Friday, September 3, 2010

Kindred Spirits

The message on my machine said, “Mother died about 2 a.m. Have to go to the funeral home. Will talk to you later.”

This was my life-long friend, Carol… and we had just lost the last parent we had left between us. My father had died first at the young age of sixty-three, then her father and my mother. Now, it was her turn to suffer the ultimate loss…that of her mother.

I once heard a quote in a movie that made a lasting impact on me. It was, “Our parents provide a barrier between us and death—and when both of them are gone, there is nothing left between us and our own mortality.” I couldn’t help but apply that to myself and my friend now.

Now in the autumn of our years, Carol and I met when we were seven years old. We lived on the same street in a small West Virginia town. We were inseparable – spending many hours discussing our perceived teen-age problems. Taking turns sleeping over, we’d talk and giggle until the wee hours; then get up in the morning and take a long walk, sometimes stopping by the school playground to take pictures of each other on a swing or some other piece of play equipment. We cherish those old black and white photos yet today.

Every time we get together, no matter how long it’s been, one subject always comes up. Carol never fails to say, “Do you remember those cold meatloaf sandwiches we used to have?” “I sure do,” I answer.  “And the tall glasses of iced tea?” My mother worked so she often cooked meals ahead to save time.  Sometimes she’d make a large meatloaf for dinner and put the leftovers into the refrigerator for another meal later. When Carol and I returned from one of our long walks, all hot and worn out, we’d go into the kitchen, take the meatloaf out of the fridge, slice it and some juicy tomatoes and make the best sandwiches you ever tasted! With a sandwich in one hand and a tall glass of iced tea in the other, we’d head for the porch swing where we’d devour our snack and share secrets.

Another of our favorite pastimes was roller skating. The roller rink had side walls that were easily opened to the outside on warm summer evenings allowing passers-by to enjoy the sights and sounds inside. As organ music blared, my best friend and I whirled around and around the wooden floor holding hands. Sometimes, they would turn the lights down low and display a kaleidoscope of colors while playing a soft melody. They called this a “couples” selection and it was usually the last skate of the evening. Almost always, we would both be asked to skate by a young boy. It was so exciting! We went skating often during our summer vacation. In fact, that’s  where I met my future husband.

Time passed, we grew older, and Carol met her future husband, too. Sometimes, we double-dated, but after I graduated from high school, something happened to interrupt our friendship.  My boyfriend and I were getting closer all the time. Neither of us planned to go to college. My parents tried to break up the relationship so we eloped… both of us only eighteen!  Not long after that, Carol quit school and married Herb. Now we were in the same boat… both married… without a ghost of an idea how difficult our lives were going to be. It was not long before we were both expecting a baby—children having children!

As the years passed, we had more babies until she had three, and I had five. We were too busy now to spend much time together, but we talked often and remained the best of friends.

Then we were separated. Her husband’s company transferred him to another state, about eight hours away. It was a promotion with better pay and they couldn’t turn it down. That was just the beginning of our lives without each other. Her husband’s work took him from state to state and our lives took very different paths, but we never lost touch.

Somewhere around age fifty, Carol went back to school. Her goal: to become a registered nurse – a tall order for a gal who’d dropped out of high school at seventeen to get married. She was required to pass a High School Equivalency exam before going to nursing school. She did it. By age fifty-four, she was a registered nurse. I received a picture of her wearing a nurse’s cap and a big smile. It made me so happy!

I, too, had a busy life taking care of a husband and five children. I went back to school also, but wasn’t as focused as Carol. I took Creative Writing classes and Psychology classes and even took a class that culminated in a trip to Paris, France one lovely spring. My eldest son took the same class and we took the trip together. What an unforgettable joy that was! Nevertheless, when I found it too difficult to study and care for a home and family, I stopped going to school. My family was my first priority.

When my husband retired, we stayed put… right where we had raised our family. But Carol and Herb settled in Florida upon retirement. All of their grown children followed. We were now twelve hours away from each other, but talked frequently by phone, and, thanks to the advent of computers, were able to use e-mail to our advantage.

Shortly before Carol’s father died, her mother fell and broke a hip. She was in her eighty’s and her husband, who was close to ninety, cared for her lovingly, but before she had completely recuperated, he passed away. Carol’s mother took to her bed and spent a major part of the next five years there, with Carol by her side taking care of her.

Yes, my friend left her husband, children, grandchildren, friends and a beautiful home on the beach, which she loved, to be with her mother for the last five years of her life. I don’t believe I’ve ever known anyone else that unselfish. I once asked her, “Wasn’t it hard for you to do this?” She answered, “I didn’t even have to think about it. I just knew that’s what I had to do.”

Carol bloomed where she was planted. She made new friends, went to church every Sunday, attended a weekly exercise class… and there were times she’d get away to meet me to “do lunch” and shopping. Her brother, John, lived and worked at home, so he was always nearby in case of emergency, but make no mistake, Carol was her mother’s chief caretaker.

During part of that five years, I was looking after my aging, ailing mother, too, so once again, circumstances made it difficult for us to spend a lot of time together; but we did have long phone conversations, just like when we were teen-agers (some of them were even as giggly and silly). We went to movies occasionally and out to eat. In short, although many years and different lifestyles separated us for long periods, we always remained close. No matter how long we stayed away from each other or how much time passed that we didn’t communicate… when we did get together, it was as if we’d never been apart. We are true kindred spirits!

