Who saves us from ourselves as we work for and pray for the healing of bodies and minds across this country and the world? As we honor those leaving us and uplift those who need just one kindness shared? Let me tell you about two friends, without whom these days and nights would be more confounding, tiresome and menacing…who help make the long wait worth every small, good effort at making time more meaningful.
B. was smart, sarcastic and tough when we met in 1993 and worked with gang youth, but she had a heart and I right away saw it. She thought I was a sort of innocent, a fussy woman with good instincts who could handle her snappishness, anyway. She was right about “handling” her attitude. But she got a clearer picture of my own untidy past and counseling skills soon. We made a good team in our work and would at other agencies to come. Yet from outer appearances, who’d have predicted we both loved opera and blues?
Now, after decades of surviving crises at work and home, it feels like we are getting close to danger of wildfire, one we have tried to avoid facing as her health has declined.
“Well, you’ll never guess where I ended up last night.” She coughs hard, once, her words struggling to get into the air and to me.
We had just talked two days prior; I can guess. B. was very sick with pneumonia well over two months ago. She has lupus and weakened kidneys, a scarred liver, and degenerative arthritis despite being ten years younger than I am. So, it has been a halting recovery, at best; breathing and energy have remained unimpaired. She has tried to work remotely but is a counselor for an addictions and mental health treatment program in a women’s prison. Not very convenient to work from home. It seems unlikely she will return during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe not after. We have talked often each week as I have waited for events to unfold. She has been taking her 91 year old mother to the store– until finally she agreed to not do so at my pleading. Now, deliveries are made. She helps care for a niece on week-ends, at times, still.
She could get sicker fast. With corona-virus. Anything. So I am prepared, maybe.
“You landed back in the hospital. Lungs?”
“Not that. I got shocked.”
I take that in. “Heart, you mean? They shocked your heart?”
“Yeah. Heart was at 180 bpm. A-fib.”
“Wait–your heart? You mean the suspected anxiety attacks were maybe A fib events?”
I know how that is, the alarm of it, a rapid up-sweep of heart rate, breathlessness, tightening chest. But never at 180; 130-140 is too high for me as a heart patient.
A sharp tingling covers me feet to head with the knowledge of B. in pain, heart a runaway creature she cannot control.
“Guess so. It hurt so went to ER.”
“The doc said good news is my lungs look healed.” She takes a shaky breath. “Always something for us, eh? My body is falling apart.”
I think how most people would have said that even 20 years ago as she racked up surgeries for various damaged joints from feet to hips to hands. But this is a new thing, as if finally giving up a charade of “doing okay” and coming to terms with it all. She does not complain, whine, groan. It has never occurred to her to nurture self-pity. But she is worn out by buckling organs.
“Yeah, we get through one thing…. but we played and lived hard, we pay the price. You get up, I get up.”
“Yeah, but I’m a mean ole possum so won’t stay down.”
I laugh with her softer chuckle but all of a sudden feel in my bones how ill she really is. She doesn’t even like possums. White pet rats, that was a thing once. A wild cat or two. A parrot. Mongrel dogs, for sure. Possums and raccoons, no.
“On medicine now for this thing. How are you?”
“I’m okay, hanging in there. Are you–“
“I’m out of it. Just wiped. Have to go. Talk later.”
She hangs up.
B. has talked more of surrender to God over the past year, this woman who fought with fists in her youth, spit in the face of a twisty fate, protested with loud voice against injustices, swaggered across streets with her cane and stopping traffic to meet me on the other side, picked up life’s shattered pieces countless times, reached her hand to others in need without any questions.
My best friend, B. who I’ve long teasingly nicknamed Brenda Starr, the ace reporter from the old comic strip who chased after adventure and hunted down evil ones and rooted out truth at great risk to herself, all the while her beauty unfazed by the grit and sweat. The last part B. would loudly hoot over. She is not the glamorous type. At least, not since she was in her 20s and dressed in a leopard print dress and spike heels…though her hair, light golden auburn, long and voluminous, still is fabulous. But she is brave.
I stare at the phone as I lean against the wall and try to pray but no words come out. My throat threatens to close over and my husband calls me to the table for reheated pasta.
This chilly afternoon, a fine steady rain splashing against the windows–it is back again after stunning brilliance of springtime–I know I am fortunate. My current greater solitude since the rabid, often deadly virus has left me musing even more. And lately I consider the friends I enjoy– despite not having dozens at this point in my life. Meaningful ones seem to have crystallized, become denser, sleeker, deeper. Crucial even more than before as so much else becomes irrelevant.
