The odds that you are reading this are slim. Very slim. I probably won’t finish writing it, but if I do, I almost surely won’t be brave enough to send it to you. If I am uncharacteristically brave, what then? I send it, and it never reaches you; it slips between the cracks of your magically real life and goes to Neverwhere — or wherever unread emails go to die.
So why am I writing it at all? I’m writing it for me, because I have to. But please be patient with me. It’s hard to type through the tears.
Two days ago, my brave, compassionate, quietly kick-ass sister Gretchen died. One minute she was Alive… and then she was Dead. My beautiful inside-and-out sister was beautiful no longer.
Death is not beautiful.
I think — how can I know? — that she didn’t tell us there was no hope for her surviving the cancer because she didn’t believe in no-hope scenarios. Or maybe she didn’t tell us so she could spare us weeks of pretending we weren’t already writing her eulogy, while she was still sitting there. Maybe she agreed to start the chemo just to gain a few precious weeks to get her affairs in order.
No maybe about it that she didn’t get that chance.
Let me tell you a few things about Gretchen, Neil. She couldn’t stand pity, or being pitiable. (She also couldn’t stand spelling mistakes or grammar gaffes, so if her spirit exists anywhere, in any spacey-wacey way, it’s sitting on my shoulder, clucking its timey-wimey tongue.) Because she couldn’t stand pity, Gretchen kept secrets. Sad, sad secrets. She shared a few with me. I will not be sharing them with you.
But some things she couldn’t keep secret, like the time she leapt out of her car, wielding pepper spray, to confront a man stabbing a pregnant woman on a San Francisco sidewalk.
The man turned to her, dropped the knife… and pulled out a handgun.
“Thank you,” he said to Gretchen, “you saved me.” Then he blew his own brains out, all over her. But mother and child were saved.
Another time, again in her car: A man approached the vehicle stopped ahead of her, shot the driver multiple times and ran off, but not before Gretchen burned his face into her long-term memory. Sadly, the woman at the wheel passed away while Gretchen comforted her, drenched in blood, waiting for help to arrive. But her murderer is in prison now, thanks to Gretchen’s testimony.
Gretchen has been:
- bitten by a rattlesnake (“It was just a baby,” she said!)
- hit by cars (twice. No, wait, three times!)
- “shocked” (toxic shock twice, and then there was that supermarket sample shrimp, eaten just to be polite…)
- nearly done in by countless other, unbelievable things
In fact, over the years, so many things, circumstances, and people have failed to kill Gretchen that I’d started to think of her as an immortal among us. Like she was secretly Captain Jack Harkness, or the (finally!) female Doctor Who. Like we were just her Companions. She couldn’t really be my sister, this tall, brown-eyed beauty in a family of blue-eyed children, could she? Genetics said she could, since our mom had brown-hazel eyes, but I’ve always had my suspicions that she was not of this world.
Since timing is everything, or everything is time (or time doesn’t exist, at least not right now), the first thing I saw on TV after Gretchen died — when I could bear to turn it on — was my favorite episode of Doctor Who. It was my favorite for all sorts of reasons, long before I knew that you’d written it.
Though I didn’t know it, it was just what I needed to watch in this space and time.
Neil, you are starting to understand why I’m writing this letter to you. In case anyone else ever reads it, though, I should probably elaborate:
Gretchen, large in life — “and getting larger all the time”, as she would so wryly have put it — was like your version of the TARDIS brought to life: beautiful, mathematically inclined, and much, much bigger on the inside.
Thank you, thank you for that, Neil. I will now always think of Gretchen as a sort of immortal TARDIS, moving through time and space, saving people and taking them where they need to go more often than where they want to go. I will always think of the magically real time I spent with her as “the time that we talked”.
How right you were, Neil. “Alive” is the saddest word “…when it ends.”