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

Conversations with…

march 2013 4Somes Sound

I had a friend who I will call M. M was 52 when she died about three years ago, after a very short battle with a very intense cancer. M was my ex-husband’s best friend’s mother, and when we met, about ten years ago, we instantly became friends. At that time, she was living with her husband and youngest son in a wonderful bungalow in the Heights, an older neighborhood of downtown Houston: one of its oldest suburbs. The house was filled with artwork, and old furniture, trunks, animals, coffee cups, ashtrays, and M.

M was an acquired taste to many people. She could be difficult, she was snarky, she was wickedly intelligent, and had a wry smile that instantly communicated how she felt about any situation. She was genuine, she didn’t beat around the bush, she struggled, she never knew what to do, but always tried her best.

march 2013 8Precipice Trail

When I learned that M had cancer, it was about a year after I had split from my husband and about six months after we had divorced. I hadn’t spoken to her in quite a while because of the divorce, and I sort of felt like she was part of my ex-husband’s family, and so assumed that I wouldn’t see her again. But, when I learned she was sick, my heart was hit with what felt like a rock, and I realized that I needed to see her. I called her the next day, and told her I wanted to come over. It was near the end of the school year that year; the heat of the Texas summer already beating down on me as I walked through the parking lot of her apartment complex in South Austin.

When I walked into her apartment, she said something very simple to me. She said, “It is so good to see you.” And it was true; it was great to see each other. What was not great was that she was so sick that she was having a hard time using one side of her body and could not use one arm at all. Her apartment was a mess, and her younger son who used to be precocious and seven years old, was now sixteen and scared out of his mind, and expressed that fear by withdrawing and flunking out of school.

march 2013 5In the Woods

Over the next four months, I saw M almost every day, and tried my best to wrap my head around cancer, families, relationships, fear, death, illness, our failing healthcare system, courage, acceptance, grief, denial, and a host of other emotions. I took her to the doctor, I took her to the emergency room, I took her to a man named Francis the Healer, who let her lie on a bed and relax. It was at Francis’s that we had our most profound conversations. We spoke about love and life a lot. We spoke about the temporal nature of life, about what it was for and why it was important. We spoke a lot about me, and some of the time about her. M was an adopted mom of a sort, but she was more like that aunt that has always done her own thing, is irreverent and uncategorizable, who makes you uncomfortable sometimes, but who you are drawn to, like a magnet of life inside her just pulled you in.

M was tough. She was demanding, and most importantly, she was intensely protective of her three sons and how the situation impacted them. Denial is a serious and complicated emotion, and has a very important place when you are dealing with cancer. Denial comes in the form of your ex-husband showing up with $300 worth of organic groceries despite knowing that his ex-wife can barely eat anything. Denial comes in the form of renting a house with a crazy, winding set of front stairs knowing your mom is in a wheelchair, and planning on building a ramp so that she can get in an out of this beautiful house in a beautiful place. Denial is late night phone calls and emails begging someone to come and see his mother because she is dying, and him not listening. Denial is looking at your friend’s dead body in a hospital room, knowing she is gone, and not being able to leave her body because she hasn’t been alone, not even for a moment, for four months. Denial is fighting, from all sides.

Acceptance comes in strange ways, too. Acceptance comes in the form of arriving on the doorstep, even for two days, from across the country. Acceptance is not being able to speak in the emergency room of a hospital when your mom has to have an emergency blood transfusion. Acceptance is listening to a nurse explain to you that you should take your friend to France because there is no care for her at her age, without insurance. Acceptance is sitting on the stairs in that same house with all the steps, looking at photo after photo of your friend smoking cigarettes for her whole life, all the while touching her youngest son, just to let him know that he and you are physically here, in this moment.

I came up here, to Maine, for about two weeks, during that summer when M was dying. I called her one night, it was July 4th and I wanted to see if someone had taken her to the fireworks. We had this hilarious conversation in which she told me she wanted to be taxidermied and stuffed so that she could still come to all the important events in our lives, and that we could just carry her around to holidays and weddings. In this same conversation, as I was sitting on my friend’s brick patio, in July, in Maine, she told me that she understood what death was, that it was a crossing, but that she would be able to cross back sometimes and communicate in some way. She was in acceptance of what was happening and knew where she was going.

The day before she died, she was very in and out of her body and of time, she was traveling all over the world and through different eras. She said a lot of funny things, but the thing that she kept repeating was how much she loved her boys. There was no doubt, to anyone, about how much she loved them. No matter how much morphine she was on, or how much pain was racing through her tiny little body, she kept communicating that she loved them, she loved them, she loved them.

march 2013 11Looking Back at Mount Desert from Islesford, from a very tiny boat!

What does this have to do with me, now, today, in Northeast Harbor, Maine, after my two week hiatus, when I house sat in the woods with ten cats, and made jewelry, and mulled over my life? Tonight, I sat out on my deck for a while and stared at the stars, and watched the moon rise over the harbor, and talked to ________ (whatever you want to call it) for a while.

march 2013 10Moon Rise over the slowly melting Snow Mountain

While speaking to __________ tonight, on the deck, I asked the question: “why do I feel so lonely here? Why is it that this place is so lonely, so alone?” I love this place, but the sense of solitude is Great, and I mean great as in size, not value or experience. I feel, in my heart, that the loneliness here is part of the place, meaning that it is somewhat inescapable, and therefore, must be accepted into your heart as not a negative aspect, but just another part of the environment, like the wind off the ocean, the sculpted granite, the six month long winter, the call of seagulls from the roofs of buildings. My question of loneliness was more related to my own fear of closeness with others. In cities, there are so many people and restaurants and cafes and museums that you are never confronted with that truth of our own isolation, our aloneness in the world. You can be so easily distracted and meet so many people to have friendships with that you never have to confront the deep thoughts that come in winter, in Maine, on a wooden deck, on the edge of a harbor.

march 2013 1Somes Sound from Sargeant Drive

Coming back to my friend M: when I first saw M in that tiny apartment, when her arm didn’t work (Francis and M and cancer treatments fixed that, by the way), she told me that she knew how she had gotten cancer. I looked at her and asked her, “how?”. She told me that every morning she poured a cup of coffee and went outside to smoke her morning cigarette and asked the same question: “Well, what the fuck am I going to do now?”. She told me that she believed she got cancer because that was the energy she put out every morning, and the thought with which she started each new day. Whether you believe in that or not, she believed in it, and it resonates with me to this day.

One of the things that I have learned from winter, from Maine, from Northeast Harbor, is that this life, this time, is all about perspective. Sometimes the tininess and the loneliness of this place scares me, like tonight. And sometimes, the loneliness, the solitude, is utterly joyous because you feel like your slice of the world is wholly yours, and that the beauty of the moment is happening to only you, as if you can hold on to beauty and awe in your hand, heart and mind, for pure moments of time.

march 2013 3Somes Sound

Today, for the first time in months, I sat on the grass, with a cup of coffee, a book, some chicken salad and some french bread and had a picnic with myself in the spring sunshine. I had just spent two hours digging out a path to my new house, from the road. The path will be lined with rocks, and filled with grey pea stone. It will be a lovely start to my first garden in a long time: the first garden, really, since I sold my house back in the fall of 2009. So, perspective comes with time, and the memory of those who have impacted our lives in myriad ways. Perseverance comes in the last dregs of winter, knowing that change is on the horizon, that the sun is coming back, that green things are almost ready to peep out of the ground, and the warmth on the back of your head isn’t from a knit cap, but from the warmth of a new season itself.

march 2013 7The Tarn