(Originally written October 14, 2009)
Do you ever wonder, if you were to die all of a sudden, what would your life be worth? If you were to die slowly, say, of cancer, like my writer friend did last October, would you write like your life depended on it?
I met a kindred soul in Leila Abu-Saba, author of Dove’s Eye View. I have known her since my MFA program at Mills College. We were classmates. Sometimes we disagreed on things, other times we dished back and forth, other times we shared intimate details of our lives and histories. Because I was blogging anonymously and so was she (She had a secret blog that has since been taken down in addition to her public one), we were able to really share personal information. Then things got in the way. We both ended up falling out of each other’s lives, and we got busy with life obligations, etc. At one point, we each thought the other person didn’t like them. We didn’t realize that we were both wrong until much later.
I visited her on her deathbed in the hospital a few months ago. She was all alone at the top floor of UCSF medical center. It was dark and she was scared. I brought her this special holy oil from the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco that I had. I didn’t know she was dying. I knew she had been sick. I decided to contact her and ask me if she wanted me to bring it. Bring it! She said. She opened up her hospital gown and said to put it on her scars. I did. I rubbed the oil on them with my finger, all over her abdomen and we chanted prayers. Her body looked like it was beat up from the inside out. Her scars were huge. Then, I went back to see her in the hospital the next week because she woke up at five in the morning and wanted me to bring a priest. I didn’t know how I was going to get a priest there, but somehow he showed up. He sang to her in four languages and wrapped her in the purple silken mantle of a saint and anointed her with holy oil from three different monasteries, one from a shrine in Syria that she had a connection to. Her whole family was around her then and watched the beautiful and sad and happy and peaceful ceremony.
The first time I went to visit her, late at night, when she was alone, she had asked me to hug her and I did.I was afraid to break her fragile bones. Then she said, “If I get better, can we become better friends?” or maybe it was “I wish we could have been better friends.” I was afraid deep down that she wasn’t going to get better. I said something wise that I never usually say: I said, In this moment, Leila, we are perfect friends. And nothing else matters between now and then…because the universe is infinite and this moment our friendship is perfection and our spirits and our hearts will always be friends.”
I am glad I said that, but I also feel like I might have lost the chance to really let her know how similar we really were. But, maybe she had known all along.
I told her that I was starting this blog and that I was finally going to stop being anonymous. So, I guess, I have to keep good on my declaration. She cheered me on. Then she prayed for me. For my life to be peaceful and for my writing to be successful. She even offered me food and something to drink.
One thing I am proud of her for was what she did in her last months on this earth is: she wrote her heart out. She wrote every moment as if it was her last. She never gave up and she never believed she would die. Two days before she died, her former professor and a mutual classmate offered to edit and publish her book for her if she could not go on living. On her last lucid day, she heard the good news. I heard that she couldn’t even hold the phone to her ear but she was happy inside. I’m crying but I have no tears, she whispered to our classmate, Sara.
When I went to see her in the hospital the first time, when she was all alone on the 14th floor, she told me that I was beautiful and full of life and breathed me in as I hugged her. I felt guilty for being young and healthy. But I also felt like the future that is unfolding in front of me for whatever length of time is a tremendous gift and I made a promise to the universe then to be real, to be myself and to love people. We even talked about the craft of being a writer. She felt sad to be dying, and one of the reasons was that she was going to have to stop writing and she hadn’t yet published her novel. As a writer, I totally get that feeling.
When I saw her the second time, I hugged her more greedily, knowing that it was probably going to be the last time, now wholeheartedly invested in being her friend. I didn’t hold back anything in that hug that I held back in life. I was honored that she let me be so close to her in her last moments. I think it was because she had been praying for somebody to come with holy oil and then I called out of the blue. She had been anointed with oil by a nun in a cave in Syria and was hoping for the same thing, but gave almost gave up, thinking, where on earth am I going to get such a far out thing? And then it showed up, it had been right next to her all along.
I’m not a holy moly person. I don’t believe that the religion I grew up with is superior to other people’s way of life, and I think that anybody can find a way to the divine. I am not a very worthy ambassador of faith. But somehow, I was strangely called upon in this moment, and the holy oil is the only thing I really knew how to bring. It was the thing that my culture has used to comfort itself in its most dire moments. It’s a culture that I shared with her since we were from the same general part of the world with similar religious traditions.
She died at 7:15 on Thursday night, the same exact moment that there was a service in the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco. I never got a chance to tell her about the service, but I thought she would like it because she liked byzantine icons. It’s a Russian church and it hosted for the first time outside of Russia a byzantine icon of the Mother of God that is known for it’s miracles: Namely, softening hardened hearts.
Independently, I heard from Sara online that she felt like her heart had been “unfrozen” by all the love she had been receiving from family and friends.
I told her that I was restarting this blog and that I was finally going to go public with it, to be seen by the world, instead of hiding in the shadows. So, I guess, I have to keep good on my declaration.
Leila, wherever the cosmic dust of the universe has taken you, may your memory be eternal. You were the real, deal, girl. You have my utmost respect.