Coworkers laugh it off from the safety of their cubicles, call out easy answers: cockroaches, death, heights, death, public speaking, death, and not death but dying. I shrug and say nothing in particular scares me most, so probably death, yeah, probably that.
I am brushing my teeth, and the answer taps me on the shoulder. I am jogging, and the answer rests on my feet like weights I must lift again and again. I know it will remain until addressed, haunt me until spoken, but I run faster and concentrate on my burning quads.
I set out to make a list—a sort of bucket list. As I begin writing, however, I think of Diana. Then I think The Voice is on, and I should go watch that. I set out to write another day and realize I should call someone about something that suddenly seems important. The answer, meanwhile, is now inside of everything: my husband’s snoring, my worry over the week’s unanswered emails, and the bills that keep my life routine.
There were three of us and three words. I listened quietly as Diana repeated the same question. She read the three words a dozen times, and every time she read them they took on more meaning. We sat in a small circle, writing with only one rule: don’t lift the pen from the page. We usually did three rounds, and this was the second. Ordinarily, my words tumbled out, but this day they clogged somewhere between brain and hand. I tried to shake them loose, but I could only look at Diana’s pen. It moved swiftly across the page. My answer sat atop my pen, but I could only write about not being able to write.
Diana had survived many rounds of chemotherapy and a hematopoietic stem cell transplant since being diagnosed with Leukemia. She elected to read again, spoke of death as burden, asked the same question with the same three words: “Am I next?”
She breathed slowly, spoke with no urgency or fear, but her words lodged beneath my skin, shook my blood. I relaxed when she smiled at me because I always relaxed when she smiled. I could hear the dull hum of my apartment and the faint clicks of my husband on the computer in the other room.
“Didn’t mean to bring down the room,” she said, chuckling. Her multi-colored scarf, vivid flowers, framed her yellowing complexion but more, her warm green eyes and perfect heart-shaped face. She nudged me, woke me up.
I had been stuck in my own head, a student not yet restricted to routine but eager to get there. I’d felt slower than most, not quick to pick up materials, not quick to make and keep friends. Self-consciousness and distrust had blurred my view, so I was harsh toward people, toward life, but Diana offered another kind word for every cold shoulder. A friend had made me.
Diana once told me that there is a place in our bodies, at the back of our hips, where bone marrow and blood stem cells collect. She started practicing yoga to, she said, release the vitality. The hips are nourishing but when released, they can heal. As more time passed, however, Diana stopped asking if she was next. By the time my friend passed away, it was merciful of life to release its grip.
The question—what scares you most?—cannot be unasked. I sit to write a sort of bucket list, sure that what scares me most is not to live to the fullest. For the first time since that writing practice so many years before, my words clog. I do not move. Pen cannot leave paper.
I figure this much out: The prize at the end of life is variable, so a list means nothing. I write about not being able to write. What scares me most? I write. Is it dying? Is it dying without having taken risks, without having learned to own mistakes, without learning to smile at life—at the joys and the absurd—the way my friend did, and to love people who are not yet ready to be loved?
I write. Absence taps me on the shoulder, but I think of Diana. She puts her arms around my rigid self. She shakes me awake.