Meditations on Friendship

I have had a friend for almost twenty years who I met in the jewelry studio in Mexico, in San Miguel, in 2004, when I was a jewelry student and she was on break from art school in Philadelphia. She is from San Miguel and was visiting her mom and her friend, Billy, the teacher of the school. We met and went out to a mezcal bar and talked about talismans and teachers. We hung out for a few days and then she went back to Philly. A year or so later, I happened to be in Philly for a boyfriend’s brother’s wedding, and we saw each other again, cementing our friendship. About two years after that, I moved to Philly, seeking a geographical solution to divorce. We ended up living together in a crooked house in Point Breeze, owned by a crooked landlord in a neighborhood in the transition of gentrification that we now know became common in all big American cities.

We had our ups and downs. I am not the perfect roommate, and neither was she, but there were signs of something bigger, even then. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears, rages, and benders became not common, but predictable; if something hard happened, one of those would, too. Threats were common (“if you do this again, then I will move out”), but so were treats of dinners out or massages at the spa where she worked. There was a lot of back-and-forth, up-and-down. Then came Halloween of that year. We went to an amazing party in downtown Philly hosted by the eccentric owner of an eccentric jewelry store, and there were costumes and drag queens and performances and swingers and so much booze it could make your head spin. We went with two other friends and were having a great time until I couldn’t find my friend, and then did find her, smooching a fireman in a thong. There were men all around her, and I realized how drunk she was. My other friend who had come with us said to me, “we need to get her out of there”, and he went to go convince her to stumble off with us, and we went home. She spent the next day in her room and the adjacent bathroom, sicker with drink than anyone I had ever seen or heard before. Shortly thereafter, she got fired from the spa for hostile behavior toward a coworker and abruptly left Philly for points South.

We remained friends for a time until I made the stupid mistake of dating her brother (a dumb move never to be repeated). After that inevitably fell apart due to me not being ready for an actual relationship and him not being ready for an actual relationship as well, she was, understandably, very mad at me. A few years later, I heard from her, asking if we could be friends again. I had just moved back to Austin, where her cousin lives, and she was thinking of moving there, too. I was excited to hear from her and I still felt bad for dating her brother. She moved to Austin in the fall of the same year I did, and we began hanging out all the time again. It took a while for the same strange behaviors to begin again: the comments, the asides, the tone.

She and I and another friend went to Mexico for a week in the spring of 2018 and stayed at her mom’s gorgeous ranch outside San Miguel. During the trip, we made a lot of delicious food and drank a lot of tequila (Bloody Marias, mostly), and took walks. It was during this trip that I saw the same behaviors that she did to me aimed at her mother; I was confused as I thought she just treated me that way. At that time, I didn’t know that it happened to a lot of people. One night I was talking with her mom in the kitchen, and she came in to say that she hated the cabinets in one of the houses on the property and her mom said something flippant like, “well I had them made because I needed them, so……” and my friend responded, “well when you die, I will rip them off the wall!” and stormed out. I apologized for my friend to her own mother, blaming all the tequila.

After a couple of years, I became engaged to my husband, and my friend took me wedding dress shopping. We found the perfect non-wedding wedding dress in a small boutique in Austin. She did the flowers for the wedding and made a beautiful curtain of flowers with lights that hung behind us as we performed the ceremony. That was 2019, and life changed so rapidly after that as we moved Cody’s grandma in with us, she died the next fall, and then of course COVID started early in 2020. We saw each other fairly frequently during the early COVID times, always outside as she was very COVID-averse. I began to feel something was off then. The friend group was changing and the people around were seemingly much more affluent than what I was used to; I felt I didn’t belong. I noticed, every time I hung out with my friend and her boyfriend, that she was treating him the same way as me and her mother; she was abusive and embarrassing much of the time.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I talked to other friends about it and they told me just to not worry, but to find new friends because friendship isn’t supposed to feel so odd. I felt every time that I was around her, that I was going to do something to upset her and then would have to deal with her wrath in some way. Last summer I went out for dinner with her and another friend and she said that she wished all of her friends weren’t 40 with kids and that she just needed to meet new friends. At a party last summer, she alienated another friend after the friend responded negatively to having her daughters jumped on by the dog. The clock was ticking.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on, except our “friendship”, if that is what it was at that time, felt terrible all the time. Every conversation was strained and I didn’t know how to make it better. She went to Mexico at the end of the summer and texted me tons of photos of her trip, telling me how much I needed to get back to Mexico (I agree, btw). I asked her to let me know when she got back, but she didn’t. I called her and texted with no response. I left her a message asking if she was ok, telling her I was a little worried and didn’t understand.

A week or two later I received a response that she needed space from our relationship. I was blindsided and also shocked because the language she used this time was almost exactly the same as the last time we had split, all those years before, after I dated her brother. I felt very sad and did not understand what had happened. I wrote her a text saying that this was a pattern in our relationship that I didn’t like and that I hoped she can find peace in her life. I received no response. I sent her a book and an email. No response.

The reason why I am adding this chapter to my Odes to Grief is that this friend is the person in the closest proximity to my friend who has cancer. This friend provides the sick friend with food almost every day, and the sick friend even lives at this friend’s cousin’s house, in the garage apartment. It is all very connected; this issue was one I was worried about when the friend cut me off without explanation. I wrote her an email saying that our social lives are so interconnected and with taking care of our sick friend, could we be cordial and see each other and would it be ok? She responded that I should never contact her again.