After my mother passed away, Carol’s mother lived on for more than three years.  She died at ninety-two, peacefully, with Carol and her brother, John, by her side.

It was September 2007. Carol spent weeks getting the estate in order and then she and Herb went back to Florida for a few months, enjoying the holidays there with their family… but in early February, they returned with their oldest son, who was a jack-of-all-trades. Everything that Carol thought would improve her mother’s house was done, inside and out. Painting, new driveway, landscaping, and major cleaning were finished by mid-summer. The house was put on the market, and the very first couple who looked at it, bought it for almost as much as the asking price. By late August 2008, everything was settled. Carol’s obligations were finally at an end and it was time to go home and get her life back to normal after more than six years.

She and Herb were looking forward to another happy holiday season in their own home with all of their children and grandchildren present. Life was good once more. Or so they thought. However, a good part of the time, Herb didn’t feel well. Carol didn’t take him very seriously, because he’d often complained about having the flu when he wasn’t feeling up to par. The children took it lightly, too, sometimes joking when he wasn’t around, “Dad has the flu again,” one of them would say, and the others would snicker. But sadly, this time it was no joke. After an examination, his doctor suggested he go to the hospital for testing, which he did. Herb was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs that had metastasized to the liver.

Carol called me, almost speechless.“I feel like I’ve been on a roller-coaster for the past seven years,” she said. For the first time ever, I sensed uncertainty in her voice… perhaps even a little self-pity. Why not? If anyone deserved to indulge in it, she did. However, her faith never wavered. She believed that God was in charge and that He would take care of everything as He always had.

 I felt so helpless. I, her lifelong friend who loved her like a sister; I, who always had an answer for anyone who asked, had no profound words of wisdom this time for my best friend. I simply said, “Hold onto that faith; miracles still happen. Call me day or night if you need to talk.” She said she would. “I love you!” I said. “I love you, too, she replied,” and we hung up. I was stunned and very sad.

Things looked good for the next few months. Chemotherapy helped and Herb’s condition improved. He didn’t even suffer any ill effects. They went on with their lives as usual. We were starting to believe in that miracle. They enjoyed the holidays they’d hoped for with their loved ones, and welcomed in the New Year.

Then things started to change. Herb spent more days in bed than out. He was nauseated most of the time and miserable, but anyone outside the immediate family would never have known. If asked how things were going, Herb always answered with, “Good. They have done great things with chemotherapy!” He didn’t want others to know things were as bad as they were. He wanted no pity.

On March 16th, Herb was supposed to begin a more aggressive Chemotherapy because tests had revealed that the former Chemotherapy had stopped doing its job and that his cancer was getting worse. But his doctor said, “To be brutally honest, there is no point in continuing with the therapy. It won’t help.  In fact, it could do harm.” She continued, “I’m estimating that you have only a few days to a few weeks left. I’ll call Hospice and arrange for some comfort measures.”
Ever hopeful, Herb said, “But it could be longer, right?”

“An optimistic guess would be a few weeks to six months,” the doctor answered. They were devastated, but it was clear that Herb wasn’t giving up. Once they were home, he spent the evening faxing fall football schedules to friends all over the country. An outsider would never have known that he had just been told that he had only a short while to live.

That night, my phone rang. When I heard my friend’s voice, I knew it was bad news. Carol said calmly, “It’s over.” Once again, I didn’t know what to say except what I had said before, “I’m so sorry, call any time—day or night. I love you.”

Herb possessed a gift for inspiring others. One of his very last acts was to write an encouraging e-mail to me about my writing. I treasure that letter!  He also had a marvelous sense of humor. It was impossible to talk with him more than a few minutes without laughing. He was a natural-born comedian. I loved that about him. He never lost it…even through his fatal illness. Right up until his last day, he was making his family laugh. It was his final gift to them.

Herb died on March 19th, at home, at  while his daughter helped him with a breathalyzer treatment. It was quick and painless. They suspected a heart attack. He had begged Carol to make sure he didn’t suffer at the end. He didn’t. God was merciful. The funeral was private, as Herb had requested.

Carol has asked me to visit her later, when everyone else goes home and she is all alone. She says we will take long walks on the beach and stay up late having girl talks like we did so long ago. I will go, of course, the Good Lord willing.

After a period of sharing grief and tears for another lost loved one, I hope we can spend time reliving some of the wonderful things we shared many years ago; although we will have to make some adjustments.

We’ll take long walks, and even take pictures, but this time we won’t have to buy film or worry about having it developed. We have digital cameras now.

Instead of enjoying cold meatloaf sandwiches and iced tea afterward, we’ll probably have a salad topped with low-fat dressing and a bottle of flavored water.

Instead of whirling around the wooden floor of the old skating rink to lively organ music, we'll sit with our feet propped up, sipping something, while we listen to the soft strains of our favorite Yanni CD.

One thing won’t change though. We are sure to stay up very late chatting and giggling just like schoolgirls. I, for one, don’t want to waste much time sleeping.     
This may be the last time we enjoy a long visit together. It remains to be seen which of us leaves the other behind. As sappy as it sounds, it will happen one day. We have traveled a long distance together—from childhood to the threshold of our mortality.

And what a lovely journey it has been!

This story also appeared in my book Somewhere In Heaven My Mother Is Smiling~