You wouldn’t know how often I think of you. We didn’t see each other during the last years of your life. Not because of differences or hard feelings: Our lives had simply forked like two roads and somewhere among us flowed a river. We wrote to each other occasionally, building a digital bridge word by word. You confided in me, despite our distance, telling me about your darkness, which was spiraling and never-ending. I took your disclosures as proof that a true connection once existed between us.
You wouldn’t know how often I think of you. Likewise, your children have no clue; they probably don’t even suspect that I know their names and may have never heard mine. Did I send them my condolences? I don’t have a record of where they live, so I cannot have sent a card. Still, I’ve written to them in my mind. If you ever want to know, most of these communications began. If you ever want to know how much your mother meant to someone who has only known her briefly, tangentially.
Do you know? You’ve touched me with a magic hand that I can still feel on my skin, sometimes warm, sometimes cold. Simultaneously alive and dead.
There was a time, more than twenty years ago, when we talked and danced and drank together on a weekly basis. As friends or acquaintances? Our intimacy was limited, spread out into a group and thinned by the stronger affinity I witnessed between you and others: boyfriends, roommates, close friends. Unlike them, I never knew how you smelled. In what position you slept. What you ate for breakfast. You only let me see the horror movies in your head, because I asked, because I hoped it would make them less real to you. At night, locked in the solitude of your mind, your sick brain forced you to watch the most harrowing scenes. Is that why I so often think of you, and thought of you, even before you chose to die? What is unmentionable is not unimaginable.
How compact you were, how fulgent your eyes. How big your mouth was, literally and figuratively. How generous your laugh, how harsh and honest your tongue. How relentless, you, as a whole. How fierce. Still, there was no cure, no matter what you tried. The injustice wore you down.
Over a decade ago, you attended the book presentation of my first novel—a surprise. It’s true that I had invited you, but that was more to let you know that I’d birthed a book than because I expected you to show up. Still, there you were in the bookstore, as proud as a mother. Well, you said, when you told me you were going the write a novel, I didn’t think you would. Everyone says they’re going to write a novel. But you actually did and that’s why I’m here. You proved me wrong. I like that.
Not long before your death, you contacted me after an extended period of non-communication. I’d just written a novel about my father’s euthanasia at the time and published an article about how hard it is to find help when you’ve chosen to die—even in the Netherlands, even when you’re sick and already dying. You’d read the article and gave me advice about where to go and how I could assist the person in my life who sought a dignified death. You also revealed your plan to end your life.
I never tried to change your mind. I never asked you to contemplate the possibilities of a bluer sky. You wouldn’t have listened to me anyway: I wasn’t close enough to guide you and had no understanding of the perpetual darkness in your head. I asked whether you’d told others about your plan and was relieved to hear you’d discussed it with your children, had involved your inner circle. You wouldn’t take your last steps alone.
People speak of weakness. Of confusion. Of selfishness. Of pain that is too much to bear. People call it a choice or a mistake. But like friendship, every death is unique. To me, you were neither spineless nor brave. You said you could no longer live.
You wouldn’t know how often I think of you. You wouldn’t know how much I regret not having taken the opportunity to see you one last time.
Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and currently lives in Paris. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon&Schuster, 2018). Her short prose appeared in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Online she can be found at www.clairepolders.com.