My best friend is dying.
So the doctors have decreed.
If the specialists who have treated her very rare cluster of illnesses for the last three years have a clear sense of how much time she has left, no one is delivering the message.
But the finality of the pronouncement that she will not recover, that her liver is failing and nothing more can be done to halt or repair the irreversible damage – all these statements have left her, her family, friends and many others who care stuck in a sort of limbo – waiting, watching, anticipating the end.
When I was told, I offered to return to Massachusetts to care for her during the final months, but at least for now she prefers to have as much private time as possible – a desire I understand and honor.
She has spent her life as a genuine caretaker of others – with all the energizing and enervating effects that brings – and now, I think, she wants, among many desired burdens to be lifted, the needs of others to be tended elsewhere.
Her family – including her two grown children, two year-old grandchildren, several sisters and a brother – have begun drawing in closer to her, and consequently her friends have had to take a step back, away, to allow the process of letting go and permanently moving on to unfold with the least distress possible – as under ideal circumstances it should.
But as spring comes on, and with it all the natural signs of new life – buds swelling on tree branches; bulbs slicing up through the earth; the ground itself seeming to roll over out of its lingering sleep, creating small bumps and ridges in the lawns and gardens; the bluebirds and swallows returning with the urgency of nesting and rearing young – everything is dawning with an air of paradox and pain.
My own emotions are as fretful as the flight of birds, winging from grief to anger to sadness and gaping loss. The presence of death emerging from the shadows has not overwhelmed the beauty of this welcome spring, but it has defined it in a different way and made it more dear to me than any might ever be again.
But of course, this is not about me. What is happening, inexorably, is an absolute outcome about which only her feelings matter now – at least in my tally of things.
Still, every mortal, material thing has become charged with the electric surge of recognition that this inevitable loss was always there, though we pretended the body was inviolable and we would live forever. I walk the shores of every day as though scanning the sea’s horizon for signs of a ship I know has already set sail to a port too far to fathom.
I am still learning how to say goodbye.
It will take a lot longer than the time that is left.
The death of a close friend, I tried to explain to one of my own sisters the other night, is something different from the death of a parent, sibling or spouse. Everyone expects deep grieving over a family member, but as is true with the loss of so many other companions, the severing of the bond of friendship is not afforded a clear, high value in our culture. The space it is granted to occupy in the heart is not large enough for the emptiness that rushes in.
A longtime, close friend holds your life history and memories in a way that no other intimate can, and the luckiest among us know a true friend is the one person who is always on your side, right or wrong.
My friend who is now dying is the person I would have turned to for witness were this end befalling someone else.
I would have asked her to stand with me through any other crisis or passage of life.
But whom do I call now?
I walk alone with the dog in the woods or navigate the shoreline, trying to let the vast embrace of nature collect and endorse my grief.
Everything is tick-tocking with precious, fleeting liveliness and import: A rock announces a continent and millennia of living and dying, movement and change.
A tree reveals itself as an old sage, one who has seen every incarnation – even this one more leaf that falls.
Though the far shore is unseen, I cling to this sphere’s evident, apparent border and do what I must: murmur inadequate words of comfort and sorrow, attempt to calculate the sum of years, try to envision how things will take shape from here.
Go on ahead, I whisper over and over though no one hears.
Go on; it is time.
Don’t worry. When the tide turns and the waves open themselves like petitioning hands lifted to heaven, I will be there. I will move on, too.
North Cairn can be reached at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]