Like I said above, for a long time, I thought that this friend only treated me like this; I thought I had done something wrong and somehow deserved the treatment. It has taken me a long time to realize that true friendships have a core value of mutually assumed forgiveness (because we are all human). Because of how I grew up, I oftentimes assume that I have done something wrong. This is something I am working on. Over the years, I began to see that my friend treats a lot of people this way; she is an equal opportunity offender in terms of abusing people who love her. I do not know if she knows how to love others. She knows how to buy presents, host parties, and take trips, but she doesn’t know how to talk about feelings and fears or own up to her part of disagreements. She becomes hostile and full of rage or she just leaves.

The connection to the Odes of Grief is complicated, because, like I said above, this friend (I suppose, ex-friend) is the closest to my friend with cancer. She is the gatekeeper in some ways, or at least, wishes to be. She has actively excluded me and one other friend and is in the process of doing the same to a third. When our sick friend was hospitalized in the early part of this year, my ex-friend made no effort to communicate with those of us who she had decided to “write off” (a term used the other day by yet another friend trying to understand how she could help). It is fine for people to “write people off” if that is what they need to do, but when you all are part of a web of support for a friend who is dying, this is where the issues arise. One person can’t get the power to decide who knows what is going on, and who doesn’t.

The other issue in this scenario is that the sick friend (probably) has no idea that this is all happening around her and behind the scenes. But as the process of “writing people off” becomes more expansive, most likely because the stress of the situation is increasing, it is inevitable that the sick friend will begin to notice or know something. One of my concerns and guiding ideas in this process of taking care of my sick friend is that I don’t add stress to her life. I don’t want to do anything that makes her worry; the idea that she would worry that a lot of her friends are fighting feels juvenile and unnecessary.

When people die, things get weird. I already know this. I have already written about this here. I think the challenge of being around people who are dying is that, until you have done it, you don’t know how you will react. Add to that that each relationship with a dying person is unique and then you may know a little bit about how you deal with the death of loved ones, but again, until it happens, you don’t know the specific manifestation of the death of that one person. Hopefully, people have done their own work enough to know themselves; I know also that this is a false assumption.

My friend who has “written me off” (if you can’t tell, I really hate that expression. I feel like I am a line item on a ledger somewhere or something) has not done a lot of her own work. She has a hard time talking about emotions or things that are frightening. She has a hard time taking responsibility for her behaviors of hostility, rage, and manipulation. The last time we talked, she was blaming it on her childhood, which I think was a step forward. I hope there have been some other steps since. I think one of the reasons she is cutting people off is because she is having a hard time facing the situation and facing the people within the situation and she has to at least interact with the life of our dying friend so cutting people off is easier. That is my assumption, and could be totally wrong. Since she won’t speak to me, I cannot know.

The other night, I had a good chat with another friend, our Switzerland-like friend who lives out of state. Switzerland she is because of her out-of-stateness, her personality, and then as a major bonus, she is a doctor who did her residency with geriatric patients. In this mix, there are three of us who have taken care of dying people: this friend, myself, and my friend Kris, our sick friend’s oldest friend and the one who first took care of her when she was first exhibiting symptoms of cancer fourteen years ago. I am not using names here because I find that people don’t like to have my analyses of them outed on the internet, so please excuse any confusion. Let’s call the Switzerland friend Suzy. Suzy and I spoke at length about the importance of prioritizing our sick friend’s care, and smoothing over any factions or ill will that may exist in the group. This is my core belief as well. The issue between me and my ex friend is not relevant to us being able to be a caring support team for our sick friend. Maybe we will heal our relationship and maybe not; that doesn’t actually matter in this context. Suzy is a new friend of my ex friend and perhaps their relationship is different than other relationships I have witnessed with this ex friend; after all, they met at different times of each other’s lives, in different places. I have hope.

The end to this long piece of writing is to close with hope. I believe that we all, and I mean we as the collective human “we”, can set aside our egos when we need to take care of people in need. I see it all the time, I have years of evidence to support my claim of this ability of our species. I believe one of the root causes of my divorce from my friend came from the fact that she has no responsibilities, no career or job, no one that depends on her or that she helps. She is blessed with wealth and so does not have the worries of most people. She has no children, so does not have that anchor. She does not need to work, so she doesn’t. She has nothing holding her in her own life, so it is natural to drift and find purchase on certain things. She has found purchase with our sick friend; it is clear to all of us that she is holding on to our friend desperately and doing everything that she can to help. Unfortunately, she is anxious and afraid and is striking out at other people who just want to do the same thing in collaboration with her.

My hope is that we can abandon ego, all ye who enter here. We are heading into a tunnel. It is up to us how we reappear on the other side.

Let Everything Happen to You: Beauty and Terror

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59

Today I reflect on a day. A day that is part of a week, which is part of a long, but short, month. February. February. No month can drag on quite like it; the month that is the bridge between winter and spring. The month that has so few days, but so many of them are grey, cold, and icy.

Life feels interminable in February.

But! Tomorrow is its last day.

Reflections on loss for February:

I felt myself for the first time since October last week. I felt that I was actually a good teacher who was engaged with her students, her curriculum, and her process. I thought of this yesterday as I was driving into Austin, on a flyover between US Highway 290 and I35 North to meet a friend for brunch. I thought of a photo of me and my dad in west Texas in 1983 or so. I am wearing pink corduroy overalls, and he is wearing a cowboy hat. Neither outfit makes sense, and yet it does in this image. I am sitting on a shelf, and he is looking at me. I thought of showing this to the students and telling them about this realization of last week, and I started to cry.

