I said, “Goodbye” to a friend today. I’m planning to go back after the weekend, but you never know.
She’s had a rough life: full of physical illness, childhood trauma, loss of a child shortly after birth, divorce, and the ravages of age. She’s less than three months away from her 87th birthday. Her current state of health is dismal and the family’s been told it’s only a matter of three or four weeks. She agreed to enter hospice the day before yesterday. For the moment she’s still in her own home, with a nurse checking on her daily, and her son and daughter taking turns staying with her.
She’s had more surgeries than I can remember. What I do recall is a hip replacement, dual knee replacement, surgery on a carotid artery, and that’s only in the last two decades. Now she has Stage IV colon cancer, terminal COPD, high blood pressure, diabetic problems, and lymphoma. And those are just the things I can remember.
I met her in the fall of 1966 when I attended an introductory meeting for Sweet Adelines.
She was the director of the chorus, at that time named Yucca Chapter of Sweet Adelines, International. In that brief moment in time, she was 39 years old, and I was 27. I was struck by her energy, talent, and ability to manage a chorus of women of varying ages and abilities. By the end of that meeting, I was hooked on the sound of four-part female barbershop singing, and I got details about how to join this group. It was the beginning of an entirely new phase of my life.
When I joined Sweet Adelines, I learned that I had a natural tenor voice. I’d always loved harmonizing. I found it exhilarating to sing with this large group of women, led by a woman who was passionate about music.
Within a very short time I discovered she and I had similar interests, and a close friendship evolved quickly. She had two kids, and I had just one, but our daughters were close in age. Our husbands enjoyed spending time together, and before long, our two families were getting together for dinners or just an evening together at one of our homes. Her extended family lived away from our town as did mine, so we spent holidays together.
She taught me much about music and arranging barbershop harmony. We spent hours together each week, working on music, sewing together, or shopping. Before a year had passed, I was invited to be the tenor in her quartet. Eventually I became her assistant director, and enjoyed that immensely.
For seven years our lives were spent singing and performing, thinking it would go on forever. But as folks grow older, they discover nothing is forever. In the course of life events, I embarked on a different path for a time. We didn’t see much of each other for about five years. Then things changed again, and we were back doing things together, although not quite as often as before.
When I look back on those years, I realize that when we first became friends, we each had something the other needed. We each needed the friendship as a compliment to our lives at that time. With the changes inevitably brought about by the passage of years, we became less dependent on each other, and the friendship became a comfortable relationship that didn’t require constant attention. We still talked on the phone, but not daily as before. We still got together and went places together, but not with the frequency of earlier times. But I always knew that if I needed a friendly shoulder, I could pick up the phone and she would be there to listen. I think she felt the same way about reaching out to me. With the advent of the internet and email, we kept in touch that way, too.
She’d been in bad health for a number of years, with one thing or another. Her frequent surgeries took a toll on her, I’m sure. As she progressed into her eighties, I worried that one of these health issues would be her undoing. But she just kept on plugging along, like she always had.
About three weeks ago I returned home to find a voice message from her on my phone. She didn’t sound good, but said she’d call me later in the evening. She didn’t. I called her a couple of times over the next two days, but received no answer. When I reached her at last, she sounded weak and tired. That’s when I learned about her latest hospitalization, and got some of the bad news: stage 4 colon cancer. She told me that surgery was out of the question. The cancer was too far along. But she’d been such a fighter, ever since I’d known her, that I somehow thought she would beat it—-or at least live with it for a while.
Then last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I got the word from her daughter that they were meeting with a hospice group that afternoon. She told me about the other things wrong with her mother that I had yet to hear. She said if I wanted to visit with her I should call and make sure she was up to it. She also said it would be good to wait a day or two until she settled in to the hospice routine. She would still be at home as long as they could manage it that way.
So on Friday after Thanksgiving, I phoned and asked if I could come visit. She was coughing so much during that conversation and it sounded so congested, that I almost told her I’d wait. But she said she was up for a visit, so I went. By the time I arrived, she’d been given morphine to calm the cough, and it did wonders for her. Unfortunately, it also caused her to drift off periodically. She kept apologizing, but I told her not to worry. We had a good visit for the better part of an hour. We talked about some funny things we’d experienced together over the years. She remembered each event and added her own memories of it.
I’d been warned that the hospice nurse was arriving at 1 p.m., so I decided at 12:45 I should go and let her rest a bit before the nurse came. She looked so fragile, lying there in her recliner, I wanted to hug her but didn’t dare. Instead, I stroked her cheek and told her I’d be back in a few days. My own daughter asked that I include her in my next visit, so we made plans to go see her on Monday. And here’s where I stopped writing this piece on Friday—-planning to see her again on Monday.
I was getting dressed this morning in preparation to go see my friend when a call came from her daughter. She told me her mother had passed away in her sleep last night. This was the way she’d always wanted to go. She feared suffering a stroke that would leave her alive but paralyzed. She wouldn’t need to worry about that any longer.
I don’t know what to say now. She’s not hurting any more, and she went peacefully. She was almost 87, and I suppose that’s a good long life for anyone. But after all these years, it will be strange the next time I think about calling her or sending her an email, and I remember, suddenly, she’s not here anymore.