She looks at each one of us in turn, smiling her beautiful, crooked smile. “I love you guys,” she says sincerely. “I love you all.”
A murmured chorus of “I love you too”s answers her. Her smile widens and she slips her hand into mine. “Thank you,” she says, maybe to me, but probably to everyone. And then it hurts too much for the rest of them, and they all take their turn to say their goodbyes, their final goodbyes, hug her one last time, kiss her on the forehead. After they all have left, I lean forward and kiss her, and it is so familiar that a tear starts falling from my eye. Nothing seemed familiar around her these days – the hospital walls, the hospital bed, the beeping machinery that never ceased. Yet she remained the same.
I do not get up. I don’t want to leave.
We hold hands for a long time, and it’s nice, to have her hand in mine for the last time. Finally, she takes it back, and it hits me that she is actually leaving. I watch her pale, drawn but still beautiful face.
“I guess it’s time,” she says with a little shrug, and I wonder how she knows. But Catherine knows a lot of things other people don’t.
“I love you,” I say, and those words that we have said so many times seem so much more important now. They are the last ones. I guess the last words are always more important. But it was true. I love her I love her I love her. I love all her smiles and her laughs and her tears and everything that she’s ever said. I love her. It is not the idea of her that I love, not her name, not her face, not the fact that she’s dying. I love her and have for a long time. I have seen into her cracks and she into mine. We both know it, but somehow it is still absolutely wonderful to say, to hear.
“I love you too,” she says, and her smile is so full, so genuine. I want to kiss her again, but in these last minutes I have to talk. I need to hear her. “I always have, and I’ll never stop.”
I smile, the tears coming fast down my face. She folds her hands in her lap and looks at me, her face so peaceful and calm and… happy. “Aren’t you scared?” I choke out.
She nods her head. “Yes. But I’m ready.”
I have asked her that so many times in the past months, and she has always shaken her head and said, “Not yet.” But now it’s finally come. Somehow she is totally calm. She is scared but ready.
“You’re a hero,” I tell her, and she laughs. It’s amazing to hear her laugh. I just want to keep hearing it.
“Aren’t we all?” she asks, grinning. “I just happen to be dying.”
And she laughs, laughs in the face of death. I laugh with her, but the love has started to hurt. I just want her to live. But she can’t. So I am trying to love her so much before she dies. I am trying to fit years worth of love and laughter and words into a few minutes.
She looks up at me from her pillows. “Keep being heroic, Alex.”
“I’ll try,” I say, chuckling still through my tears.
Her smile is brighter than I have ever seen it. But she asks me, “Can you please leave?”
I look at her, in her eyes. And her eyes are knowing.
Somehow she knows.
“Of course,” I say, and take her hand one last time. “I’ll never forget you, Catherine.” And that is all I say, because everything has been said.
As I walk out of the room, I turn to see her - the last time I ever will. She is smiling up at the ceiling. She says very clearly and with so much feeling, “This star will never go out.”
And she closes her eyes and goes to sleep, still smiling.
Minutes later, a doctor walks into her room and comes out.
I would cry, but I have finished crying. Catherine died with the people she loved. As she said once, she was one of the lucky ones. She could tell everyone she loved them. Some people had no time.
But it still hurts. It hurts like having half of your heart ripped out. It is something you can’t ever forget.
The doctors tell us she died smiling.
We will never see her body again. She asked for that. She wanted to be remembered as a person, not a corpse. And that is what she is to me. She is a person, a fireball of love and laughter and dreams. She is a star, and she will never, ever go out.