I didn’t know it would be our last real conversation. I wish now that I’d taken note last week of every word, paid more attention to the sunlight falling across the bed, the single rose in the vase, the light in her eyes, the smile she offered as I kissed her good-bye and promised I would be with her again on Tuesday. “What are you coming down for,” she asked, as she always did when I told her what day I’d be back. For once — after months of manufacturing haircuts and book group meetings and pedicures as “legitimate” reasons for me to make the three-hour round trip from my new town to my old one — I simply told her the truth: “I’m coming to see you.”
I do remember this. As I left the room, she told me to go home and have a wonderful weekend with my son Henry, on break from college for three days. “There is so, so much goodness in the world,” she said, uncharacteristically insistent. “So much goodness.”
For the first time since I began to write in this space over a year ago, I find myself this morning, sitting in my kitchen, at a complete loss for what to say. Early Saturday morning, my dear friend Diane passed away. (Even typing these words gives me pause — I hear her voice in my head admonishing, “don’t say ‘after a long battle with cancer!’” Ok, dear, I won’t say that.) I have no words yet for what I feel, for where I’ve been, for the sadness, the loss, the hole that is left in the place where just a few short days ago a vibrant heart still beat.
A month or so ago, my friend Karen Maezen Miller said, “You know, when the time comes, everything will be exactly as it is meant to be.” I held on to those words all through these last days, and found them to be true. Those of us who were meant to be there were there. Food appeared on the table, friends from near and far appeared at Diane’s bedside, the new puppy peed on the floor, the teenagers came and went, poems were read aloud, wine was poured, tears were shed, fires were lit, sheets were changed and dishes were washed. There was laughter, even in the midst of great sadness. Above all, there was love–unconditional, infinite, all powerful.
Death and life, one inextricable from the other. What I know for sure now is that a heart can accommodate both, a home can accommodate both, a family can accommodate both. Last week, with love and instinct to guide us, Diane’s family and dear friends transformed an upstairs bedroom into a sacred space. And each of us who were blessed to abide there for a while soon found our own fears transformed as well. We may not know what to expect from death, or whether we are truly up to the task we’ve taken on when we promise to stay near. And then, having made clear our intention to be present come what may, we find that even in our most challenging transitions, we do know what to do. Our hearts tell us how to make love visible. Our hands know, without being taught, how to soothe a brow, change a sick bed, tend a body. Dying is hard physical work. And, despite the most attentive ministrations, life’s final stages are not always beautiful. To be human, it seems, is to suffer and to pray for an end to suffering. And then, in life’s final moments, there is peace, and grace, and even, for one brief instant, a glimpse of the great mystery beyond this earthly realm.
Returning from this vigil, taking up residence in my own house again, I’m not quite sure what to do with this new knowledge. I do know, beyond a doubt, that Diane was right: There is so much goodness in the world, so much goodness even in the most wrenching circumstances. But at the moment I’m tired, and sad, and raw. A bit in awe, still, of what I’ve seen and lived and learned over the course of this last week. It feels tender yet, this place of grief. So I find my way back into the mundane one step at a time. I am grateful to my own dear husband, for drawing me a hot bath, putting me to bed, folding the laundry and loving me back into our life together. I bring Tylenol to Jack, who is home from school with a cold. I make corn chowder, search the garden for a few last blossoms, and wonder again and again, “what now?”