Time: You always think you’ll have a little more of it, but technically, you may not even have another 30 seconds. Thankfully, our brains are not wired to keep that in mind all the time. To live, we must proceed as if we’re immortal.
The last time I saw my friend Judith while she knew it was about two months ago. Astonishingly, she was preparing for a trip to Alaska. Astonishing because she had had breast cancer that metastasized to bone 4 years ago. She’d been through bouts of chemo too numerous to count and had had both hips replaced. (Soon, there would be no more “good” bone to attach things to. Plus, you can’t replace your whole skeleton.)
The Alaska trip consisted of a week’s cruise of the Alaskan islands, followed by a week’s bus tour through the Canadian Rockies. I’m not sure I even have the energy for something like that. I made it a point to go see her just before she left. Once I knew she was back, I kept meaning to go visit. (A variation on the saddest words ever spoken: “I kept meaning to…”).
On Monday morning, her sister Jill called me and said that last week, Judith became ill and was admitted to the hospital on Thursday. She returned home on Sunday, but during her stay, they learned the cancer had also metastasized to the liver. The doctors were giving her weeks to live at most. Jill said if I wanted to see her again, I should come soon. I asked when a good time would be–she said to come any time, that someone would always be with Judith at her house. She said she also had put up a schedule at the house and if I could take any of the “shifts” I could sign up.
I had a bad feeling about this. I don’t want to assign this “bad feeling” the status of a premonition, because I don’t believe in premonitions. I think a “premonition” is a prediction people make based on actual information stored in their brains, even if they aren’t consciously accessing that information as you would if you were, say, working a math problem. So let’s call my “bad feeling” a sense of urgency.
I wasted no time this time, and went to her house immediately after work. Both her daughters were there, and so was…her lawyer. Her daughter Gina apologized, but said they had just managed to get Judith back to bed after an exhausting and painful trip to the bathroom, and she needed to speak to the lawyer. Gina thought this would take all Judith’s mental and physical energy, and asked if I could please come another time. I assured her I knew I was taking my chances by just dropping by, and that I would try again the next day and that I would call before I came. Gina said she would tell Judith I came by–I hope she did.
When I called the next afternoon, there was no answer at the house and voicemail was turned off. I called Gina on her cellphone, and reached her at… Hospice. Later on Monday evening, Judith was agitated and in great pain, but she lost the ability to swallow, so they could not get any of her pain medication into her. Desperate, they called Hospice and asked if they could send someone to give her an injection. Hospice recommended they bring her in. So that’s what they did. They called an ambulance at 11:00 P.M.
Gina’s next words were to apologize to me for “denying” me the chance to see Judith Monday evening. I said, don’t say that. I would have done the same thing. She was just trying to take care of her mother and preserve what little strength and comfort she had left. Like me and the meant-to visit, Gina had no way of knowing there would never be a later.
So when I got off work that day–Tuesday–I went to a nearby bar and had two glasses of Pinot Grigio (one for me, one for Judith. Many is the time we’ve sat on her back deck and solved the problems of the world over a bottle of Pinot Grigio). Then I went to Hospice House.
People who know me know this took something of Herculean effort on my part, emotionally speaking. But I long ago decided I would see this through, no matter what it took. If she was brave enough to endure dying, I was sure as hell not going to be a wimp about it myself.
When I saw her, I knew she was dying right then and would never wake up. My sole communication to her, which took a minute or less, was this: I held her hand and said, “Hello Judith, it’s me Phyllis. I just came to say hello. Take care of yourself.” There was not even an eyelid flicker. She was breathing shallowly. The problem for me was that as deeply sedated as she was, she was moaning. I couldn’t escape the feeling that she was in pain.
On the drive home, I said to no entity in particular, since I don’t believe in “God” (and neither did she), “Please don’t let this continue.” And I got my wish. She was dead 17 hours later. I don’t like to think about those 17 hours.
I wish that I had gone to see her as soon as she returned from her Alaska trip. So what I feel is regret, not guilt. I did her no harm by failing to visit–the loss is all mine. And we never ended a visit without saying I love you. Whether I was there in person or not, she knew I loved her. My regret is overshadowed by sadness, though. As many good memories as I have, I am sad there will never be any new ones.
I have a plan, which is that this New Year’s Eve, I am going to go to her “church” (if you can call it that). Every New Year’s Eve, they have what’s called the Burning Bowl Ceremony. You write something on a slip of paper that you’d like to leave behind in the year ahead, and then they burn it. They also build a big bonfire in the yard where you can burn larger pieces of paper.
I spent New’s Years Eve in 2005 there with Judith. My friend Art had just died, and I burned a long letter to him in the bonfire. I’ll do the same for Judith.