narrow hallway passing elderly ghosts quietly sleeping in their beds, waiting patiently to meet their maker. Hannah’s room was a vibrant change from the other’s along the hall. Much younger than the other hospice patients, family and friends had taken to decorating her room with her personal effects, artwork, and hundreds of photographs. A collage of her life littered the pale yellow hospital walls. Images of Hannah posing sexyily in cowboy boots and short jean shorts, images of Hannah in groups of friends packed into the picture frame, images of Hannah sitting on the shoulders of her beautiful husband in her wedding dress, bald but not sickly looking, both smiling hugely at the white light of the camera.
Her body in image after image was one I admittedly coveted growing up together. I recalled in college, sitting in our friend’s lake-house boat, the rest of us self-consciously draped in towels, pasty flesh jiggling in all the wrong places, her gymnastic tanned physique, waist nipped at all the right ones. In the recent months we watched as her sensual sinewy legs shrank and shrank until they were knobby brittle and just bone.
I looked at Hannah laying on the bed. Her face ghoulishly frozen, her yellowed tongue hanging out of her gaping open mouth, her eyes little slits of demonic white. She was so thin her already strong nose appeared goblin like.
Erin sat at the end of her bed talking to her. “Hey Hannah, Ro is here to see you. She’s going on her trip today.”
“Ro is here?” Hannah responded in an almost incomprehensible, mush-mouth, nasal that sounded nothing like my friend’s commanding voice.
Erin pulled up a chair for me at the foot of her bed, touched my shoulder, and walked out of the room. I grabbed her waxen hand and studied her face. “Hi Hannah.”
Her eyes and tongue rolled and failed wildly. She oscillated between looking shocked and terrified, as if there were momentary explosions taking place behind her eyes.
I held her hand a little tighter, “What do you see?! What is it? What’s there?” I begged. I selfishly wished for her answer. Giving me some grand moment, bridging the gap between life and death, explaining what we see when we die. God. Jesus. A light. Our parents. Our deceased relatives. The people we’ve wronged. The people we’ve righted. The people we loved. The people we hated.
But there was nothing. The morphine and probable brain damage had rendered her impossible to understand. While there had been glorious moments of recognition, bizarre moments where it felt like we had come to celebrate our friend in the hospital, not sit her shiva, those were fleeting. In that moment I realized Hannah was gone and there was no more to say. Anything else would have been my own voice willing some grand epiphany.
I got up and wiped my eyes, kissed her papery hand, and walked out of the room.
Two evenings later and 8,000 miles away I checked my email from the comfort of my aunt’s guest bed in Johannesburg. It was an email from my friend Charlotte, telling me what I already knew. That Hannah had finally left her body. That it happened peacefully in the night and that her family and husband were with her when she went.
I waited for the ocean of grief to crash over me, but it did not. A few single tears treaded down my cheeks and I went to sleep. The next morning I shared the news of Hannah’s passing with my cousins. They furrowed their brows in sorrow. “Shame man.” They said in their strong South African accents. We didn't say much more than that. I could tell they did not want to hear about someone so young leaving so soon. A reminder that it can happen to any of us at any time, that no one is safe.
A few hours later, I went on a bicycle tour of the SOWETO township. SOWETO, or The South Western Townships, is a suburb of Johannesburg. A town originally built to to house black African workers and serve the colonial powers mining belt. A town that was home to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, served as the birthplace of the student riots that led to the overthrow of the Afrikaner government, and did not have paved roads or electricity until the end of apartheid in 1994.
I was taking my time in the Hector Pieterson Museum. He was a child, killed at the age of 13 when the Afrikaner police opened fire on protesting students. My father, a doctor at the SOWETO student hospital at the time of the riots, recounted stories of bullet hole riddled children, more patients than beds.
I walked slowly around the brutal concrete and brick museum. Printed on a glass window was inscribed a poem by Mazisi Kunene called “Congregation of the Storytellers at a Funeral of Soweto Children.”
The first verse read:
We have entered the night to tell our tale
To listen to those who have not spoken
We who have seen our children die in the morning
Deserve to be listened to
We have looked on blankly as they opened their wounds.
Standing in front of that inscription at the Hector Pieterson Museum, my ocean of sadness welled and crashed. I reread the words over and over. I do not think I ever understood Hannah’s suffering while she was alive. How at the age of 28 she had to confront her own mortality. I felt like she had opened her wounds and all I could do was “look on blankly.”
I think about my friend often, but not much about that final day in the hospice. I think about dancing until we poured with sweat. I think about five of us piled in her childhood bed, laughing and rolling on top of each other, trying to claim space to sleep. I think about her sitting in our sunroom room diligently writing swirly calligraphy on envelope after envelope.
These are the images will always I re-play.