The last time that I heard your voice was a Friday afternoon, as we were riding the subway home. We were talking about languages; you were telling me that Russian was more difficult than English, but also more forgiving. I asked you to teach me, and you laughed.
We were standing in the doorway, facing each other, and I kept falling against you with every lurch and jerk of the train. I remember worrying that you would think that I was flirting with you, although we were both married. I was self-conscious, and didn’t want you to think that I was falling on purpose. I remember that you were wearing a black wool overcoat.
You’d been complaining of a sore throat for months. At our company Christmas dinner you had tea instead of wine, saying that you weren’t feeling well. I remember you gagging on your food at another company event; I remember being disgusted by the sound, wishing that I wasn’t sitting next to you.
You’d been to the doctor, you’d even had an ultrasound done on your throat, but they’d found nothing. It was allergies, they said, or else the dry, recycled office air.
The day after we rode the subway together, you asked your wife to watch your infant daughter while you went to the emergency room. You were having trouble breathing, you told her, but were sure you would be home soon.
The doctors found a tumour the size of an orange in your throat. They put a tracheotomy in, and told you it was lucky you’d come when you did – if you hadn’t, you would likely have suffocated in your sleep within the week.
The biopsy results came back a few days later – cancer. There were three of us who worked on the same team as you, and they pulled us into a conference room to tell us. I ducked my head, looking down at the tabletop, watching our tears drip and smudge on the dark, glossy wood.
The good news was that it hadn’t spread, and was very treatable.
I remember thinking how unfair it was that you, with your wife and daughter and your fierce appetite for life, should be so sick. Meanwhile, here was me, who only managed to feel tepid about living at the best of times, and I was perfectly healthy. I felt strangely guilty. I thought, it should have been me.
We went to see you in the hospital. I remember stepping off the elevator into the sick, mucus-smelling funk of a hospital ward. I was frightened, anxious – what would you look like? I expected someone ill, someone sad. I didn’t know what I would say.
You were smiling when we went in, so happy to see us. We quickly realized that you were still you, and that made everything easier. You couldn’t talk, so instead you wrote, passing notes to us like we were in grade school. We joked about the licentious swimsuit magazine a friend had given you; your wife laughingly pretended to scold you. Then your sister came, to drop off your daughter. It was like a party.
They were going to do radiation, you told us, to try to shrink the tumour in preparation for surgery. The surgery would mean that you would never talk again, but it was your best chance. Your mother didn’t want you to go under the knife; she had told you, skyping from her house in Russia, that she wanted you to try herbal remedies and certain prayers instead. She sent you a bracelet with a religious icon on it and insisted that you needed to wear it at all times.
What she really wanted was for you to come home.
Your wife didn’t know what to think. She couldn’t imagine never hearing your voice again, but more than anything she wanted you to live. She asked us to pray that the radiation would shrink the tumour into non-existence so that no further treatment was necessary.
The doctors were shocked by how quickly your tumour shrank; the radiation was working better than expected. It wasn’t enough, though, so you decided to go ahead with the surgery.
We talked about you coming back to work. I teased you, saying that you’d finally found the perfect excuse to avoid answering the office phone. During your radiation treatments, you’d signed all of your emails to me Radioactive Artem. I told you we’d have to come up with a new nickname. We felt so hopeful; we were so sure the worst was behind us.
They did a CAT scan as part of the prep for surgery.
They found tumours in your lungs, and in your chest cavity, near your heart.
They were inoperable, the doctors said.
You’d had the full dose of radiation and couldn’t have any more, they said.
Your new best option was chemotherapy.
Your mother flew here from Russia and moved in to your two bedroom apartment in North York. She didn’t speak any English and your wife, who was from Brazil, didn’t speak any Russian. They communicated by hand gestures, and through you, with your ever-present pad of paper.
You were brave, but diminished. Because of the trach, you couldn’t eat or drink. You told us how much you missed the taste of food. You gave away all of your alcohol, because you couldn’t stand looking at it anymore.
You began to prepare for your daughter’s first birthday, wondering if you’d live to see her second.
All through that spring and summer we visited you, trying to find that tricky balance between being there as often as we could and giving you the space you needed, especially when the treatments made you sick.
In June I found out I was pregnant, although I waited until early August to tell anyone. You were so excited, and so full of advice. Start looking for a daycare now, you told me. Make friends with other couples who have kids so you can trade off on babysitting. You were thrilled that your daughter would have another little playmate.