Fort Davis, Texas, 1983 – Two lost English people

These tears were different. These tears are acceptance tears, and tears of peace. These are tears that come with the realization that he is gone and he did a lot of amazing things for me and was a complicated person who made a lot of bad decisions. These tears are also an acknowledgment that my relationship with him was not the relationship I thought we had when he was alive. I was always mad at him, disappointed in him, judgemental of his behavior, questioning why he did all the things he did. In death, I realized how much I talked to him. I would call him, randomly, all the time, and talk for about 5-6 minutes each time. Then he would say something like, “well this must be costing you a fortune!” to get off the phone.

The hardest thing about death, for me, as the obviously loquacious person that I am, is that I can never speak to my lost friends again.

Sometimes, at night, I go outside and sit on a hard surface and talk to my friend Meredith. I have no idea why it has to be a rock or a road or a sidewalk. I look up into the sky, into the stars, and talk to her until I hear her laughing at me. She always laughed at me, with me, she always thought I was the best person, the most knowledgeable about education and school, and she was always one of my best friends. At 52, she counted on me, and I was only in my twenties. She laughed at the absurdity of it all, she wrote me all the time (all of her emails are saved of course). She died back in 2011. When she was dying, she complained about the British being imperialists who tried to take over the world. This was clearly aimed at me. She also told me, over and over again, how much she loved her children.

Today I thought about my Dad, and I visited my friend Patty who is my quilting friend and the mom of one of my best friends, Ann. Patty recently was diagnosed with cancer as well, although they caught it early and everyone is very hopeful. I had to see her today and give her a hug and a kiss and we went through bins of fabric that she had inherited from a friend’s grandmother who just went into a residential home for people with dementia. I went through tubs and tubs of fabric and I watched her and her daughter play fight about her inability to use the Costco website.

Afterward, I drove up the highway, on my way home, to see my friend who tomorrow goes in for the first dose of her last possible chemotherapy. First of the last. We talked and ate cheese and walked and chatted with Sarah, her friend and owner of the big house, and ate spicy Thai food with Marie that made all of our lips burn but was delicious. We laughed and talked about weddings and old friends. She said she thinks tomorrow will be fine and is not worried.

Earlier, I found Marie in the road as she was on the phone with me. We are dealing with a hard situation in this mix which I will enumerate later, but today we drove to the UT Campus and sat on the steps of the Texas Memorial Museum in the sunshine and talked about losing our friend, and what we want for her and for our friendships. Marie is so strong and wise it is daily amazing to me. She was born across from a special star, I am sure, and inherits this wisdom and palpable love from her mother, Ruth. We talked about how maybe we will take care of her in Denton, at Marie’s house, and she will be comfortable. I don’t want her to be in any pain or any worry.

Such a strange time on this Earth. In one place on its surface, there is a war brewing. In another, there is hateful rhetoric spewing from a small man in a wood-paneled office in downtown Austin. In another, my friend is celebrating her 5th anniversary with her sweet boyfriend in New Jersey. In another, my friend is planning her first restaurant. In yet another, I sit at a table, in the dark, typing away, as my husband eats dinner 4 hours north in Grapevine.

We are all part of this world, and yet are alone and floating within it at any given moment. Some of us read poetry, and some of us listen to music. Some of us ride horses, drive trucks, sing, or dance. Some play sports, some walk in the woods. Some watch television. Some sleep. Some watch the sunrise, some the sunset. Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; I see it rise through the boughs of my 200-year-old post oak tree when I walk home from my early morning walk with my dog.

The light changes each day; as I get older, I notice how each day is different. I never noticed that when I was younger.

Tonight, I looked at the lighted windows of my friend’s apartment while I talked to my friend Marie in the street. I looked at the silhouetted branches of trees, the muted colors of the curtains, the outline of lamps. I thought about her sitting up there, facing all of this. I thought of all the things we have done together and all that I have learned from her; I thought of the time she had a steroid reaction and I drove full-speed through tiny Texas coastal towns in our friend Jenny’s brokedown car, and how we had to get out on the side of the road and pee and how I ran into a hospital yelling, “HELP ME MY FRIEND HAS CANCER” only to be looked at strangely by all present. I thought about being on the jetties in the wind, about hearing her story, about going to the Barbican in London, and her chastising me for always having horrible shoes to walk around in. I thought about her laughing, laughing, laughing.

I hear my dad’s voice in my head, but the sound of it is fading. I will always be able to see his face and to remember my memories of him, and I hope I will always recall his distinctive voice. But I don’t know. All I can hear of Meredith now is her laugh, and the one time she told me “it was a really great wedding” after my first wedding, which she paid for.

