My friend was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and is now at the point where medication is taken for pain about every 4-5 hours. Over the past year, we have been going through various steps of preparation for her death. Looking at the sentence I just wrote, I'm thinking that early on we never mentioned death. We spoke of "when the time comes" or "at her passing" or "when she was no longer here."
This weekend, my friend and I passed that stage as she lit a cigarette and remarked that her furnace had to be repaired because it had a leak (it's a gas furnace). "Wouldn't it be funny if I blew up while lighting a cigarette rather than dying from lung cancer?" she said. We laughed. It was the first time she had used the word "dying" in reference to herself.
My friend toured me through her apartment, where I had visited many times before. This time, it was different. This time, she took care to point out particular objects, explaining their history or where she had been when she acquired them. She discussed the market value of her paintings, crystal, wine and jewelry. She showed me hiding places for cash and other valuable items. She showed me how to take the couch apart. Though she had shown me some of these things at other times, she spoke now with a peculiar urgency so I would remember. This time, it felt different.
While she spoke, I observed the touch of her fingers as she reached beyond each object to the fullness of the experience associated with it. I listened to the sounds of her trademark gold bracelets as they met. I noticed her expressive hands, the wrinkled edges of her eyes and lips. She'd spent decades in the sun; beach bum; surfer; speed racer; hula dancer; stuntwoman; martial artist; tennis player; golfer; carpenter; bridge player; and voracious reader. There were some high times too. She was once a guest for dinner on the Onassis yacht.
She had low times, too, but she never dwelled on them. Instead, she once told me that when it got thick to "roll up your pant leg and step a little higher." She's always had a "never say die" attitude. Maybe that's what makes this last part so different for her, and so difficult.
I made tea. She poured a glass of wine. She enjoyed select pleasures. We sat together that afternoon and reminisced about the luck of our friendship. The serendipitous times; the two arguments we'd had in 29 years; the tennis we'd played; the handsome men we'd met; and the fun of driving her '71 Mustang convertible.
We delighted in our ability to pick up the phone and talk to each other even though weeks had passed and we were miles (and years) away from each other. We spoke about what we had learned from each other, and finally I told her all the things that were in my heart. I thanked her for coming into my life and for sharing hers with me. I told her I felt like she had been my biggest cheerleader, no matter what stage of my life I had been in. I thanked her for being my mentor and teaching me by her example to walk tall, live passionately and follow my dreams.
I told her that I loved her.
We hugged, we cried, we giggled. We held each other for a long time, and as we did so, I had this image of a very long line of people; friends from different generations who held a common rope and kept handing it off to the next friend in the same (or a different) generation. The rope was the bond of friendship, and it had literally built lives.
I was thinking how we learn by sharing our lives with one another. We add fiber, color, flexibility and strength to our own lives depending on how we nurture our friendships. Her death would be my great loss.
As I felt the weight of this loss, another thought occurred to me. My strength was greater than hers now, and I could run the last lap faster than she. It was also the signal for me to reach out to someone the way she had reached out to me years before, when she was stronger than I was. It was a passing of the baton.
It is possible to be drained and refreshed at the same time, for that is how I felt when we parted that day. Off she drove in her white Mustang convertible, dancing to her own tune ... life participant extraordinaire!
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