Photo by Brian DeFeo
Three years ago, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, my friend Frankie began losing her mind.
The cancer steadily worked its way through her brain, though she remained conscious and aware almost to the end.
This is a day for remembrances. But even on a big day, there are other things that happen, known to few. These are opportunities for quiet contemplation — a private, sacred space amid larger, more public, observations of mourning.
It was Frankie’s third encounter with the disease. First, there was breast cancer. Then it moved into her reproductive organs, with long rounds of chemo and radiation. She and I volunteered at the same meditation center, and it seemed a small thing to lend a hand, especially since I was just a few blocks from her in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: picking up groceries, doing a bit of laundry. Frankie lived in a second-floor room of a brick house on the verge of ruin, run by the Addams family.
Frankie was a painter who grew up in an intellectual Jewish family. One brother went mad, dying in an institution, and the second stopped speaking to her. A sister phoned intermittently from far away, talking only of herself. When I started helping her, Frankie was working on a series of stamp-sized watercolors because that was all she could manage. When I admired the tiny paintings, she said I could have one.
Frankie learned I was a writer and asked me to read to her from my book. I had written a novel and, like most authors, could barely stand a word from my own pages; it felt like being trapped in traffic in a carload of people with whom I’d spent far too much time already — siblings or coworkers, all of us on a road we’d been down before.
Against my better judgment, I started reading. Frankie closed her eyes and listened. Her cats, terrified of strangers, sat under the bed. I read of an Asian American family in Ohio, of a trip to China. Later, Frankie would tell people that she loved the sound of my voice.
Months went by. I carried gallons of lemon-lime Gatorade up the stairs; it was one of the few things that didn’t make her nauseous. We became friends. She told me to keep writing, and I believed her.
But Frankie also infuriated me. I learned that she was alone and had no money due to a series of bad decisions, which she continued to make. She was a terrible procrastinator, not wanting to do boring work though she needed the money; she wanted her mother and father to swoop in and save her though she was almost 70, her parents long dead.
When she got better, she still wanted me to read from my book, but I put my foot down. “You’re a big girl,” I told her. “You can finish it yourself.” Yet the bookmark remained in the place where her cancer went into remission.
I realize now that I wanted her to finish the book — for me. I wanted her to try, to make an effort. But she didn’t and, after several years, became ill again, going quickly into hospice. When I visited, we just sat. I held her hand. She would wake, greet me with pleasure, then slip away again as though under a tranquil sea.
When she died, two of Frankie’s old friends came from New Mexico and, along with her health care proxy, cleared out the apartment, taking away her paintings and ashes for safekeeping. They put down the surviving cat, which was very sick and frightened. I never got the little watercolor she’d wanted me to have, and I don’t know what happened to the copy of my book.
So on this day of remembrances, I have my own private one and my own sacred space: of being with Frankie in the cool autumn twilight in Abingdon Square, West Village, on our last outing together. I had signed her out of the nursing home, and we sat on a park bench across the street, watching a multitude of dogs go by. “I love this light,” she said.
It’s fitting, I think, that Frankie never found out what happened at the end of the book. That way, in her mind, all things are possible, even in the face of the unimaginable.
I’ve added my sacred space to the Asian American Arts Alliance’s Locating the Sacred Festival project. What's yours?