Hugs to you and yours wherever you are in our strange world. xx P

When People Die, Take Nothing Personally because Things are About to Get Weird

There is a lot of conversation about our culture’s fear around death, and how that fear stops us from actually talking about it in meaningful ways that would, perhaps, make the process that we all go through less scary. I can tell you that this is something I want, and is one of the reasons for the shift in this blog. This desire on my part to write about it, my interactions with the journey of people dying, is critical to my own processing of my grief around my dad’s death and the illness of one of my best friends. BUT, I must admit before starting, that things get REALLY WEIRD when people die. People react from a base, animal level. People get scared. People get angry. The last three sentences get combined into grief bombs. So, if you can, remember the four agreements:

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (get it right now if you don’t have it)

As my dad was dying, my mom transformed quickly into someone strange and foreign to me. Traditionally, my mom is a cool person, and I mean that in a temperature-personality way. She isn’t cold, but also isn’t warm. I think this comes from her years of experiences, and taking care of a sick person for 15 years. When my dad was diagnosed with the word “cancer” in August (it took over a month to get an actual diagnosis due to COVID and the fact that they live in a rural part of a rural state where there are few hospitals), my mom was very caring toward him. She showed him a lot of care and consideration. She thought he was behaving oddly, especially crying all the time, but she seemed to roll with it with more love than perhaps she had had before. Part of her, I suppose, knew or suspected that something was different this time.

Then there was the day they met with the oncologist and received an actual diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, the lung cancer you get after a lifetime of smoking. Instead of going home like they thought they would, after the appointment they admitted my dad to the hospital for tests. He never left the hospital. There were days when he was mostly normal. At that time, I had come back to Texas and was here for about a week and a half. I talked to him every day.The first few days he would say, “I don’t know why I am still here! I suppose they have to wait for the results of all these damned tests!”. Then his voice changed and he became extremely breathless and hoarse. He could barely talk, or didn’t want to. It didn’t matter; by then I called him a few times a day and we would talk for about a minute or two at a time.

Then there was the strange day, the one I will never forget or ever understand. At that time, the doctors chose not to tell him he was terminal and there was no treatment. I felt that this was wrong, my brother agreed, and finally our mom did, too. It was Tuesday, and earlier in the day a doctor had told him about the diagnosis, told him straight, no bullshit. I called him that afternoon and he was perfectly clear. He wasn’t wheezing, wasn’t hoarse, and he didn’t want to get off the phone in 1- 2 minutes. He told me a lot. He told me that he knew he was going to die, and that is was all right. He told me that he had had a good life. He kept repeating how we had to take care of our mom. I told him: of course we will take care of her! But remember she is really good at taking care of herself: she will be fine! He said, “no no no you must take care of her”. I told him that we would.

In retrospect, he knew something that day. It is said that sometimes, as people die, they perk up, become super clear, and seem as if nothing is wrong with them: the disease fades. No one knows why. I found this to be true with my father, but not true with Cody’s grandma or my friend Meredith. Meredith was on so much medication by her last few days that perhaps that explains it. Cody’s grandma just stopped talking during the last week of her life and would only nod or shake her head if I asked her something. Dying is a process we know a little bit about, but not alot.

The next morning, I called the hospital and my mom answered. I said, “oh hi! I didn’t expect you to be there.” She told me that something had happened, that my dad was unconscious and on oxygen and machines and tubes, and they did not know exactly why. Later when I talked to his palliative care nurse, she told me that his pain was so severe that she thought once she finally got his levels correct, his body shut down a little bit. At that time, she told me to wait til the next day to decide to come back to Maine, but after talking to my brother that night, I was on a plane the next morning.

I told you that my mom was so caring and considerate of my dad in the 5 weeks before the last week of his life. When I arrived to Maine for that second visit, she felt strange to me. She felt hostile and angry. She took our her hostility and anger on me. Nothing I said would come without a comment. I felt I could not win, and that she only liked my brother. When the three of us were together, she would be closer to him, physically and emotionally, and be mean to me. At first I took this personally as I was grieving, too. I was losing someone as well. I felt that she was acting like she used to act toward my dad when he was healthier. She was famously passive-aggressive and hostile to him almost all the time.

One day the three of us were walking on the Shore Path, one of my favorite walks in Bar Harbor. We were talking about family and old family photos as my brother and I had been going through them. She was telling us about a photo she wanted to find with our cousin as a little boy. At the same time, our cousin and his mom were going through a hard moment in their often difficult relationship, and I made a comment about his mom being a really tough person to have as a mother. I received another harsh comment and I said, “I love you but I cannot win with you! I cannot say anything to you right now!”

And then stuff got weird. My mom started screaming. She was crying. She flailed her arms in the air. She kept saying “I can’t do this right now! This has been 15 bloody years of this!”. She spoke in a way that sounded strange: deep and guttural and pure pain. It was pain pouring out of her, out of her mouth, out of her hands and arms, out of her heart and mind. Screaming, shrieking, flailing. I didn’t know what to do. I said, “it’s ok, it’s ok, I just need you to calm down. Just calm down please”. She walked away from me and left me on the Shore Path. I called my husband who told me to remember that her husband was dying.

As the child, it was very hard for me to remember this in moments. In moments of calm clarity, later in the evening with my friends, in a calm space in which we could talk about it, it all made sense. In those moments of intensity, of loss, fear, powerlessness, mystery, and confusion, it all gets muddied. This is a lesson for all of us.

It took me days to not take the things my mom was saying and doing personally. It took another talk with my husband and one with my brother. It took some reading and researching grief online to understand she had shifted her feelings onto the person next closest to her: me. I am the firstborn, the baby who arrived when they were happy and in love. I am the baby born in England, in their sweet house in Haslemere. I am the daughter. I look like my father, and I am so much like him emotionally and psychologically.

I would love to know why death brings up these feelings of intense, base, emotional madness. I would like to know if women feel it more than men; perhaps it is just felt differently. I wonder if there is a way to not feel these feelings of panicked loss, or if this is part of each of our own understandings of what it means to die ourselves, and to lose our loved ones.

