Just the day before, she told me, she'd been perusing the recipe section in the Times and had spied a delectable recipe for Turkish dumplings involving lamb, fresh mint, orecchiette pasta, and a dozen other ingredients. With the verve of a true foodie, she'd reached forward to rip out the recipe—and stopped. Then she froze. "I realized that I don't have the energy anymore to make a feast like that—and that I never will again," she said. "My hand just kind of hung there in the air." Her voice was thin, stunned.
I felt breathless. All of the usual conversational offerings—chummy jokes, attentiveness to this one's adventure or that one's insight—deserted us. Death had joined us at the table. After a long minute, Carol leaned forward, her fingers brushing my arm. Very softly, she said, "I'm OK."
OK? OK? The commonplace word sounded foreign, even bizarre. Trying to keep the tremor out of my voice, I asked, "Carol, how can you be . . . OK?"
She didn't respond immediately. "I'm sad a lot," she finally said, and swept her hand toward the window where a nearby Japanese maple stretched its spiky arms to the sky. "All this," she said, her voice cracking.
Then, after a moment she lifted her arms above her head, making a haphazard hoop in the air. "It's like this," she said. On good days, she imagined her life as a kind of circle, a necklace strung with a motley assortment of stones. "When I look at one part of the circle, I see that I'm dying." She took a shaky breath. "But if I look somewhere else, I see all the people who love me—way more than I ever knew before." She paused again, composing herself. "Then, over here"—she cocked her head toward yet another spot on her improvised necklace—"I'm perfectly capable of going on an amazing clothes spree!" Carol waved her hand over her new purple ensemble and laughed, her signature trill rippling through the air.
"It's all there," she said, more quietly now. "I just try to choose where to look."
I gazed into my friend's face and saw that this circle was as alive to her as the scarlet barberry bush that flamed in her garden. I thought of other circles: a juggler's whirling halo of balls, a fire-dancer's blazing hoop, the ring of chairs at an AA meeting. I thought of what circle-keepers try to do: hold the shape with grace, swing with it, engage it with respect. But the image made me shiver.
I thought of my own unsteady attempts to roll with the random sucker punches of life. I struggled with a long-term, painful health problem of my own, though vastly less ravaging and final than Carol's. Thus far, I'd dealt with it by alternately railing against it and attempting to surrender to it, all the while trying to muster sufficient hope to attempt yet one more semipromising treatment. Thus far, this jerry-built protocol had allowed me to muddle through.