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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.