It is a mystery. I know only one thing: I am not afraid of death, either my own or my loved ones’. The loss of death, which for me means I cannot talk to the person anymore, makes me profoundly sad and yet, with time, I can come to accept it. It is a mystery.

Rainy Monday

Today the students worked on puzzle cubes and, mysteriously, more capybaras appeared on the drawing wall. Students right now are really into capybaras.

My friend who is in the hospital is doing all right and finally getting some dots connected in terms of care. It seems to me that if you were to have to navigate the US health system on your own, you would just tear your hair out.

I was thinking about one of my favorite times with my friend, when she and our another old friend stayed at an aunt’s house in Port O Connor. The house was just beautiful; up on stilts, you were at eye level with palm trees. The wind whipped perfectly, and one night we made dinner in the kitchen, mushrooms with pasta I think, and we told stories and we heard my friend’s whole story for the first time. It is not my story to tell without permission, but it involves all kinds of things that should be written in a book.

That night we had a fire in the fireplace, and if I remember rightly, it was cold in POC, which sometimes it was. I miss going down there although the last time I was there was only last summer. We should have stayed longer, me and my two friends and the dog.

This morning just as I was waking up, I had a dream. I was outside on a lawn somewhere in England, and my cousins were all around on the grass. I was sitting and they were standing but I was child high and all their kids were moving around. I realized it was at a pub so I went inside and my Dad, young with dark hair, was sitting at a small table and he smiled at me. He asked me if I was all right, if everything was all right. I couldn’t talk to him: the words wouldn’t come out and were completely hushed as if their air had been compressed right out of them. He smiled and then he was outside the window with a rolling suitcase. He waved at me and walked out of the windowframe.

My Odes to Grief

“I used to be a great and powerful man”, my father said to me the third-to-last time I saw him, in October of 2021. I walked into his room and he looked so old: white as a sheet, with slightly pink skin, hair all akimbo, eyes wet with tears. He spent those last few weeks crying so much of the time.

I said, “you ARE a great and powerful man, and you know as well as I do that strength comes from here” (pointing to his heart) “and here” (pointing to his head). He apologized for crying and I said, “well you know me, I am the most emotional person in the world and I cry all the time“.

He would die about 6 weeks later, about one week after speaking to me oh-so-clearly on the phone from his hospital bed in Bar Harbor, Maine for the last time.

I have had a hard time writing lately. I am not sure if it is the pandemic, the death of Cody’s grandmother who lived with us, teaching during the pandemic, graduate school, the nonstop droning length of COVID19, or my father’s death. But now, I am faced with two immediacies. I am gripped by grief: it is holding on to me something fierce and fast. It will not let go. People keep telling me just to “let it all out” but I am afraid to let it all out lest it consumes me and renders me a puddle of tears on the floor.

Those people who know me or my father, Michael Blythe, know that we had a very difficult relationship. He was a difficult person; he was highly intelligent in all areas except for emotions and communication. He was afraid of emotions and so diluted them, and he was afraid of communicating his emotions so he covered them with anger and rage. Ask his friends, the breakfast crew, about how much they loved him while recognizing the fierceness inside.

At the same time that my dad died and I came to understand the grief of a child for her parent, specifically the grief of a daughter for her father, especially a daughter who is so like her father minus the rage and anger, one of my best friends, my sister, really, has taken a turn in her cancer journey and now is in the hospital, breathing with the aid of oxygen, and worrying us all very much.

Death comes a-knocking. We must welcome it as an old friend, as one of the only guarantees of this life, and yet, we don’t talk about it because it is so frightening and so utterly sad.

I was speaking to a friend last night about my feelings of grief. She said, “you aren’t writing”. I said, “I know. I am afraid”. She encouraged me to start again.

I feel I am of two minds. One of them is rational and logical and understands that everyone dies and that it is ok. That brain says: everything in life is fine, and it is just sad that you can’t talk to your father anymore. The other mind is a tiny animal with gnashed teeth and sharp claws whose heart is outside her body. I had an internal analogy at first that I was a reverse pincushion; instead of the pearly ends facing out to protect hands and fingers, my sharp ends were facing out to catch me, gouge me deep, and feel the horrific bottomless pain that is losing your father.

The night that he died I stayed up so late, drinking a whole bottle of wine by myself over the course of a long evening (this was when I thought that alcohol would help: turns out, it makes everything much worse). I spent the evening looking at photos of me and my dad, especially of photos when I was little. I looked at photo after photo and I began to ask myself: what did we even fight about? I could not answer the question; I still do not know. I think it was that I was a headstrong teenager, and he was going through a crisis after losing his job, and those two storms met head-on and became thunderclouds that brewed for twenty years. I am so blessed that we smoothed those clouds out the last three years, he attended my wedding to Cody, and we talked all the time. I am so thankful to Cody for showing me the importance of healing my relationship with my dad, because he had lost his many years before, and was, like me now, always wishing he could call him.

The night he died I cried and cried. I felt like I was drowning under a heavy wave of water that would not let me up. I felt I was on a cliff’s edge about to fall. I felt a huge weight, like a stone, on my heart. It pushed deeper and deeper down and in, like what I imagine a black hole does to matter: I was collapsing. I went to bed at 2:30 and my mom woke me up at 4 to go to the hospital. I went downstairs and sat on her couch and said, “pull yourself together, kid. You have to drive your mother to the hospital where her husband has just died”. I said, “I am driving you to the hospital”. She said no. I said, “yes, I am” and she handed me the keys. We arrived at 4:25 and he had passed just a few minutes earlier at 4:19.

