What do you say when your best friend lies dying?
That she was brilliant and beautiful and loving and sweet. That she was way too young. That we had this deal, this deal we made years ago, that if anything happened, we would take care of each other. That I didn’t.
Oh, I tried. I bought the wig that she would never wear. I chipped in for the nurses that she didn’t live long enough to need my share of.
I went every day. I brought soup. I stood in the hallways, dressed in my hospital clothes, black suit and pearls, doing my best to cajole the nurses to come faster. They tried. I tried.
Something went very wrong. They diagnosed it too late. It was operable, and then it wasn’t. She hated my anxiety. She didn’t want my magic Rolodex. You can tell no one, she said to me on that day six or seven weeks ago — can you believe that, just weeks ago? — when she was diagnosed. Why? Was it the cruel rules of Hollywood, where her career would be ruined if people thought she was “sick”? Was it the desire to hold on to who she was and not be another cancer case? Does it matter?
Two best friends I have lost. Judy and Kath. I love my friends. Over the years, living far from family, my friends have become my family.
We did the holidays. Her brisket was better than mine. One year, for breakfast, I invited Katie Couric’s agent, my neighbor. He brought Katie. She judged the bake-off: Kath’s noodle kugel against mine. She won hands down.
I’ll make the brisket for Seder next year, she told me, the day after the diagnosis.
There will be no next year. No next year in Jerusalem.
I know what matters. I know that bad things happen to good people. And, yes, good things happen to bad people. I just don’t know what to do about it.
Enjoy life, I tell my daughter. My daughter was the maid of honor at her wedding. Squeeze that lemon for every ounce of juice. But the lemon tastes sour to me. The sadness overwhelms.
She deserved better. She deserved an Academy Award. She deserved to live happily ever after. She did not deserve five weeks in the hospital with tubes and ports and drains and, yes, pain.
I want to believe. I want to believe that she is finding peace, that God is good, that there is justice.
But why does a good person who only loved, who wanted nothing but the best, who celebrated life, why does she end up with tubes everywhere? Why does she have to decide that it is time for the tubes to come out, time to face death? Is she scared? Is she angry? Is there any peace in such a moment?
I am on a plane. I went to Washington to celebrate my old boss’s 90th birthday, his retirement from the Supreme Court. A great man. Ninety. Kath is lucid, the text message says, as I get on the plane. She has decided to remove the tubes. She will die now. She will never see 60.
Last week, I took my son to my most cherished place in Washington — not the Supreme Court or the White House, but the Holocaust Memorial Museum. There they are — the “there but for the grace of God” cousins and aunts and uncles who did not get out, who went to their deaths, young, too, reciting their faith in God, affirming their belief, staring hate and horror straight on. Shema Yisrael.
What is the lesson? I do not know. I know that a wonderful woman is dying, a woman who loved and cared and laughed and shared. A woman who did not deserve this. Where is God, Elie Wiesel so famously asked when he arrived at the camps.
Katherine Reback King has died. May God bless her and keep her.