By Anders Nilsen (with Cheryl Weaver) (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)
This book will wreck you, if there’s a person in the world whom you love.
In March 2005 Cheryl Weaver, an artist and bartender and the fiancée of the cartoonist Anders Nilsen, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. By November she was dead. She was thirty-seven. Don't Go Where I Can’t Follow is Nilsen remembering her, trying to remember everything about her, recounting days they spent together and apart. Those memories are exquisitely banal: bags of chips, the losing and finding of keys, everyday conversations, travel mishaps, ice cream cones. These are what you forget when someone dies. One day you’re fighting about leaving the milk out, and the next day she’s gone.
In the early part of the book, before Weaver gets sick, there are almost no drawings — instead there are photographs, reprinted letters, other artifacts. The first image is a postcard Weaver sent to Nilsen early in their courtship: “I know this boy named Anders. He makes my heart ache and my stomach flutter.” Then come Nilsen‘s journal entries and vacation snapshots, doodles and lists (“Things He Does, in Spite of Which, She Will Probably Marry Him Anyway”). When the book finally switches over to pure drawing, the shift in tone is shocking — appropriately so, because that's when Weaver is first admitted to the hospital, complaining of fatigue. Life never goes back to normal. The book’s pages fill with sketches Nilsen makes and notes he takes while his fiancée sleeps in her hospital bed. There are excruciatingly literal, intensely concrete little portraits of Weaver sleeping, connected to an IV, her head shaved. There’s a diagram of her body, with Nilsen trying to record everything he’s seeing: IV tubes, feeding tube, urinary tube, rectal tube, surgery scars, bruises from past IVs, pulse meter, blood pressure cuff, “bag to collect aceites fluid, leaking from drainage site on abdomen,” etc. You wonder what all this detail is for. Is it so he can show her later, when she's better, what she looked like? Or is this the moment he realized she would never get better? In his journal he writes: “What do you say to someone when they ask you ‘Am I going to die?’ and you kind of think they might, but there’s no way to know, and you don’t want to upset them.”
The last chapter reads like a regular graphic novel, with traditional panels and narrative. Nilsen and his family and friends gather at Promontory Point, the spot along Lake Michigan where he and Weaver had planned to get married. The scene is cinematic—the POV hovers behind Nilsen the whole time, like someone watching without participating. We see that the crowd has grown rather large. Nilsen narrates the scene to Weaver: “There are a lot of them. I don’t know if we could have had that small wedding we talked about.” In these panels she’s the only person he talks to, like he's numb to everything but this receding connection with her in his head. “You are in my arms,” he says, and that’s when we notice that he’s holding a small black box, and figure out that he’s come here to scatter her ashes. And then we come to understand the weird camera angle, too: “I think you wouldn’t have liked this very much, to have been there,” he writes to Weaver. “Everyone fussing over you. It would have driven you nuts. . .. I think you might have liked watching it, though. Hovering above it.”
Nilsen saves a final postcard that he wrote to Weaver before she got sick for the end of the book, just to tear us apart a little bit more: “In sixty years from now, when I’m on my deathbed dying (before you, because you’re a smoker and smokers always outlast people like me with healthy habits) and you come up to our room just before I croak, I’m going to say ‘I told you so.’ Because we’ve been in love all that time and been having great sex (except for the last year because I had been ill) and been happy. And then I’m going to croak and you won’t be sad. Because we had such a good life together.” If that doesn’t utterly destroy you, you do not have a heart beating in your chest. It’s also weirdly reassuring, and ridiculously romantic.
Anaheed Alani is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor.