I lost a friend recently. She lived long and bravely and with great cheer and heart. She faced every misfortune, and there were many in her life, with a complete absence of self pity.
Extended ill health, divorce, major life changes that robbed her of a prosperous upper middle class lifestyle, nothing seemed to dent her shining commitment to extract the best from every situation, no matter how wretched it might appear on the surface.
Cancer got her in the end. She died from lung cancer. She never smoked, but, hey, cancer didn’t care. It cornered her anyway. She was diagnosed one week and the next she was gone. Leaving those who loved her, who love her still, torn between selfishly wishing for more time, just a week or three, maybe, and grateful that she is now beyond the reach of the worst kind of pain.
My last conversation with her took place on a Saturday morning. I squeezed it in between coffee and the gym. It was short, but not because I had somewhere to be. Several years ago my friend had a massive stroke that robbed her of her mobility and power of speech. It robbed her of almost everything, actually. The last seven years of her life her vocabulary was that of a two year old. She could understand what you said to her, at least I think she could, but what she said was largely a mystery.
That she survived the stroke at all was a kind of twisted turn of fate. A dedicated Christian Scientist, she did not believe in medical intervention. She didn’t go to a regular doctor, who might have been able to head off the stroke as is done these days, with drugs and what have you. Stroke was written pretty plainly in her family medical history. It would have been easy to spot. But nobody spotted it because she didn’t ask anybody to.
However, the day she had the stroke she was visiting her grandson. She collapsed. He called the ambulance. And from then on she was forced to take her fate out of the hands of the god of Christian Science and place it in the hands of medicine. The irony was not lost on her children, and it pained them to go against her wishes, but by then there was no choice.
And so she lived the last years of her life unable to do much of anything. Not even read. She loved to read. I bought her a handbag once, years ago. A spanking smart French canvas thing that was all the rage at the time, and she said one of the reasons she especially liked it was because “there was always room for one more book”.
With reading denied to her she started drawing. With her left hand, even though she’s right handed. She would draw beautiful pen sketches of the birds that landed outside her window and of the photos of her family and friends that surrounded her in the nursing home. She would send me the drawings, and I would recognize myself, because I was one of the people whose photo was on her nightstand.
I would send things back; photos, bangles that I bought on my trips to Africa. Lavender from my garden. I wanted her to have a sensory experience.
And that was how we communicated for years. Letters and notes back and forward; snapshots of our lives. Small things but embedded in them a larger message; I love you, I’m thinking about you, even though I’m not near you.
We shared a birthday. She gave me one of the best birthday presents I have ever received. It was a couple of weeks after 9/11 and we all of us were filled with dread for the future, afraid of what was going to fall out of the sky next.
She sent me a bag of daffodils and a trowel. Wait till spring, the unspoken message was, things will be different. It feels terrible now but in time it won’t.
In November I dug holes and planted the bulbs and waited while the ground froze over and it snowed and then the ground thawed and the plants sprang to life. And things were different. As she knew they would be.
I was thinking about her this morning when I woke up and how she wasn’t that much older than me when I first met her. And the reason I met her was because her son and I were about to get married. I would never have met her if I hadn’t married her son.
Gratitude is not one of my gifts. Sarcasm, cynicism, pessimism I have in abundance. Gratitude takes work for me. Nevertheless I have been trying to salvage pleasant memories from my married days. One or two, here and there. It’s hard, like I said. When you find out that everything you thought was true is a lie, it’s hard to excavate the goodness. The lie seems to plaster everything with crud.
But it wasn’t all crud. I learned so much from my friend. Not from anything she ever said, but by what she did. Who she was; her stubborn refusal to ever feel sorry for herself. Her dogged capacity to take whatever life offered and twist it so as to see its best, most shining facet.
I would like to be like her one day. I really would.