In that room, he was so peaceful, laying slightly to his side. His face was pink, pinker than it had been anytime over the last few months. When he finally was medicated for pain, he received so much medication that the nurses told us he must have been suffering for a long time. This was no surprise: he was always a pain in the ass about admitting anything was wrong. The nurses had cracked the window to let his soul slip out into the air, up to the mountains, out to the sea. He was so peaceful. He never had been so in his life. I sat next to him and smiled. In my mind, I said, “Daddy? Where are you? Are you on a plane? A ship? Traveling somewhere first class on an adventure?” I suspected so, and still do.

Grief is grabbing hold of me and won’t let go, and one of the only ways I have ever found to discover what I really feel and am thinking about is through writing. I also know that writing about death is hard for others to read, but perhaps that can change. Another friend and I were talking today about our friend in the hospital, and she told me that she envisions me as someone who writes and gardens, gardens and writes. In other words, she was the second angel to appear with the same message: write, Patience, write.

As I walk through the stages of grieving my father, experiencing an immense, tangible, and tragic shift in the public schools in which I have worked for 16 years, and support my friend who is also, perhaps, transitioning away from this reality into another one, I will write it all down. I hope you will join me.

Thanks for your patience.

My Beach

It’s been a place that, for years, has been the consistent feature, albeit one that is, of course, always changing.

It is the beach; a very specific beach that curves along a small cove. It is made of tiny rocks that are weathered and worn from much larger ones that make up the island and the mainland across the bay. Across the water you can see Lamoine, a small town in Downeast Maine. My beach, as I have called it for years, is thin and is framed by rocks and trees and two small houses: one yellow and one gray. For years, I have walked up and down it, collecting sea glass, throwing skipping stones, and thinking. It is the place that I wish my ashes to be scattered, as it is the place I come back to, over and over, as life changes and keeps moving forward.

My dad is very sick all of a sudden, after a lifetime of being sick. Sick with post-traumatic stress from Vietnam, sick from alcohol addiction, sick from Texas oil man capitalism, sick from diabetes, sick, now, from lung cancer. About a month ago they diagnosed him with “shadows on the lung”, but due the remoteness of where my family lives and the spectre of COVID-19 which, seemingly, will never leave, he has not been able to receive a biopsy or diagnosis yet. This Friday they make the first steps to diagnosing him with something, while, every day, he becomes weaker and says things that don’t quite fit. Sometimes the things he says are thankful and hopeful and reflective, which is excellent. Sometimes they just don’t fit.

Two years ago at this time, we were taking care of Cody’s grandma, Marie, who passed away December 21. It is strange, the timing of it all. I know that it is just a coincidence, but muddling through the memories of it all is intensifying the emotions I think.

My dad and I have never had a good relationship. There are lots of reasons for this, but none of us can prove the past.

Now, I feel that we lost an opportunity, or that we both wasted so much time. I think about how he left his family, leaving England sometime in the 1960s to disappear only to be found in 1984 by a chance encounter. At least we didn’t do that with each other. I wonder if he will ever tell my brother and I what happened. I feel that we have little time to wait and see.

Since I decided to go up to Maine, at my brother’s suggestion, all I can think about is my beach. What will it look like? Will the rocks have changed in the interim three years? It has been that long.

Meredith Drew, 10 Years Later

My friend Meredith died in 2011. It has been ten years since she graced me with her words, her observations, and her sense of humor. I was cleaning up my inbox today and found this email. I almost wrote her an email back, even though I know that she won’t be able to read it. Or maybe she can? I often think she is around, on the edges of my life, watching, smiling, and occasionally laughing. It is her laugh that I hear on the wind, and in the still darkness of starry nights.

[names have been changed]

My best thoughts are Sunday morning when i first wake
up. Short sentence insights given to me from myself.

This morning:
If it hadn’t been for Patience ….

You were the one who saved him. I brought him to you
and you said, and then, no matter what anyone else
said, I held to what you said.
You were right about the school. When Alan destroyed
that, he showed his willingness to destroy his only
son.
I know you wondered why I stayed. I was waiting. I can
see it now, his pushing me to stand up so that he
could smash me. “Sebastian is not really mine because I
have to share him with you.”
Only one strike then. One chance, and my aim had to be
dead on.
So. Based on what you said, and only on what you said,
I made a move. (literally) Defying the court, the
experts and all of those carefully orchestrated lies.
YOu saved my son that day, you know. You’d meant to
spend the day with your husband and your new house.
I doubt you remember where you stood, where I stood
when I said, “Tell me Patience about Sebastian,” and you
answered. Sam was in the background keeping Sebastian’s
attention on other than us.
It’s like a photograph in my head, all bent up and
worn now from my taking it out and looking at it so
many times, just to check, “No, no. That’s not what
Patience said. Don’t listen to them.”
I was just a mom, and you were just a first year
teacher, emergencied in no less with your funny degree
and a quick summer course. There were no letters after
our names.
Valentina, the Russian seer and healer told me, “You
have great power. It is in your love for your
children. Stay in that place.”
The photograph in my head is of just that. The 4 of us
feeling powerless. Loving powerfully, not knowing the
importance of that moment, what would come of it.
You called yesterday, to check, worried that you are
not doing enough for Sebastian, worried as you are that
you are not doing enough for your own students, I
think.
I have a picture in my head, of your not doing much of
anything, just standing there, saying a few words. It
was all that you could do, of course. To you it must
have seemed like so little, hardly a “kodak moment.”

