When we were in Seattle in the spring of 2001 for my husband’s bone marrow transplant, we allowed our six-year old daughter to fly home to Georgia for her last week of first grade. (This was pre-9/11; also, it was a non-stop flight.) Before April boarded the plane, I was a sobbing, hysterical mess–Greg was faring very poorly at the time; he had pneumonia, and he was in strict isolation. It was quite possible that April had seen her father for the last time, and the thought of her across the country, alone, as he died, was too much for me. My good-bye to her was an awful one.
The stewardess escorted April, clutching her Dora the Explorer doll, away; she was the last to board the plane, save one: an intimidating six-foot four handcuffed prisoner flanked by two FBI agents boarded immediately after she did.
(People who know me are now thinking: And that’s when Rachel got her child off the plane.)
I got April off the plane. But not because of the prisoner. I told the steward that I had botched the good-bye, that her father was potentially dying, and that my daughter didn’t need her last memory of her strong, steadfast father to be tainted by my blithering. I promised to do better–and be quick.
April emerged from the jetway. I apologized for crying so much. I told her, “I don’t think your daddy is going to die. He could, and that makes me sad. But I don’t think he will.” She nodded gravely, her dark brown eyes serious.
(Then, in a chipper tone, I asked, “So, are you anywhere near a rich, tall man in handcuffs???”)
From the airport, I immediately returned to Greg’s hospital room, where I told him of my first failure and subsequent second attempt. “I don’t think I could tell the girls that you might die,” he said simply. “I just couldn’t.”
Before 2001, perhaps I would have felt that way–but that year, we watched over twenty people die, among them small, beautiful children. Daily, we witnessed the rawest anguish and pain. Families had travelled cross-country or around the world in desperate hopes of saving their dearest loved ones, and their loss and the price were too much to bear. Heartbreak was a constant neighbor, and death was just a plain reality.
Yesterday, death and heartbreak found us in Georgia. A high school classmate died of complications of cancer. She was 47 and much-loved. Friends were screaming on the phone to me. “What?How can this be? I didn’t know she was ill!” “Is this a sick joke? You have got to be kidding me!” And over and over, “Her poor momma.” The shock combined with an obvious and unspoken, “I wish I had known.”
There was only one Facebook post of hers about her illness. The rest of her posts stayed true to her loves: family, friends, and pets. Casual friends hundreds of miles away had no real way to help her because we had no real way to know–so the shock of her loss is tinged with the regret that we didn’t take the time we would have to make her laugh, share some memories, and perhaps even make amends. We missed our chance to console. To remember. To honor.
Several years ago, another friend made a similar choice. One of the most head-strong women I’ve ever known, she too was ill, also with cancer. She wanted no one to know. There was to be no fuss, no one taking long trips to sit bedside and make small talk–she just wanted her family and present-day friends. The news of her death was heart-breaking, as was the knowledge that we’d missed our goodbye.
People travelled hundreds of miles to her funeral. Like us, some hadn’t seen her in thirteen years–but we laughed at the stories told from the pulpit. Yes, she did take her friends’ toddlers to Disney movies so that their weary parents could sleep. Yes, she was a germaphobe. Yes, the love of God did shine through her brightly. Eulogies and testimonies of her love for others abounded. And none of us could be angry that she chose to keep her illness private–because it was true to her character that she did so, certainly, out of humility and love.
As I sit here, shocked by another too-soon death, I look back over our messages about pets and husbands. Mundane, but joyful. And I think about what I might have added, had I known: “I always admired your smile. You were always so kind to everyone, no matter the circumstances. It is obvious that everyone in your adopted hometown adores you. I wish you peace.”
I would have done and said more.
And so, here it is: all we can do is say more. It may be uncomfortable at first, but we can say things like, “I appreciate you so much.” “Thank you for standing there with me.” “I can always count on you to be by my side.” “You make me laugh when nothing is funny.” “You were like a mother to me.” “When my day was lousy, you were always there.” “I could not have survived this without you.” “You can always make me feel better.” “My life is better because of you.””I love you.”
Our friends, our true friends, can hear it–the simple and pleasant truth that they matter. They’ve made the journey survivable for us.
Then, one day, should their own journeys become unsurvivable, they will know that their love mattered, their friendship was valued, and they will be forever missed.
And great will be the peace.