In September, I called your wife to arrange for a few of us to come visit, but before I had the chance to say anything, she started crying.
I guess you’ve heard, she said.
I hadn’t heard, so she told me: the chemotherapy had done nothing, and the cancer had continued to spread. You had tumours in your brain, now. You had only a few months to live.
A few days later, I spoke to her again. The doctors were now saying that your only chance was to become part of a drug trial. There was one that you qualified for, but it could take weeks, even months to get you in.
I helped your wife write letters to the doctors, advocating on your behalf, begging them to let you start the trial right away. I found those letters the other day, saved on my computer’s hard drive. Letter to Dr. Hogg, one of them is called, and Letter to Dr. O’Sullivan. Letter to MPP. I remember that they let me write them at the office, during work hours, without docking my pay. My boss was so good about things like that; everyone there missed you so much.
The letters apparently worked, and they agreed to enrol you in the trial immediately. When your wife heard the news, she called me, laughing ecstatically. For a little while, we allowed ourselves to hope that you might get some wonder drug that would magically shrink your tumours and cure you.
Things didn’t go as smoothly as we’d hoped, though. There was so much paperwork that needed to be shuttled from hospital to hospital, and multiple doctors had to sign off on each form. Then they told you that they’d lost your original biopsy, and they would need to find it before you were able to begin treatment.
Meanwhile, your cancer continued to spread, and you grew weaker.
The last time I saw you was on a Sunday in mid-December. I was the only one who was able to make it up to North York that day, and we spent most of the visit in silence. It was raining, a miserable, cold winter rain, the kind that makes you want to take to your bed with a book and a cup of tea. We watched the rain trail down the windows, each of us trapped in our own experiences.
I was seven months pregnant, exhausted and uncomfortable in my expanding body. You were in pain, and couldn’t focus on the conversation. You were short with your wife, and although I knew it was because you were sick and tired, I felt awkward. I was glad when it was time to leave, and then I felt badly about my gladness. I promised myself that the next visit would be better.
Two weeks later, on December 27th, you died.
We were in Kingston when I found out, visiting family for Christmas. I remember sitting in my mother’s bedroom, unable to stop crying. My friend is dead, I howled into Matt’s chest. My friend is dead, I’ll never see him again.
It wasn’t fair. You were only 27. It was so fucking unfair.
We borrowed my mother’s car a few days later and drove back to Toronto for the funeral. The traditional Eastern Orthodox service was in Russian, and the air in the chapel was smoky and thick with incense. I remember that we had to stand for the entire service, and Theo was kicking like crazy. At the end, we all filed past your coffin. I looked at your face, at the beard you’d begun growing.
My friend is dead, I thought.
It seemed like I would never stop crying.
Three weeks to the day after your death, my son was born. Things got a little hectic after that, and I didn’t think of you as much. A few weeks after Theo’s birth, though, your wife called me. We began by talking about babies, breastfeeding and childbirth, but of course the conversation soon turned to you.
You’d written a letter to your daughter, she told me. A beautiful, funny, self-deprecating letter.
Your second wedding anniversary would have been December 31st, and somehow, she said, you had snuck out of your apartment and bought your wife a necklace. Not just any necklace, but the necklace that matched the earrings you’d bought her for your first anniversary.
She had something for me, she said. A gift that you’d bought for me online.
This is who you were: you were the type of person who thought about everyone around them. The type of person who, while dying, thinks only of those they are leaving behind. The type that writes their daughter a letter, buys their wife a beautiful necklace, picks out a thoughtful gift for a friend.
Artem, you were the best kind of person.
A year and a half later, I’m still trying to make sense of your death. When I drive by your old building, I still don’t fully understand that you aren’t up there in your apartment, playing with your daughter while your wife makes dinner. Sometimes I think I see you on the street, and start to call out to you, only to realize that it can’t possibly be you. Sometimes I’ll read something funny, or see something that makes me think of you, and then suddenly remember that there’s no way to tell you about it. What do I do now with all these thoughts that I have of you, all these stored up memories and bits of information?
I wish that there was some way to tell you that I did my best when you were sick and dying. My poor, inadequate best. I should have done more. I should have been a better friend to you. I wish I’d been a better friend.
I dream about you sometimes. In my dreams we talk, or hug, or just sit silently together. Always, always in these dreams, I am aware that you are dead, and at the end of our time together you have to go back to wherever it is you are now. I wish I knew where you were now.
I miss you.