The picture shows You, however, standing in that place
of love, speaking so powerfully that in that moment
Sebastian’s life was changed.
The power did not come from your doing. It came from
your being.
You said you told your students in the bathroom that
it was because you love them.
Well, yes and no. Yes, because you love them, you have
power beyond human comprehension. No, because that is
not why you were crying. YOu were crying because you’d
momentarily and inadvertently fallen from that place
into fear.
Anyway, I have this crumpled worn picture that I
wanted to show you of you being You in that space of
love and power. Amazing, how the more I look at it,
the more clearly the Grace comes into focus.
Your Grace.
Amazing
Trust that.
Like I said. Do not be afraid. Just believe.
In you.
I have a picture of my doing just that. In the middle
of a breakdown myself, desperate, loading Sebastian and
myself in the car driving to Austin, unable to explain
to myself why it seemed so very important. Amazing,
the Grace of my knowing to turn to you.
Your words and a picture of your saying them burned
into my brain. You were that quietly powerful.

I have been listening to Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations lately. My two recent favorites are: Cicely Tyson and Grace and Gratitude.

Meredith Drew, Three Years Later

dans garden end of august 2013 024I met Meredith eleven years ago, when she lived in a renovated Arts and Crafts era bungalow in The Heights, a splendid Houston neighborhood. The house had a front porch, and a very small boy inside. The small boy played with everything, but had a true passion for living things, especially insects. In that house, the small boy hatched an egg of hundreds of Praying Mantises, who, of course, escaped their cage and exploded all over the walls, the bed, the floor, the jambs of doors: all surfaces of that small room were covered in tiny mantids.

My memories of that house were of how much I loved its dark wood, the kitchen with its funky tiles, and the artwork that was everywhere. There was an old leather sofa, paintings, drawings, an African mask, a sword or two, books, papers: everything that was in that house reflected the complicated personalities within it. Meredith and her son lived there with her husband, the man behind its renovation and its steady march to monotony. The colors disappeared, the landscaping was typical, and there was only one tiny blotch of color to distinguish the way the house was when they first arrived.

Meredith was my soon-to-be husband’s best friend’s mother. Meredith was disorganized, irreverent, opinionated, sarcastic, and she cursed a blue streak most of the time. She also had a fierce glint in her eye, and when she thought something was particularly funny or insightful, the glint combined with an upturned motion of her jaw, and she would nod as if what she believed was common sense to all, and hilarious.

I cannot count the number of times I cleaned Meredith’s kitchen, or tried to get her papers in order: she was inherently a creature of disorder, of mess, of clutter. Meredith had lived many lives before I met her; she had been married, divorced, raise two sons on her own, was an accountant for a huge accounting firm that later lost their influence during the Enron scandal, was remarried, and had a very young son who was about fifteen years younger than her eldest. Meredith loved history and families, she had a huge respect for her father, had a great Texas accent, knew many stories of the way life was when she was growing up outside of Austin, kept lists of good books with descriptions of why they were great, had amazing collections of everything you could want to peruse on a slow weekend day, and she had an open-ear policy for listening.

Last Sunday, I went with a friend to a friend’s mother’s funeral, and many people whose life she had impacted spoke up. There were stories about skiing and vacations and puzzles and dinners, but the common theme was that this woman had taken in all the lost children she had encountered along her path. Meredith was similar, and our friendship was a back-and-forth of giving and taking of what we knew the other one needed to know.

dans garden end of august 2013 031At the beginning, I saw Meredith as a tough as nails woman who had almost literally fought her way through life and was left standing. As the years went by, though, I began to realize that her tough exterior was a mask covering a very sensitive and uncertain soul. Sometimes I feel like one of the reasons that I am on the Earth is to be a friend to those people who are locked within themselves, and to bring them out. Just as old houses sit for years, asleep, before the right family moves in and fixes the porch and plants some flowers, many people sit, alone and closed off from those around them, even if their surface exterior would show you different.

Over the years of our friendship, Meredith helped me and mine a lot. She helped pay for and plan my wedding. She gave us gold to melt down for our wedding rings, and made sure the baseboards of our house were vacuumed before the wedding, much to the consternation of my mother and my soon-to-be husband’s mother, who wanted to stake their own claim as dominant women of the day. When we moved to New York somewhat on a whim in the early spring of 2005, she helped us pay our rent to our roommate, her son. When she visited, she laughed at the huge vegetable garden and how invested both my husband and her son were in it, a project they did not want to participate in during its inception, when I spent hours tilling the soil at the top of a giant hill in Croton on Hudson, New York. When we returned to Texas, she and her husband and their young son were living in a new, larger house, now in San Antonio, and I spent many hours drinking wine out of tiny wine bottles, the ones that come in four packs at the grocery store, sitting on the edge of their pool, under a canopy of wisteria vines.

dans garden end of august 2013 032Time passed, and my marriage fell apart due to many things, mostly a lack of an ability to talk to one another. We went separate directions but stayed in the same physical space, I think hoping that with time, we would find our way back, but we never did. In the early fall of 2009, we were divorced, our house had been sold, as had most of our furniture. I left the house I loved so well, with its native plant garden in the front, and huge vegetable garden with chicken coop in the back. At that time, I thought that Meredith belonged to my ex-husband’s friends, and although we emailed sporadically, we lost touch.