I feel gratitude well up, a happy balloon floating within my being. I have family who cares, yes. But my friends–they are the once-hidden treasures I never planned on caring for like this, day in, day out. No, when a young woman I believed I was more the person who was there today, gone tomorrow: “love the one you’re with.” And I certainly did. But that foolishness was revealed to be what it was, of course, when I met people to truly love for the sake of who they were/are–not for whatever could be useful, for a thrill in the moment, the sharing of a drug and a suffering poet dream.
First, risk; then attachment; then devotion and loyalty. It was rather hard back then. I had to learn better. But not now. It has come easy for along while; the rewards are great.
I have two non-blood very best friends and that is plenty. It is like amassing spiritual and emotional wealth to know them every single day.
E. and I check in at least once a week, often after midnight as we both have insomnia. She also has been ill with a less serious respiratory illness but since she has asthma she is high risk for the worst virus. Her doctor has determined she must remain at home from work now. Her work isn’t sure they will need her to go back. But whatever happens, there is too little protection being in an office setting. Or, for that matter, even going to the store for bread and milk.
She is packing her several rooms full of stuff, off and on; her plan was to retire and move to Arizona near her brother by summer’s end. She has lived alone since I met her 25 years ago, after her drawn out, life-shaking divorce.
“Now who knows? I might just stay inside until I kick the bucket. I’ll knit myself a huge cocoon and stay put, how’s that? Might retire at last, if I can stop buying yarn. And books…well, could build a house with those, too!”
E. is guffaw-prone–both B. and E. make fun of defects of character and life’s travails–so lets loose her light, rippling peels of laughter. We vow not to go down gnashing our teeth
“I imagine you have blankets, scarves and socks galore stacked up in there, maybe tilting pyramids. The books you can give to me if you want.”
Her knitted pieces are evenly made, colorful. She adores soft, bright skeins of beautiful yarn and they take up space on floor, couch, table and bed. I can see her hands fly, the thing she creates growing by the minute.
“Want some socks? Yeah, adding to the mess. Oh, well, I have more boxes. I’ll get by even if I stay here. I’d just like more sunshine, my family closer.” She wheezes a little but assures me she is okay. “How are you? I’m so sorry Marc lost his job.”
“Yes, well, it has happened to millions. We sure aren’t special in this time and place…I’m working on a new budget. Well, scrapping it and starting anew…”
“Tell me how it’s going, you know to call me any time. It stinks for things to not end up as we’d planned, who could have known? We had such confidence! Sort of.”
“Well, what else is new? Nothing is what we thought and we’ve lived interesting, curious lives.”
We talk a bit more about our oddly reduced circumstances. But I’d rather not. It is what it is. And we are there for each other. She is also in recovery so understands each day needs to be met with humility. Acceptance and strength. Faith not fear–our mantra. And I intend on utilizing my practical ability to problem solve, keep heart to endure, adapt. Keep my vision aimed upward and outward. We both are Taurus, for what little that’s worth–but we do tend to think more alike and that can be comforting.
“Miss going to the movies with you,” I say. She adores films and all the arts. We have enjoyed plays together, dance concerts. “We’ve seen so many good ones, and there are always more.”
“I know,” E. agrees, “then getting lunch or dinner out and catching up in person. We know how to have a good time.”
We talk about what we are watching on small screens. My home no longer has cable TV to save money–we do have streaming apps. But I don’t miss things that are not essential, not much. Maybe immediate access to lactose-free ice cream and tons of chocolate chips for cookies to bake, sure, but not pricey steak or 160 TV channels or new clothes for spring or even another shiny hardback book. I have more than enough stuff. I miss movies and dinner out with E., though.
“Let’s meet up for coffee at a drive-through place and sit in a parking lot, 6 feet apart, just gab a little,” I say. “I’ve done that with my kids a couple times. Hard to not hug, but just seeing each other…”
“I love it–tell me where and when. We could dress up, bring cake!”
We commiserate about the tarnish on our “golden years”, share a funny story or two and finally hang up. The residual richness of her voice works like healing balm. her longtime job has been in accounts receivable in a health care system, weirdly considering things as they are. But I realize she is so good at that because her voice emanates her real personhood– warm, honest, empathetic and deeply kind, with a gift for finding gentle humor in hard moments. And that touch of lingering New Jersey accent makes it even better. Much better. I can see her scurrying along a clamorous New York City street, headed to Broadway for a play’s opening. Something I had hoped we might yet share.
I don’t want her to move to Arizona, ever, but if she does I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. I already have my invite.
I text her at midnight. “We could have been Broadway stars, you know, just bad timing, sketchy men. Booze. Good night, Ginger.”
She sends me an emoji–herself dancing with that still- red shock of hair, her purple glasses, mouth wide, eyes gleeful as ever.
