I type `the day after you die', I redraft, alter the order, come back later ... and what I know to be true still lurks outside my imagination

Dearest Ruth, I have been writing this, bit by bit, since the morning I received your last letter. According to the most recent hospital predictions that makes it approximately three to four months before your death. Not that the hospital hasn't been wrong before. They might be wrong again. It could be six, seven, eight months. Not that it much matters. As you say, the cancer is beyond any hope of remedy: "I now have a brain tumour and the second course of chemotherapy has failed to halt the progress of my liver and lung disease." I knew that already, of course, because you said so on the telephone. Still, to see it in black and white with your signature attached... "Much Love, Ruthie, Big Kisses XXX".

Perhaps you've committed it to paper - into a bluntly literal death sentence - to render it not merely real but mighty real, not only for yourself but for everybody; the named destination of the runaway train: Journey's End. As you told me a few days ago, "I know I'm going to die. But my head won't wrap itself around it. How can I be dying? I'm a young woman with two children. I have everything to live for." And then you laughed and explained that you hadn't felt this well in ages. New medication meant you could sleep through at nights without groggy after-effects the next day. Your waking hours were consequently more enjoyable, while sleep was uninterrupted and relatively dreamless. And later, I thought - theorised, really - about how you sighed on "dreamless" and supposed that dreams, with their impertinent appearances and inherent, teasing promise of Something Else, disrupted the control you've fought to maintain over the process of the disease, the disease itself proving profoundly deaf to logic, prayer, bribery, begging.

Which I understand. Control is one of the reasons I'm penning this now, with the summer sun high in the sky and you 10 minutes' car journey away, rather than on the day, or the day after, you die. Then I will have little or no control. I could - I would - embarrass you, and that would never do. Better to follow your example and put the words down in advance; to at least attempt to turn the surely impossible into a thing of incontrovertible fact.

Except I type in "the day after you die", scroll, redraft and alter the running order, leave the keyboard and return a day or a week later, and what I know to be true still lurks outside the limits of imagination. My imagination, at any rate. I can't figure out why. It's not as if I haven't seen other deaths (too many others) lately. Yet death is this ... permanent astonishment. Death sneaks under the radar and catches you by surprise. Your courage, too, catches me by surprise, though I have borne repeated witness to the bravery of friends and been dazzled again and again by the vast, deep reservoirs of uncommon humanity casually hidden amongst my acquaintances.

That's not exactly accurate. About your courage, I mean. I'm not remotely surprised. Rather, I'm struck by its very Ruthfulness, the oh-well-let's- get-on-with-it... Having worked with you, I know your calm in the face of arbitrary deadlines. Remember when we worked on a relaunch together? While the rest of us got into screaming panics, you'd plough on. This is an obstacle? Then jump over. Dive beneath. Circumvent. Smash through. And if we can't? Tough. Guess we'll have to live with it. Right?

This isn't to be confused with dying "a good death", whatever that is. You have anger enough and rage to spare at being taken from Matt, and little Lola and Joe. There's meagre romance in kidnapping, and this is most certainly a kidnapping. Not that you will be meekly bound, blindfolded and led away. The life left is being lived: "I am busy planning (a) a weekend - sans kids - at Ballymaloe House in County Cork, where we nearly went for our honeymoon in 1994, before deciding it was too expensive; (b) long, lazy days at the Sanctuary; (c) taxis everywhere." Despair may trail behind you, but despair isn't your jailer. Anger and rage may walk beside you, but you are not their prisoner.

As far as I can judge. I'm presuming again, a bad habit. I'll be looking for meaning next. Meaning and reason, even though I really ought to have reached a place, or achieved a state, where the random, fate, whatever, is recognised for what it is. I sit here and I can massage the words as much as I want, edit as I please, nip and tuck, and I am imposing, not detecting; seeking - and cheating but not finding. There's no sense to the senseless and time is too precious to be wasted, or killed. So easy to say and a supremely hard lesson to learn. The point of it comes with age, if we're blessed; when that blinkered but necessary sense of adolescent invulnerability finally evaporates and we can remove our masks if we want. In our thirties, usually, when - isn't it funny? - it is utter uncertainty, the daily chaos of our lives that liberates us; when questions do what answers can't: bring us acceptance, if not peace.

See? As I said: imposing. Anyway... I'm running out of space and this was just a note to tell you that I'm thinking of you, as all who love and care for you are thinking of you. Helen and I will swing by when you've returned from Wales and we'll do dinner then. You know... drink a few margaritas, crack a couple of jokes, order everything on the menu, and never let on that we're rehearsing goodbye.

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