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  • TARA FLAHERTY GUY

Asking For A Friend



Danna was already terminally ill when she parachuted into my life and landed a permanent place in my heart. I was presenting a PowerPoint on Zoom to a half dozen grassroots lobbyists who volunteered on my legislative action team, when Danna — arriving late to the Zoom - hove onto the scene.

“What the hell is ‘actively dying’?” she asked, peering at the phrase that had popped up on my slide. “Is that as opposed to ‘passively dying’?” She laughed then, adding, “Asking for a friend.”

Danna was the newest volunteer to join my team, and I knew nothing about her, other than leadership had advised that she had received a terminal diagnosis a couple of weeks earlier. She had promptly signed up to volunteer with my team; this was her first appearance. Working under the direction of Compassion & Choices, a national organization leading successful state-by-state campaigns across the country, our team advocated for medical-aid-in-dying for terminally-ill people seeking release from suffering in their final days.

“It is kind of a weird phrase,” I agreed, “which we can talk about…but since we had to start without you, Danna, would you like to introduce yourself to the group, and say a few words about how you came to join us?”

She would, and did.

***


Danna had been a gifted young musician studying in Finland with a future as bright and shining as the golden trombone she played. Two and a half years into her Helsinki stay, after doctoring for months with “sinus trouble” she received a delayed, shocking diagnosis: Rhabdomyosarcoma. A rare juvenile cancer found almost exclusively in children younger than seven or eight, this anomaly had allowed the disease to advance, undetected. Not long after returning home and commencing treatment at the University of Minnesota, the cancer metastasized to her lungs and the lining of her belly. When the word terminal entered the conversation, Danna – now 25, always an intrepid girl who charted her own course – began to research end-of-life options.

She was a spirited, snarky, funny addition to our team, and immediately began her outreach to legislators. She intuited that facing down a fun-loving, twenty-something doomed to an imminent, agonizing death might change hearts and minds among lawmakers. During her chemo-free weeks, she lobbied, participated in bioethics symposiums, and advocated movingly and authentically for the right of the dying to end their own suffering.

Despite our 40-year age difference, Danna and I became fast friends. Given her diagnosis, we agreed there was no time to waste. We were initially limited to electronic conversations because of the pandemic; but even on a laptop screen, I was drawn to the radiant vitality of her pale face and luminous eyes under her shorn cap of curls.

We finally met in person on a frigid night just before Christmas, sharing a bundled-up hug in the foyer of the restaurant. Danna arrived double-masked out of caution, but when she unmasked to eat and drink, I caught the flash of her “tooth gem,” a tiny, sparkling jewel embedded in her left front incisor. She adored sparkle, from glitter-frosted cake-pops, to her shiny, multi-colored wigs which she’d named like a circle of quirky girlfriends.

“This is Sarah, my church girl,” she said, tapping a blond bob pictured on her phone.

We swapped life stories – mine long and placid, hers short and intense– as we consumed pasta carbonara and cocktails and cemented our most unlikely friendship.

Our relationship deepened as the pandemic ebbed. During chemo-free weeks we’d pack up her wheelchair, oxygen tanks, and backpack and come to my house for dinner or go free-wheeling around Rosedale Mall. We scouted for jewelry, bright-colored clothes, baubles and beads, anything pretty that caught her eye. She was like a magpie.

I marveled at her natural orientation toward others, as sick as she was. Her work for the terminally ill never flagged, even as her illness advanced and it appeared increasingly unlikely that she herself would be able to make use of our hoped-for legislation.

“I don’t care,” she said. “I might not use the medicine even if I had it – maybe I’d want to live every remaining minute. But I want the option for every dying person. They’re the ones I’m working for now.”

As our remaining time together diminished and distilled down, we talked endlessly of things great and small—our cats, our love of music, of poetry, the meaning of life, what happens to us when we die. At dinner one night I asked if she was afraid.

“Mostly not,” she said, quietly. “Just a little, every now and then…it passes.” She smiled then, plucking a small book out of her backpack.

“Listen to this.” She read aloud Langston Hughes’s “Dear Lovely Death,” his brief, beautiful poem that embraces death simply as change.

“I love that idea,” she said softly. “I will go on."


***


“I have something to ask you,” Danna announced one afternoon.

“Sounds serious…fire away,” I said, smiling at her. She drew a deep breath.

“Will you facilitate my celebration of life when the time comes?” She searched my face. Surprised and touched, I tried to imagine being 25 again, when life was sweet and all things were possible…I tried to imagine recruiting someone to organize my funeral. Imagination failed. My eyes misted.

“I’d be deeply honored, honey,” I said. She hugged me hard and thanked me. She’d just crossed one more item off her dwindling to-do list, I realized. A bubble of sorrow rose and burst in my breast for this fearless fighter, this warrior for choice. For my dying friend, who loved to sparkle.


***


The day of her crowded funeral, I read the Langston Hughes poem, ending with the line she had so loved ... Dear lovely Death, change is thy other name. In the quiet that followed, I thought I heard a distant sound like a rush of wings, a suspended sigh released, a whisper of words, as she went from us.

I love that idea ... I will go on.


For more information on medical-aid-in-dying, please visit compassionandchoices.org



TARA FLAHERTY GUY is a freelance writer living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Talking Stick Journal (1st Prizes in Humor, Fiction and CNF), Miracle Monocle, The MacGuffin, Emerge Literary Journal, and Longridge Review. Her most recent work appeared in Saint Paul Almanac. Guy lives with her husband and four self-involved cats.

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