I just read an extraordinary book called Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. By the end of the novel you emerge slowly from the story with the main character as if coming into the sheerness of dawn. Edward is a youth who was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash that took his family and the others. He muses on how love must not be wasted, time must not be wasted.
I wept as I read the last lines of that story. I have felt a slow burning inside of these truths my whole life, like a brightly lit candle that has guided me every step, even as I have gotten lost. Time and love, not to be wasted: the only rules worth minding. We must inhabit these fully, use these well, give these to others freely.
I feel it more every day, the desire and need. To be that present. To better ensure that love is known when I speak and move in this world.
“Hello? Don’t text me. I can’t read without my glasses.” B. chides me.
Her voice is weaker than yesterday.
“Okay, got it. We’ll talk. How is it going now?”
“Feel worse, maybe. Thinking should finally retire… prison doesn’t need me.”
“Well, it does. But of course you should retire. You work too hard. Now you will be in the hospital several days, to get things in order, your heart rested and healed more. I know, my friend, that all of this is hard on you.”
“Tiring. So listen, I talked to my mom. I want you to know”– an eruption of a cough—“I want you to have Spook’s Pendleton blanket. It is clean, it’s folded on the end of my bed at home.”
For a second I thought she had said she saw Spook, an old friend, in her room and it scared me.
“Spook”, now long gone, was a Native American elder, a man she was bonded with for decades. B. is part Native American and the woven woolen blanket he gave her from Warm Springs Confederation of Tribes is unique, special. I knew and respected him. He always had a corny crack, a smile for me. We worked together awhile in the fight against addiction’s ravages on the Native community. He liked that I gave the Native women a chance to dance, to sing their languages, to tell their stories. And he may have known they touched me in my very bone and blood. He seemed to feel for a white woman I was okay. Because I was B.’s friend, no doubt.
But his blanket, to be given to me? I cannot imagine such an honor. I am deeply stilled. Everything holds collective breath– outside, inside, wherever Spook now resides, in the bed where B. struggles to live. From her place in the life constellation, mine and so many others’.
“Okay. You feel Spook will be okay with it. You see him there?”
She laughs a little, coughs. “Naw. It’s mine, anyway. Blanket. I mean it, may as well say these things. Nothing morbid about it. You’re my sister. And I love you.”
I cannot speak again. Why do es language, even easy syllables, keep falling away from me? But she has never said that aloud… “sister”… though such intimate words have not been needed. It all feels bigger than a sum of many parts. I know she has thought about leaving the earth for a long time. She has been that terribly ill, and too often. I close my eyes against the sunshine at my window, and there are flashes of orange behind my eyelids. A riot of pain and grief. And happiness for who she is.
I answer her. “I’m so very glad to be your sister. I needed another true one. We know what we’ve shared all these years.”
“And money, I have money to give you and Alexandra’s babies, not much, but something. And go to a Bonnie Raitt concert for me when you can. We have to hear Bonnie even if I’m not there in the flesh. Take her and Marc, too.” She half-gasps for breath. “They’re good nurses here, I tell them so.” She gives a kind of sputter. “Bonnie, our girl…”
I want to say something else but can only listen, try to take it in, her mind going here and there– so just talk like we always talk, as if this is a conversation we always have.
“Yes–a beautiful power she has. Lots more music, too. What does the doctor say?”
“Trying to get more damned water off my heart.”
A deep intake of breath a sigh from her. Does she know what this means? I know it is congestive heart failure; my sister died of it, my brother–I saw my own brother die. But she won’t say the diagnosis or prognosis out loud, that’s how she is. Or not today.
“So I told Mom these things–don’t forget.”
“You can pull through this. We’ll be meeting again, why not?”
“Yeah…just in case, had to tell you. People need to say things. I should find a priest.”
“You aren’t even Catholic. Talk right to God.”
“I hear you, my old friend…sister.”
“Have to go, tired now.”
“Alright, I love you. Praying for healing.”
I haven’t heard from B. today. I may call or I may not. Her breath is precious, she is weak. She will contact me sooner or later. Somehow. I don’t know for certain if she is leaving this world or not. I feel she expects she may. She is more and more enervated by this burdensome body. Her spirit is strong; it will always be. But I sense her drifting more with every moment, and feel the burden of her ill body in every unspoken thought as my own heart keeps beating hard and slow, a reminder that I am truly here, that I am so alive.
Why is mine beating so strong and well now? Why me? Brenda Starr, why?
What matters the very most as a life is lived? I will be 70 in a few days. I am not living as I thought I might, but more and less, different. One surprise after another. I am full amid sorrows and strife. As we all have to cope with daily. And we can determine to face it and hold on.
So, good fortune is mine–these friends, their love shared. And another day given me, sweet and tender, aching and resilient, persistently beautiful.
But I wait for B.’s voice once more.