(These are the highlights-best parts-of a short piece I wrote.)
The phrase “swan song” is used to refer to the final effort or performance given by a person just before death. It’s based off the Ancient Greek belief that swans remain silent for most of their lifetime, only vocalizing in the moment before death to sing a beautiful song.
This concept makes death seem beautiful. In dying, the swan sings a gorgeous song that it couldn’t sing while living.
What they don’t tell you is that the swan sings this beautiful song as the result of air escaping their body when their lungs deflate.
In reality, it’s not a beautiful concept at all. Death is agony.
Nicole faded. It wasn’t sudden; it was a gradual process. And just like she wanted, no one seemed to notice.
Her bones were the first thing to go. Low estrogen levels and calcium left her with osteoporosis—an affliction normally found in old people. She wasn’t even nineteen, and her bones were collapsing.
Next was her heart. Her body was starving. Blood flow was reduced, her blood pressure was lowered, and her heart muscle started losing size. She became anemic.
Her organs began giving up. Her liver failed; her kidneys shut off. What was the point anymore when the person in charge of the body didn’t care?
Her brain was the last thing to go. She was alone in her apartment one day, and she had a seizure. She never got back up. No one knew for two days.
I didn’t know any of these details until after she was gone.
Nicole died alone. And maybe that was how she wanted it. That’s the battle of the disease, the battle of anorexia. You fight it alone.
You lose. Alone.
Honestly, if her mother hadn’t called me, I may not have even known what happened. Nicole had left a note for me, with my name and phone number on the front. She must have known that the end was coming. Perhaps she welcomed it. We have no way to know, really, but I can make assumptions from the note that she left me.
It was only two words: Don’t. Fade.
I had never been to a funeral for someone I knew before. Nicole’s parents had asked me to speak. Sadly, they thought I was one of the people who knew her best.
The lid to the casket was open for the viewing. It shouldn’t have been.
Nicole’s skin was so paper thin that it was almost translucent. Her cheek bones were clearly visible, as was her collarbone above the neckline of the dress she wore. There was nothing left to her; she was completely devoid of fat, empty. She spoke a strong message, even though she would never use words again. My hand drifted into the casket and stroked her face, then came back to touch my own. Bones sticking out. Matching. Fading.
I sat down on the ground right next to the coffin, crying. She was gone. She had faded away, and no one had even known. I realized that I, too, was dying. I was fading, and suddenly I didn’t want to fade anymore. Suddenly I wanted to be alive.
Someone moved me to a pew. The words I had wanted to say were scribbled on an index card and shoved into my bra. I pulled the cards out, rubbing the creases in the paper. The words didn’t seem fitting now; I couldn’t read about what a lovely person she had been, what a lovely life she had led. It was a lie. Anorexia had taken her life. It was neither beautiful, nor lovely. It was agony.
I took a pencil from next to the hymnal under my pew and scribbled out a poem on the back of one of my index cards. These were the words I would go on to read:
whisper once or twice / a song / upon an ear that has no being / words that fall, apart from humanity / a war internally / taken to the stars / a pain felt only in the heart / the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //
breathe in once or twice / a drop / of life left to sustain / air that causes the tornado within / bones that stick out / in agony / betraying the falsity of the mask / pain lying underneath / in the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //
trust once or twice / a soul / holding on without reason / at least one that we see / “the less that’s left to me,” i say, / “the less there is to hurt.” / pain caused by two human hands / during the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //
search once or twice / for a speck / a reason to hold on / a reason for reason / a new life at eighteen; the past is in the past / though beautiful swans never forget, / we move steadily forward / and the beautiful swan sings her beautiful song / pray not to fade away— / pray to stay ///
Looking back now, I don’t think I wrote the poem for her so much as I wrote it for myself.
I know that there’s a great debate even now over whether or not anorexia is a conscious choice. Does the anorexic wake up one morning and just decide they’re not going to eat? There’s no real answer to that; it isn’t simple enough to sum it up in that way. I believe that anorexia starts as one thing and then gradually evolves into something else. We start out trying to control the one thing that we know we can; we end simply trying to sing our swan song and take a final bow. There is no cure; there is only living with it.
I think often about all of the things that Nicole missed. Perhaps if she had lived, she would be married right now to a wonderful husband. They would live in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a lawn the brightest green possible. I suppose they would have a dog. Or maybe two. Their three children, two girls and a boy each two years apart, would be perfect. They would be dancers, or athletes, or writers, or whatever they wanted to be—they would be free to make their own choices. Nicole wouldn’t let them be boxed in by society. She would encourage them to find their own way, but she would be there for them if and when they needed her to be.
She could have had the ideal life. But she didn’t. She faded.
And when I think about that, when I think about her, I wonder if that was necessarily a bad thing. Because me? I chose recovery, and I had the ideal life. And that life isn’t bright at all. It’s dark, it’s cold, and it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be when you’re looking at it from the outside.
In moments like that where I remember all of these things, I question my choice to stay. Perhaps Nicole may have had the right idea after all; maybe it was easier to fade than to stick around and get hurt again and again. So why stay?
I stay because to give up is to let them win. I stay because I don’t have any other choice. I stay because I want to be better, and because I want to believe that something better will come for me.
I stay because I touched death. Really touched it. And I realized that death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Nothing is as good as we make it out to be. So maybe, just maybe, we need to find our own way.
I wish Nicole had seen that.