Two weeks ago, I received the phone call that shook my world. You can read about the backstory here:
“I’m calling you because you’re a special friend of Sara.”
“Oh, God! What happened?”
“She had a stroke last night and her daughter found her. She’s in ICU now.”
Why didn’t I ever bring a meal for her, the way I wanted? Why didn’t I ever go and visit? I didn’t want to bother her. I didn’t want to impose, or to expect too much of a friendship.
“Is she okay? Can she have visitors? Does she need anything?”
“We don’t know which hospital she’s at. They don’t let anyone but family visit in the ICU, but you could try. She’s unresponsive.”
I called my friend next, standing on my front porch and sobbing too hard to get the words out. She listened to me and held my hand across the miles as I said, “No, no, she’s still alive but…”
I went back inside and informed my house guest (who showed zero signs of empathy or concern, which should have tipped me off that something was not right, but I was too stunned to process it). Since I’d given her both of my bedrooms, I had to wait for her to go to bed before I could huddle on the futon in my living room and refuse to face the facts. Yes, she was old. Yes, heroic measures would likely kill her. Yes, she said she’d lived a good life and was ready to go when it was time. But not yet! Not yet. Not when she’d laughed and punched me (lightly) on the arm the day before, joking as we played cards and correcting the rest of us when we went out of order or confused her. She liked order in her world, and the rambunctious card-playing crew didn’t always provide that. She would have made a good school teacher, in her perfectly coordinated outfits that never showed any signs of wear. I could see her rapping a student’s knuckles for not paying attention and then smiling with a world of love once she had it.
In that moment, the denial in me wondered if she could come back. If she would have to stay home more, perhaps move to assisted living, and receive visits in her home instead of coming to church gatherings. I knew the odds were against it, but I couldn’t help hoping.
When we got the news she’d been moved to hospice (and not hospice in a family member’s home, but a full-service hospice center) and that we could visit, I still couldn’t believe it was real. I went to the dollar store and threw together a care package for her family, and I arrived despite domestic drama that had tried to keep me away.
I didn’t recognize her.
With her mouth half-open, her thin body covered in a hospital gown, and her usually immaculate hair combed any which way, she didn’t have any spark of the woman I knew and loved. I sat next to her, sobbing because she had already left. I knew, the moment I saw her, that my friend was gone forever. I went back the next day to bring the family a meal and say good-bye officially, not because she was still there.
As soon as her family arrived by her bedside to say good-bye, she died. She’d held out long enough to give her family time, and then she let go. Her daughter gave me the news (an unexpectedly thoughtful gesture in the midst of her grief, to remember someone she’d only met twice), and I couldn’t let myself “go there.” A few tears in private, and then the darkness descended. I spent the day in quiet and solitude, ignoring the demands of my demanding house guest and trying to make my stomach behave.
“You look like you’re in pain, even if my nurse friend says you aren’t,” I’d told her. “It looks like breathing is so much work for you, such an ordeal. I hope, for your sake, that you can go quickly. That you can be safe and protected and no longer have to struggle.”
I was glad her pain was over. Even if she didn’t consciously feel pain, how could she not? Her children were in pain, and a mother’s heart couldn’t tolerate causing them pain.
But never to see her again, never to play cards, never to squeeze her hand on the way back to my pew after communion…
“I’ve heard so much about you,” I told her daughter. I must have been several decades younger, but I said it anyway. “She always talked about you, how proud she was of you and how you were such a wonderful daughter.”
Her daughter smiled, and we reminisced about foibles and idiosyncrasies.
I practiced making her famous lemon bars (in plenty of time to make new ones for the funeral), and I found that my typical low-gadget, low-fuss baking methods didn’t work. Cheapskate Ana splurged on a new 9×13 pan (if the bottom doesn’t warp upward in the middle, I have a better chance of getting the bars out successfully) and a kitchen scale to make the baby dinner rolls the same size. The baking frenzy is interfering with my work time, but it’s the last thing I can do for her. I may make gingersnaps (what others call molasses cookies), or pumpkin cookies, or lemon cooler cookies in addition to the mini sandwiches and bars. I may feel self-conscious at the embarrassment of treats and give some of the extra away.
I know, rationally, that making baked goodies doesn’t make my friend alive again, and she won’t be able to eat it. I also know that her family likely won’t want to eat and the food will be more for friends than the family.
Still, the three-hour baking mania the day before she died helped me to take a breath of relief. Food solves nothing, but it makes me miss her a little less. When Ana feels sad or bad or mad, she likes to feed people.
She’ll never know I made cookies and bars and rolls for her, but I’ll send my love to her anyway. After all, this is the only way I know how.
Good-bye, my favorite quilting granny. When I grow up, I want to be just like you.
Love from the girl you called your special friend.