We All Want Impossible Things, the first novel for adults by Catherine Newman, traces two best friends—Ash and Edi—in their last few weeks together as Edi dies of ovarian cancer. We open on Edi, Ash, and Edi’s husband learning that there is nothing more the doctors can do and that there are no beds available in inpatient hospice. Home care is out of the question; Edi’s young child has been traumatized enough. Ash grabs the baton to help her friend in the last legs of her run, moving Edi from New York City into a hospice house in Ash’s small Massachusetts town. Edi’s husband will come when he can, and her son will be spared the gruesome death visuals. Despite the words I am currently typing, this is actually a deeply humorous and even happy book.
I have read Newman since the early 2000s, when she had a parenting blog on BabyCenter, my gospel when I was a fledgling baby wrangler myself. I have read her parenting memoirs and bought her somehow-not-embarrassing social skills book for my autistic teenage son. I have taken comfort in the sense that we were traveling down similar paths of kids and writing and cats and the messy parts of life. But this book, based on her real-life loss of her childhood best friend, fused me to her in a deep psychic twin-flame way. A few years ago, I, too, watched my childhood best friend—I will call her Willa—die of a brutal cancer. Everyone has lost people to cancer—sadly, it is not particularly special. But losing my barely-in-her-forties friend who had known me my whole life—through sixth-grade clarinet performances and proms and pot smoking and pregnancies and who, like me, was responsible for three kids—destroyed my foundation. I seem the same to the casual observer, but I am not. I have avoided Willa’s old voicemails for more than three years, worried that hearing her scratchy, hurried voice in my ears would make something in me break.
Willa, Liz, and I became best friends in fifth grade. A friend triangle can be an ungainly shape, but perhaps since I was one of three daughters, it worked for me. As De La Soul says, three is the magic number.
In middle school, sweating in our heavy Benetton sweaters and rotini twist perms, we would converge at Liz’s house because it had an entire room dedicated to Barbies—a dream house with working elevator, a couple hot Corvettes, a horse stable for Liz to play out her horse-girl stories. We blood swore each other to secrecy because it was frankly embarrassing to be playing with Barbies at our age, but with Willa writing the storyline, the play was anything but G-rated. It was like doll Tinder, with Barbie lining up multiple Kens a night. We sang “That’s What Farts Are For” to the tune of “That’s What Friends Are For” and did Solid Gold-style dance routines to Bon Jovi and Beastie Boys. Like copycats, we all played the clarinet and took jazz dance, but Willa couldn’t blend in—she squeaked her way through every solo and leapt across the stage in a yellow bodysuit that made her look like a muscular banana.
In high school in the nineties, we kissed the same boys and each other. We chopped off our hair before a Bikini Kill concert. We went to Germany on a summer student exchange, drank huge glass boots of foamy strong beer, and posed in front of a statue of Goethe with fingers up our noses and Birkenstocks on our feet. Right after college, Willa introduced me to a Dar-Williams-
loving, Teva-wearing guy from her job at a summer camp. I loved him on sight, despite the shoes, and Willa was with us when we got engaged in Hawaii. Relentlessly competitive, she announced her own engagement two weeks later, and we both got married in our hometown of Fargo within a month of each other. Our BFF trio had a bunch of kids and took them on trips to Club Med and Disneyland, and always called each other to warble “Happy Birthday” into voicemails when life with small kids kept us from picking up the phone.
Liz and I used to say Willa had no filter; she was the type of person to blurt whatever was in her head, whether it was “I feel left out” or “Oh my god, why are you letting your hair go gray? You look old” or “I just shit my pants.” Her abrupt, frank conversation style was shocking in the passive-aggressive Midwest—“Willa!” was a common follow-up to a Willa statement—but her inability to shy away from awkward subjects maintained our intimacy. If I didn’t call or pick up the phone enough, she’d bluntly tell me that I was disappointing her. “I don’t have sisters,” she’d remind me well into adulthood. “We are best friends,” as if to say that because we knew each other as children, we couldn’t dodge each other or fudge the details.
In 2017, Willa had a hard time catching her breath in exercise class. X-rays led to biopsies led to a freakish diagnosis of a sarcoma sitting in her heart (her heart!) and lung, a one in ten million type of cancer that is always always quickly terminal. Willa tackled cancer in the same way she tackled everything: with gusto, bravado, brio, all those Italianate words. At a hospital in Houston, surgeons removed one lung, stopped her heart, swapped out the cancerous parts with healthy tissue from a dead man’s heart, and then brought her back to life—born again as a real-life zombie! Liz and I sat with our whippet-thin, single-lunged friend in the hospital courtyard, marveling at how she leapfrogged over chemo and surgery that would have killed a normal person. But besides assuring her that she really pulled off being bald, we found our tongues strangely tied. Liz started a round-robin journal where we could write our thoughts down and send the book on, but I found myself complaining about my kids and other banal shit in my entries. Willa talked about exhaustion, but not the end. I wanted to ask her about her “wishes” for her three kids and her husband, but I edged around it, afraid to insinuate that she couldn’t fight this off.
Her cancer came back to every part of her body in 2019. I flew out to Portland to spend some time with her and help out as best I could. The blue-lipped creature who opened the door was in extremis. Walking was too strenuous. So was talking: she literally had no more breathing room. I drove her to the ER, where she was admitted. I spent the next night in her hospital room on a cot; her grieving husband had retreated to his bedroom. It was just so scary; I lay awake all night, begging the universe for her to be able to take another raggedy breath, for me not to be the only person in the room with her when she died. I asked her family about hospice but was told it was not the “right time” for that because Willa was going to “keep fighting.” (You fight in the hospital; you die in hospice.) I told her parents they should fly out now but I felt like an asshole for bringing up death, as if I were being disloyal. I kept calling my dad, a doctor, to ask him if I was crazy, or a Negative Nelly (as I have been called in the past), or a grim reaper dragging death someplace it should not be. A few days later I had to fly back home to LA. I sat on the edge of her hospital bed and cried; we stared at each other, our eyeballs beaming all the words we could not say to each other. She said I was a good nurse. I thanked her for being such an amazing friend; she said, “You too,” and we said goodbye without acknowledging it was the last time.
She died alone in a hospital bed in her home office a few weeks later, not in hospice, and also not surrounded by all of her loved ones singing the Beatles when she departed. And while I know there was no way out of her terminal predicament, I wish I could have stage-directed a better end for her, one where everyone was there—her husband, parents, kids, Liz, and me. We would acknowledge death and we would not dodge each other or fudge the details.
It was a mirror world . . . and also a multiverse, where changing one thing—the ability to speak freely—changed everything.
I read Newman’s book in thirsty gulps in a single day. The book’s epigraph is a Dar Williams lyric from “February,” a song my sister and I have sob-sung along with since the nineties. Its appearance here made me feel that this book might be a secret from the universe for me. The line Newman used is “And February was so long that it lasted into March”; the last time I saw Willa was in February and she died in March.
The novel dropped me into a mirror world filled with a secret cache of people who are walking around with one half of our friendship necklaces gone. Newman conjured my teenage memories in diary-like detail. She writes about eating watermelon soaked in vodka and passing around a joint, only to become “deranged with anxiety” and barfing “pinkly into a Tupperware full of fruit rinds.” (I barfed so much pink with Willa in my youth.) She perfectly describes the monogamous love of female friendships, how they can be more all-encompassing in their devotion than our romantic lives:
We trick-or-treated together, were flashed together in Central Park by a man in an actual trench coat, made ribbon-braided barrettes together . . . We kept toothbrushes at each other’s houses, showed each other our hickeys and hurt feelings, our SAT scores and pregnancy tests . . . We presided over each other’s weddings, hosted each other’s baby showers. We held each other’s newborns, and then, during her treatment and my separation, each other’s hands and hearts.
Newman captures the disassociated feelings of having reality altered so drastically after a terminal diagnosis: “The inevitability of Edi’s death was like a crumpled dollar bill my brain kept spitting back out.” There is the inability to stay in the current timeline when you are pre-grieving: “She’s smiling and smiling—and crying a little bit—and I find myself committing her face to memory—and then guiltily erasing it. And then, panicked, committing it to memory again.” Newman knows about those messy moments in a hospital or hospice where everything goes wrong—the PEG line springs loose, soaking bedclothes; the inability to take a shit for days; the rattling ice cubes in a cup, signal of an unearthly thirst that cannot be quenched. And, of course, the unspeakable thing, the leaving behind of your children: “We held her while the biggest loss of her life—which was bigger than the loss of her actual life—sank into her like mercury.”
It was a mirror world for me, and also a multiverse, where changing one thing—the ability to speak freely—changed everything. That is the gift of hospice, the fact that everyone is on the same page about what is about to happen. Hospice allowed Edi to admit, “My heart is breaking. I’m dying.” Hospice allowed her best friend Ash to say, “I would give anything to keep you.”
I would give anything to be able to say those words.
When I read Edi saying, “I’m not ready for this. Whatever this is. What is this?” I let myself feel Willa’s terror. Reading the last page, I felt catharsis, in the Aristotelian sense of a ritual purging of my suffering engendered through art. Then I played Willa’s voicemails. The “I have some bad news” ones were hard to hear, but the one from May 2018 was Willa warbling “Happy Birthday” to me. I saved her voice to my hard drive so I can always pick up.