Later in 2010, sometime around May, my friend Angel told me the news that Meredith was very sick and had cancer and was living alone with her young son in an apartment in South Austin. With phone number in hand, I called her up and went to see her.

When I first saw Meredith, after all that time, almost two years at that point, I was shocked and afraid. She couldn’t use one arm and was very thin, and her house, of course, was a mess. Her young son was struggling in school and was barely leaving his room, and when he did, he would go on long walks in the woods wearing all black clothing, long sleeves even in summer. She had no doctor, no insurance, and no path to healing. She was stuck.

The first words she said to me were: “it is so good to see you.” And it was.

Luckily for me, it was almost the beginning of summer, and I was able to spend every day with her, sometimes for a few minutes, and sometimes for hours. Somehow I managed to find some care for her: an oncologist sometimes, a visit to the emergency room other times, a spiritual healer at others. I tried to clean the apartment, clean the kitchen, get her to eat a little bit. Sometimes, her eldest son and I would fight, like we always do, about what should happen. She became more and more ill as time went past, the cancer spread from her throat to her lungs and her stomach, to her esophagus and eventually to her brain.

During that time, I saw many scary things happen to Meredith and to her family as a result of being a 52 year old woman with cancer and no insurance. I discovered that there are no programs for truly poor women of non-childbearing age. Once, during a crisis, I took her to the ER for a blood transfusion, because her form of cancer seemed to leave her bloodless from time to time, and when we were about to be released, I asked a nurse what on Earth I was supposed to do with her. She said, “move to France?”.

Meredith wanted test after test, scanning for any information she could glean that would make her feel better. She laughed about many things, she fought with her family and friends. She grew angry quickly, because she was so tired. She didn’t want her sons to know how ill she really was, and how she was really feeling. One day, I asked her if she wanted to go to the emergency room, and she said no. I asked her if I called her nurse and the nurse said it was a good idea, would she go and she said yes. A minute later, when her middle son arrived, she changed her mind and said she was fine, so that he wouldn’t know how awful she felt. We took her anyway, into the hospital, where he became paralyzed in speech, and I had to tell the doctors and nurses what they already knew, which was that she was dying of cancer very, very quickly.

My memories of that time are hazy due to the intervening years and the intensity of the experience. I cared for Meredith to the best of my ability, and I know that I failed a thousand times where maybe someone else would have succeeded, but I also know that I tried my very best and so did her middle son who moved to Austin midway through the summer to live with her and her youngest son. He and I started sneaking marijuana into her food since she couldn’t smoke anything and would lie about it because she would actually eat when her avocados were spiked. He was quiet, stoic, calm, like a rock during those times. I will never forget his solitude, his way of clearly experiencing grief in his own, very individual way.

Close to the end, Meredith and I had a phone conversation in which she said she was trying to figure out how to “pierce the veil”. When I asked her what she meant, she said that she was trying to figure out how to send us signs so that when she died, if she needed to get in touch, we’d know it was her. She also requested that we get her stuffed, taxidermy style, so that she could still come to Christmas. The closer we got to the end, the clearer were her meditations on the meanings of life, and her most vivid, most intense belief was most certainly that the the individuality of the soul of a person was the most beautiful, mystical, and wonderful aspect of life on Earth. Over time, her conversations about where we came from, in the universal belt of souls, or somewhere in space, or astrology, wherever it is, became clearer and clearer to a point when I knew she wasn’t afraid to die, but she really wanted the people in her life to know how much she cherished them.

When she was moved into the hospital, during the last week of her life, she retained her wit and her spunk and her vigor and her downright mean streak. She asked us to rearrange her room so that she could look at pretty things and nothing that was informational or had to do with being sick. During those last few days, thanks to morphine and the loss of her functions due to the cancer expanding in her brain cells, she began to travel through time and across the world on a seemingly magic invisible carpet. Sometimes she was in Asia, Africa, Australia, America during the revolution, in the air, on the water, on the land. Over and over again, though, she repeated how much she loved her boys. Three of them, each so different and yet connected to the Earth by Meredith, sat beside her and listened to her ramblings, her stories, as she slipped away from us, beyond the veil about which she had spoken earlier.

When she died, I was teaching in my classroom, and was lucky enough to leave and sit with her middle son, his girlfriend, and Meredith’s sister, with whom I had become quite close. Later, only Margaret and I remained in that tiny room with what remained of Meredith: her body, not her at all.

Once, a friend of mine told me that Meredith was scary, in a way. Meredith never was on the Earth, in a grounded sense. Meredith was of the Earth, a powerful, difficult, and dynamic lady who struggled, perhaps more so than most people, but who made her way through with stories to tell and curios to share. Meredith was straight up and had no filters; Meredith made mistakes, sometimes huge and sometimes small. I say this because, in her final moments, her feelings of love were all that were coming out of her, and that shows me that she really was a creature of love, after all.

Three years and two days ago, I lost my friend Meredith Drew to cancer. During her memorial service, I saw photo after photo of my beautiful friend, and learned many things about her life that, sadly, I never had the time to ask her about. So life goes; it moves so fast, and just sweeps us along with it. I was just sitting on my porch, staring at the stars, wondering what now, and I had to laugh, because I realized that if I called her to ask her that, she would just laugh at me and I would be able to see that glint in her eye clear as a bell through the telephone. So, I see it in the stars instead.

dans garden end of august 2013 037