My friend I’ve known for 56 years is dying. We both knew there was no cure, but now that she’s stopped treatment, the reality is no longer so far off, something to deal with later. Now it is soon. We are down to a matter of months. I draw some comfort from her acceptance, her calmness, the Buddhist faith that has sustained her since she was 14. I can’t think of her without also seeing the peacefulness of her being that drew me to her as a place of safety, and which eases my sorrow now in the face of her death. It helps. I want it to help. I cling to it.
And then there’s the artist. Being us, rather than sit back we seized this as an opportunity to do one last collaboration together. We did this during the 60’s to bring an end to war. We did this in the 70’s to help women see their own power. We did this in the 80’s when greed took the place of compassion in America. We did this in the 90’s when I worked for the refugee network and cried myself to sleep at night over the horror that humanity inflicts on itself.
Every step of the way she has been there, with her hope, her optimism, her faith that humanity was better than it knew, and all it needed was someone to say hey look here, look at this good person you are. Reach out to this one, hug that one, have a conversation that lasts hours with as many people as you can. Talk to each other. Learn from each other. Heal each other.
We’ve walked this path together for 56 years, and now we are coming to the end of the trail. I express my frustration to her that time moves so damn fast now. There’s so much left to do and not enough time. So we define our priorities. We can’t heal the entire world, but one person. Damn. That one person. We can start them healing themselves. Isn’t that how it starts? Isn’t that what it takes?
She has always been the better artist. She can draw and paint anything. I’m a sketcher. I draw it on a pad, scan it, turn it into something else. We’re both writers. We’re both geeky. And we both spent the better part of our 70 years learning to live with the pain of our childhoods as something outside ourselves, something that really wasn’t part of us anymore. We got over it. We got a life. We left it all behind.
But that was before, when we held back because others might be offended, annoyed, misunderstand our intentions, read something there that wasn’t there. Excuses. We had them. I had more than most because she’s lived most of her life out in the open, and I’ve spent most of mine staying in character.
Dying changes that. Knowing you’re dying changes it even more. She has always wanted to change the world, and now she wants to give it one last go. I sent her a line drawing, she added color to it. I added words. She added more words. In between we talked about our efforts to close the circle for her.
She’s much better at this than me. I told her this and her response was so typical. No, she said. You’re good at this. They buried their hurt so deep that we represent the shovel they never want to see again. But I’m dying so I can keep waving it around until they at least get curious enough to kick over some dirt.
And damn is she good with that shovel. She had me writing to people I haven’t seen since high school. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than getting an email saying hi we went to high school together.
It wasn’t a good memory for me. It never will be. And except for a select few in the world, most people feel that way about high school. They don’t want to be reminded. When I balked, she wrote the words for me. No one else could do that, but then no one else has lived those words with me. Have you sent it yet? No. Why not? I don’t want to bother people. Her amazing laugh was her only response. I started laughing with her as I always do.
I am like most people. I prefer to move on, to fix the stuff in the present and trust that the things and the people associated with the past are able to do the same. But she has always been someone who has this fascinating ability to break things down into patterns. She sees the world that way, as interconnected pieces that sometimes fit together easily, and others so crammed into misshaped spaces they’ll never fit properly. She connected the patterns for me so that it made sense to hit the send button on those emails.
I only told her no once. He was an awful person. There was no friendship to save because there was never one where he gave back. He was selfish. He cared nothing about others. Women were pretty things he bought and then discarded when another one came up for sale. I felt dirty being his friend. I felt drained by him and I don’t ever want to do that to myself again. She was there for those times. She knew I was right. He never made it to the list.
In the last couple weeks the cancer has spread to her brain. That and the medication she takes for pain makes her less than lucid at times, and at others she is very clear, very adamant, very much in control. I’ve learned to go with whatever one she is that day. I allow her to do and say things that no one else would get away with. I allow her to do her dying her way.
But it was and continues to be difficult for me. I do it because I love her and because she was there for me at some of the most awful times in my life. I do it because she’s dying. It seems an odd reason but if you’ve ever experienced the imminent death of someone you deeply love, you’ve had the conversations that went far beyond any you had while you were both living. It’s those conversations that make me agree to whatever she wants.
I do it because she is an amazing woman, and she is doing her dying the way she has always done everything, with a hand left out to help others. Her house was always open to those who needed a place to paint, a quiet place to replenish, and especially a place to talk to someone who cared about them, often more than they cared about themselves. Over the years she has developed a remarkable gift of letting others look into themselves and see only beautiful things. This is how it works.
Me: I can’t possibly write to that person. They won’t even remember me. I don’t want to bother people. That’s always my default. I don’t want to bother people.
Her: But what if they’re happy to hear from you? What if they can see past all the bullshit of society? What if they followed similar paths? Isn’t that worth it?
Me: Spends the next few hours getting to know the things in me that will make them happy to hear from me. It’s an interesting exercise. But it doesn’t make it easier.
Her: Hours later. Have you seen the amazing human you are? Do you finally see what I see?
Me: Yes. But that doesn’t mean they ever will because they don’t know how I got from there to here. All they know is then.
Her: Even more reason to contact them. Everything grows.
But as has been the nature of our friendship, she also saw my perspective that sometimes reaching out to the past is the same as ripping a bandage off it just as it began to heal. This is what she wrote to me when I said I didn’t want to rip open their wounds.
I know they hurt. We all hurt. Is it possible to go back in time and just fix the little things, the misunderstandings, the words that were never said. What if that fixes the foundation so the rest can heal?
She has this way of saying things in ways that make sense. That made sense to me. Fix the tiny breaks in the foundation so the house can stand on its own. So I let her search for those in my past. I let her suggest what to say. A couple of times I let her write the words herself and send the email as me. I have that kind of trust in her, that kind of faith in her wisdom.
And so we spend her final days doing art together. We call the project Healing The Wounded Child. The image above is the first one. It is mostly mine. She wanted it that way. Creating now is hard for her. So I make the lines for her to add color to, same as I always have in everything. Now she does it with art. She’s had to let go of the meticulous, careful, exact artist and just color in and out of the lines. Maybe that is my gift to her on the way to her next destination, to just put it out there and let it be.
When I told her how sad I was and how I didn’t want her to die, she gave me that amazing laugh. Die? Miss me? People die when you forget them. You’ll never forget me so I’ll never die.
She’s absolutely right. About everything.
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