We hadn’t been good about keeping close tabs on each other of late. It’s hard to say exactly why. There hadn’t been a disagreement or parting of the ways. But moving to the local area and returning to a part of the globe where her small family lived had meant she’d be physically closer to me as well. However, after the initial thrill of having my friend of over forty years living within a fifteen-minute drive, I’d somehow experienced the proximity to be too close.
Declining health had driven her to make the very difficult decision to sell her much beloved antique farmhouse in New Hampshire and move south. To say she was bitter, angry, disgusted, distraught, or any other shade of unhappy was an understatement. All of us who were close to her got a bit of that stink sprayed on our good intentions.
Now divesting herself of a lifetime of collecting material goods meant that, although she had sold and given away a great deal of stuff, she still came south with an overabundance of personal belongings. The tiny apartment she’d be renting simply couldn’t hold the tonnage, yet she tried to tuck and squeeze all manner of tangible assets into every available nook and cranny.
There were also two storage units packed to bursting with even more flotsam and jetsam from the life she had once lived. Nearly all of it had been collected during the years she was married to her dearly departed spouse. It all meant so much more to her than what my eyes could see.
My efforts to help her purge, efforts she had asked for, were met with deep frustration bordering on hate. She really didn’t want my help. She really just wanted someone to be at her side as she handled each piece and relived how it had come into her possession. “Oh, we were driving around Vermont when we came across a roadside shed. We just had to stop and he said….” She could spend hours, days, or the rest of her life roaming the dusty back roads of her memory. I just wanted to throw away anything that was broken. She just wanted to hold onto it all.
I finally realized, in spite of my love and need for her friendship, the close proximity wasn’t adding anything to our relationship. If anything, I feared she would end up saying something that would hurt too much for me to accept. Instead, I made a calculated retreat. After all, we hadn’t lived close to one another in many decades. Our relationship, while based on mutual respect, shared experiences, and a deep understanding of each other’s neuroses, had not been one that included frequent physical contact.
Letters, phone calls, and much later email, became our mainstay. We exposed our inner thinking, yearnings, needs, sorrows, joys, all manners of human emotion through the written and spoken word over miles of separation. The rare face-to-face visits had been joyful and rich, but we easily resumed long-distance caring.
These past weeks, I’d felt guilty for not being more present, not trying harder to get in the car and go to her. The fact that I’d been struggling with mobility issues spending nearly two years in recovery didn’t assuage that guilt. I could have managed to get to her more frequently if I really tried.
Then I received a Facebook message from her saying she was in nursing care after a week of hospitalization with her usual sardonic humor, “What fun!”
The next day, I sat next to her on the uncomfortable hospital bed, stroking her arm and crying. She opened her eyes and took me in smiling. She whispered, “Marilou, you came.”
There isn’t much left of my friend, physically speaking. She was always petite, but now disease has robbed her of the flesh beneath her skin. Her thoughts are a bit confused but her spirit and desire to live to fight another day remain.
I help her sit up, holding her like a fragile glass doll. Every bone in her spine is visible. Her ribs barely expand and contract with her labored breathing. I softly sing a verse from the Eagles song “Hotel California,” “…plenty of room at the Hotel California, what a lovely place… You can check out any time you like but you can never leave!” She chuckles, “Ain’t that the truth.”
I realize while driving home, after making plans to return the following day with homemade soup, that all any of us ever really wants is for someone to listen, to be present. Understanding isn’t really necessary. At the end of life, being present as a loved one passes through that last door is most likely the most important thing we’ll ever have the privilege of doing … and the most difficult.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell