Nicky was dying from liver cancer and in France to marry her longtime love, Jean-Philippe. I asked her to name her favorite moment of their trip so far.
“It is impossible to pick a favourite moment, place, nap or anything,” she wrote from her hotel room early one morning before heading out to explore Paris again. “Everything is just so incredibly beautiful. How could I possibly choose?”
So it went with Nicky until the inevitable end arrived some nine months later. She cherished each moment of her life. Even during the nauseating, nearly deadly rounds of chemotherapy she endured to extend her time with her family. Even later, when those treatments had run their course and her blinding pain was tempered only by morphine injections and medical marijuana pills that left her all but incoherent, or what she once called “sloggy and zzzzzzish.” She complained to me only once, during a particularly bad round of chemo, saying, “It’s hard to stay upbeat and positive when you feel like garbage all the time,” but also telling me not to panic because “this is just temporary and I will get past it.”
I tended to romanticize her sunny attitude in the face of such misery as heroic fortitude, but Nicky was always quick to correct me.
“Meh. I’m not tough,” she said. “Just don’t want to waste the time I have being sad. Also, there’s nothing like death to make you appreciate what you have. Life is short, so don’t waste time fucking around.”
I wish I had half her spirit.
I’m an adult, I understand everybody dies. But I accept it begrudgingly, if not bitterly. One day somebody you love is there, the next day they’re gone, and the relationship goes dark, as if a lightbulb has burned out. Maybe you will see them again in the next life, but in the moment it’s sudden and shocking, and it can’t be fixed.
The loss hurts badly.
It seems especially unfair to me that fate would claim the life of a 48-year-old woman who had a husband and three sons, two of them, Jacob and Kane, young adults, and one, Max, still a boy. Even worse that there is a seemingly infinite line of assholes in the world who deserve to die but survive to torment others when Nicky would’ve added so much happiness instead.
Why her? We discussed that question once briefly, and it made no sense to either of us. It seemed like random bad luck of the worst sort. Now, the thought of it just fills me with anger and regret. But Nicky admonished me long ago to focus on goodness where she was concerned, and so I will.It isn’t hard to, either.
I only knew her through her writing and our personal correspondence, but we became friends and I can tell you she was a remarkable woman.
On the surface, Nicky had a keen intellect, quick wit, and a brilliant, often bawdy sense of humor that made her a compelling writer. She also had a knack for making other people (including me) feel special, as if they had rare talent or were especially charming and lovable. She had many friends real and virtual, and many more wanted to be her friend.
Deeper down, however, Nicky was also a rebel—a longtime smoker who quit a few years ago for her health, but still liked loud rock-n-roll music, dark colors (purple was her favorite), cold beer, and sometimes fantasized about escaping the routine drudgery of life in a fast convertible. In her heart of hearts, she was an independent, self-described introvert who didn’t like a lot of chatter and needed time alone to think, or even better, not to think.
Being sick changed Nicky a little in this area. For instance, when she asked me to edit her wonderfully funny yet poignant post announcing her battle with cancer to the world, I noted that it must have nearly killed her to be so open. Her response: “Priorities change when the timer is counting down. I don’t have time to waste building walls anymore.”
That sort of complexity was one of Nicky’s most-appealing qualities. Underneath a layer of reticence or reserve that was almost stereotypically male in its expression, for example, she was very feminine. Everybody who read her blog knows she rocked a pair of high heels as well as any woman and looked much younger than she was with her jet-black hair and infectious toothy grin.
What might not be as obvious is that she was also a devoted wife and mother.
Nicky was too realistic to say Jean-Philippe was perfect—”all wives alternate between loving their husbands and thinking they’re asses,” she once cautioned me after I had a upsetting spat with my wife—but her love for him was unchallenged.
He returned it, too, both romantically and practically.In Paris, “we met some ladies from Minnesota when we were in line at the Louvre,” she told me. “I took a picture of their group for them. As we were chatting, one of the ladies told JP to make sure not to miss seeing Venus. His response: ‘I see her everyday.’ ”
That melted her heart, but it was his consistent attentions that proved his mettle. When the chemo gave her diabetes, it was Jean-Philippe who administered her insulin shots, and later still, when her pain got bad, he stayed by her side constantly to give her morphine injections every three to four hours. She was, she admitted, very weak and completely dependent on him, and although she meant it physically, it was clear to me that his devotion pulled her through her most-difficult days. She loved him dearly.
Nicky was a great mother, too. She joked about what a pain in the ass her sons were, but also loved them fiercely.
My favorite photograph of Nicky shows her post-shower in a bathrobe without makeup, her hair a wet mess, sharing an affectionate kiss with her youngest son, who had climbed into her lap and cradled her face in his small hands. It’s a highly personal, surprisingly revealing picture for a woman who valued her privacy. It’s also courageous. How many women do you know who are willing to have candid photos taken, let alone without makeup?
That was just like Nicky, though. She could be soft one moment and enforce a no-bullshit policy that was even stricter than my own the next. As a result, it was nearly impossible to fool her.
For instance, one morning, driving to work and feeling particularly down about her deteriorating condition but mindful of her wish to focus on the positive, I blinked tears out of my eyes and took a cheery photo of Colorado’s famous purple mountains and golden plains in the early morning sunlight. Then I sent it to her along with a brief explanation of how a similar sight had inspired the song America the Beautiful, which should be our true national anthem instead of The Star-Spangled Banner. It wasn’t like me to pretend to be positive when I actually felt like shit, but I meant to put on a brave front to help make her feel happier.
“That’s beautiful, Michael! I am feeling better today and was even planning to do a little status update later this afternoon. I think America the Beautiful would have made a better anthem,” she replied before acerbically adding, “And stop being so wishy-washy now or I might just end up back in the ER.”
I adored her brand of no-nonsense, tell-the-truth-at-all-costs humor, but our communication got more and more spotty in the weeks before she died. I sent her a lot of messages about random subjects, asked her to comment on a short story I’d recently finished because I highly valued her opinions about writing, and made her a pretty box. I also asked her a lot of questions, and if two days passed without a response, I panicked. But invariably she’d gather enough strength to send me a line or two, sometimes more.
Finally, however, at 4:43 last Monday morning, I asked, “How are you doing today, Nicky?”
About 45 minutes later, after I’d fallen asleep, she wrote, “I’m better today, Michael.”
Then, some 15 minutes later, “I would like apologise for my stoni-nes and general lack of lucid communication.”
More than two hours later, she wrote, “You’ve also been bombarding me to keep me happy. Thank you.”
I responded as soon as possible, but that was the last message I got from Nicky.
She died early Saturday morning.
I miss her badly.
I knew I would, and told her so a long time ago: “I’ve shed a few tears for you, Nicky. And also for myself because, speaking selfishly, I hate that a day will arrive when you and I won’t have these chats anymore.”
“I’m going to miss these chats, too,” she wrote. “I hear there’s no WiFi in the great beyond. Which really sucks because I was planning a dazzling afterlife status update. Bummer. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ll keep an eye on you from my seat at the bar.”