Last week, the week of my birthday and a long-awaited visit from my son, I anticipated joy. Instead, I experienced the pain of losing three amazing women friends in the span of five days. Mortality – my own and that of beloved friends – smacked me square in the face.
The delivery of bad news started on Tuesday. When I looked at my email that morning, I learned that my friend Sally had died peacefully in her sleep the night before, a day shy of her 86th birthday.
I had visited Sally a month earlier in the assisted living residence where she had recently moved. She had Parkinson’s and macular degeneration, and had decided she could no longer manage living on her own. She proudly showed me around her new apartment and took me to lunch in the dining hall, where she remarked on the caring staff and the good food.
Members of the same book club for over a decade, Sally and I talked about what we were reading. A voracious reader, she was grateful she could get large print books from the library. She told me enthusiastically about the upcoming wedding of her granddaughter, and I talked about my planned family vacation at the lake house in Massachusetts. During the conversation, we were surprised to learn that our birthdays were only four days a part.
As I left her room, I said, “I’ll call you when I return from my family vacation, and we can celebrate our birthdays together.”
“I’d like that,” Sally replied. It never happened.
Tuesday afternoon, I got a message that my dear friend Judi was in hospice. After more than two years of dealing with ovarian cancer, she could no longer withstand the chemo treatments. I rushed to her bedside on Thursday morning. She was laying on a hospice bed in her living room with her cat, Polly, cuddled at her side. Judi was already in transition – her eyes closed, her voice a mere whisper. Holding her hand, I told her how much she meant to me; what a role model of optimism and courage she was for her friends; how I loved her.
Judi never opened her eyes, but she said. “I love you Marilyn. Thanks for everything.” The next morning, Friday, my birthday, surrounded by her family, Judi left us.
Then Saturday morning another text and email arrived, the amazing Vanessa was gone. Suffering from a progressive, debilitating disease, her body had finally succumbed. I had seen Vanessa at Mussar class just two days earlier, a couple of hours after I sat with Judi. Vanessa had written an essay, and unable to read it, she asked the Rabbi to share it with the class. It ended with a Lao Tzu quote, “What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”
Through the pain of these three losses, I looked for the gifts. With gratitude, I reflected on what these three women had taught me by the way they lived. I was struck by the similarities in their circumstances and their attitudes. All three had dealt with chronic illnesses. It might have been expected, given their circumstances, for them to turn angry or depressed. Instead, all three met their health challenges with grace, courage and hope – never complaining or bemoaning their fates.
While I mourn the loss of these three dear friends, their gifts of friendship and lessons of how to live life will stay with me. When I go to book club, I will remember the quiet presence of Sally, sharing her love of reading. When I attend a Colorado Press Women event or the Central City opera, I will picture Judi’s sparkling blue eyes and her enthusiasm for our shared experiences. When I study in Mussar class, I will think of Vanessa’s insightful essays and enduring hope.
Thank you, Sally, Judi and Vanessa, for bringing the presents of your presence into my life. May your memories be for a blessing.