Two weeks ago I visited my friend for the last time.
Yesterday at the church her son gave me the woven shawl she would use when she rested on the couch in her living room. I used to love how soft it felt when I sat at the end of the couch with the shawl over my lap while I massaged her poor, swollen feet, back when her liver began to fail. Now she doesn’t need it any more, and I can wrap it around myself like a hug any time I want to.
We didn’t get to talk the last time I visited her. She was uncomfortable but she couldn’t speak above a whisper, just a few slurred words at a time, so I didn’t know what to do for her. I retreated to the big easy chair she kept in her bedroom and let the Hospice aide tend to her. The aide was kind and competent, but my friend wanted pain medication and the aide wouldn’t (couldn’t?) give it to her.
“You have to wait until 4.30,” she said, again and again, in response to my friend’s broken, insistent whispers. (It was then two o’clock.) The aide went away and called Hospice then came back and said it again. While she was out of the room I sat beside my friend, stroking her hand, bereft of words – because what are words for if not to advise, encourage or inform? I could do nothing but sit beside her and stare at the drawer of her bedside table, inside which she had 15 or 20 bottles of pills. She knew which ones she wanted but I did not, and even if I’d had the courage to give them to her I could not understand her.
In movies, drugs for dying patients are kept on the far side of the room, out of their reach. I have always thought that was wickedly cruel. If I were dying and in pain, I have thought, I would want to have my medications right next to me, and if I wished to take an extra one or two – and so speed the process – that should be my right.
My friend’s pills were right within her reach, but she was too weak to get them out of the drawer, too tired and confused to read the labels, and much too feeble to open the cap on the pill bottle. I did not know it was possible to be that weak.
I do not know how it is possible to be that strong. I understand now that even then, when her need was great, if she had been able to take an extra pill and so end her struggle she would not have done so. Years ago, long before I met her, she entrusted her life into God’s hands, and she left it there. Something I have learned about God is, when you hand Him your life, He doesn’t lift it out of reach. You can take it back any time you choose – and choosing not to can be an act of extraordinary discipline. My friend was the most disciplined person I have ever known.
At last she wearied of arguing with the aide. I could see she needed to sleep, and I had errands to run and nothing to offer her anyway. “I have to go,” I told her, “but I’ll pray for you first.” It was just a little prayer – there was nothing to ask for but rest, freedom from pain, and for her to go home, home, home – “Please,” I whispered, “Let her come home!” And she sighed relief as the lines of tension in her face eased, and it seemed to me that she relaxed into her Father’s arms.
But it was a whole hard week before He finally took her home, and during that time she didn’t want visitors. It was painful to be shut out, reminded daily that I could do nothing for her. But thinking back now I’m grateful that memory is the last one I have of her. I’m thankful that in that little prayer I did after all have something, however fleeting, to give her.
We said goodbye to her yesterday, in a service she planned to the last detail just before Thanksgiving. The first hymn said pretty much everything important about who she was and how she lived, right up to her last breath.
More people came to the service than I expected. She was the kind of person one always pictured standing alone – not aloof or lonely, but serenely self-contained. I knew, of course, that she was active in volunteer work, and that she deeply loved her family and spent as much time as she could with them. But until a few weeks before she died, when I was with her it was always just the two of us, and during those times she was so completely present that it never occurred to me that anyone that calm could possess the time or energy to have so many other friendships that ran as deep. But my friend never wasted her energy or her time, and so she had precisely as much as she needed for what mattered to her.
It was beautiful but humbling, yesterday, to realize that she had also been completely present within the lives of many other people. As they spoke about her I learned things – ordinary facts about her and her history and thoughts she had shared in conversations with others – and I was amazed by the complex, rich beauty of her life and personality. I had thought I knew her well; I know she didn’t hold back in the conversations we shared – and yet there was so much more to know than I had ever imagined. In a way, she was like her shawl. I always thought it was purple, and it was only after I brought it home that I noticed all the other colors in the weave.
And now it is the day after her memorial, and she really and truly is gone from my life, and it is time to move on. Except…
Except I find myself still wanting to honor her. Knowing her and losing her has changed me, and I find myself wanting to live that change, to give it breath. A month ago, watching her quietly yield up the elements of her life, I thought she was showing me how to die, but I see now that she has taught me far more important things about how to live.