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I remember you before all this. Before those awful shades reached up and pulled you back down. Nobody who knows would blame you, and none of us are thinking about who might be responsible. Not anymore.

I remember how smart you were. You were the kind of student professors would write personal recommendations for. Your hair was every shade in the rainbow, even though it is naturally red, and you could solve any problem, program anything, write elegant code. Once before we met you went to a drag show and friends didn’t recognize you. Maybe we should have paid more attention. Everyone said you’d take such good care of me, what with my useless degree and your practical one. I did love the person from before. You could always make me laugh.

Our friends were sure we’d stay together forever. They didn’t see how much you drank. I did too, but eventually learned to walk away from bottles. We’ve all got something, I guess. After six years you were not the same person and I left. One day I got a phone call asking what a camisole was for—you didn’t understand why you’d have to wear a shirt under a shirt and then you went shopping for women’s clothes and that call was funny and sad. You didn’t buy anything. I tried to explain that no, you should go for that PhD in computer science because simply existing as a woman in a male dominated field was a kind of feminist act. I don’t think I explained this very well.    

After the hormones you seemed better. Your skin cleared as if by magic. You changed your name and even work let you change emails. You were speaking about queer issues and flying all over the country to talk. I cut all my hair off. You grew yours long. People who didn’t know you before knew you only as a woman, and really you have always been a woman. You said you were sorry about everything once, that you should have transitioned sooner and we would have met in college and become best friends instead. I can still see that path sometimes: we’d get coffee before class, you’d introduce me to new music and we’d play video games in our shitty apartment in that horrible mountain town. Maybe we’d borrow each other's clothes—I let you keep the ones I left behind.

You never did send me my library like you promised. That’s okay. I know why you kept the books as long as you did. I came back to get them and found I missed the mountains. I stared at them until Midwestern flatness burned away from my eyes. I might have stayed, if not for the boyfriend and the cats. You were happy for me.  

I tried to offer the ring back on that trip. This seemed fair. I explained many women owned a piece of jewelry, that you should have something also. But you refused and the man at the pawn shop explained that it would be melted down and become something else. The ring was hollow and not worth much. I took a friend out for her birthday with the money. A year would pass before the dent in my finger vanished.

But you continued to drink. More everyday I think, if what anyone tells me is true. You are estranged from your family and sacrificed all your friends at an altar of wine and rum and anything you could get your hands on. You tried AA and explained the people in those sessions had lost everything. It didn’t feel right that you were there. After you did lose almost everything—even your job, you did not return to meetings.

Your family may not have any idea you are dying alone now, in a small room with more machines than people attending you. Your pretty red hair is messy and unwashed; your skin likely jaundiced with your liver’s last efforts to purge toxins overwhelming your system. A month in the ICU now, and the longest you’ve been without a drink in years. Intensive care units are quiet. There is only the hiss and beep of technologies designed to monitor patients and keep them alive. The very American image of brave souls fighting illness ends in those halls—as though we might play chess with our diseases and outwit them, gain mastery over our bodies once more and go back to cultivate a vice or two.

Because we never married, I can’t help you except to make sure that if you wake up they’ll say she and her and “Hey, how’s my girl today?” the way nurses do sometimes. Your nurse was, maybe still is, desperate to find any information, any next of kin. I told her everything I could because you are not yourself anymore. You didn’t want this, but never documented. You are not on a transplant list. If you die, they may not even call me.

Your friends love you, but we are powerless and sad against your failing liver. Statistically, you will not wake up. The ICU nurses will replace fluids, change blood, try to stop the failure. But this will only last so long, and eighty percent of patients who are comatose as a result of advanced liver disease will die. Once the liver falls, the pancreas, the kidneys will follow. One by one, your organs will shut down, before the light in the ceiling of your room becomes that endless tunnel and the rhythm of the machines around you fades to white noise.    

Originally posted to science of staying awake on Wed Jan 09, 2013 at 09:32 AM PST.

Also republished by Personal Storytellers, Invisible People, and Community Spotlight.

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