My friend died.
Over the past week, I have been walking down a shadowy hall. It is dark and tight. The walls press on me. It makes me want to scream in claustrophobic panic. I believe it is called grief and loss.
Every once in a while lights flash, startle me, and make me nauseous. My heart races. I think that’s trauma.
There are doors that open into little waiting rooms with chairs. Films of memory play on vast, white walls. But it hurts to go in and watch, so I keep walking down the narrow corridor.
I walk at a really slow pace. My husband might call it moving at the speed of cheese.
How I’d love to call her up and talk about cheese. She loved food.
See how that works? I start to have a thought and then circle back around to her. My head is so full. Overloaded. People are left staring and waiting around me, because my brain can’t move any faster. It’s a slow computer. God, that woman could not use a computer to save herself. . . There. I did it again.
As a clinical social worker (which by the way my friend also was), I know all about the stages of grief: Denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. It sounds so tidy, laid out like that, and yet it is more of a mangled wreck than anyone could imagine. On one level, I understand that the so-called stages are more circuitous than linear.
I know it was normal after I kissed her cold forehead to feel a surge of anger well up inside me as I left the funeral parlor.
Anger at her. Anger at myself. Anger at the universe.
Why couldn’t she have taken better care of herself? Why did she have to go and deprive the world of herself? Why did I not know sooner how truly ill and tired she was?
In addition to knowing it is normal, friends have assured me it is normal. So a part of me can accept this anger for what it is.
But there is another part of me that is just her friend, a mere mortal who is still alive, and doesn’t know what to do with the thread of anger in this tapestry of pain I clutch at my throat as I walk down this hall.
Her head was so hard under my lips. Like marble.
I know it is totally understandable to feel rational and accepting one moment, and then to circle back to denial and depression the next.
Bargaining is another “stage,” but it doesn’t seem necessary to bargain. Dead is dead. But oh god (who by the way I don’t believe in), if I could just get one more minute. . .
And what would I do with that minute?
I’d ask her what to think. I’d ask her what she would say to me upon learning of her death. I’d ask her if she loved me as much as I loved her.
I’d ask her if she had given up, if the taste of death she’d had a month ago had made her want the real thing. I would ask her why she didn’t call me back when I called her a week before she died. Was it because I had been so adamant about her following the doctor’s instructions, and she didn’t want to? Did she not want me to harp? Had she accepted a fate that she knew would be too difficult for me to support?
Was I a bad friend for nagging her, for not being ready to be in the world without her?
At some point, I recognize, my heart will probably tell me the answers to these questions. That after I get through the dark passageway and back to the land of the living, I’ll be able to see more clearly.
I’d spent so many hours sitting and chatting with that woman. She listened endlessly to the minutia of my existence. Birds in my yard. The fox. My children.
She looked at my pictures.
She kept my secrets.
She always took my side. Always.
Her patience and wisdom were never ending. I’m sure at some point during those many times, she gave me all I needed to know, but until it is clear, I am left waiting, scowling, tapping my toe impatiently, for answers.
One more minute couldn’t scratch the surface. . . but I’d give some teeth for it anyway. One more minute to thank her for championing me when I felt like I had no one else. One more minute to tell her I love her. One more minute to ask her if she is ready, if she feels okay about this transition, if there is anything she wants me to do for her widow.
My friend had dozens of friends to whom she was close. She was amazing that way. She didn’t have casual acquaintances. If you made it into her circle, you were under her wing of family.
I am sure they would all wish for another minute or three, not to mention her beloved of over 30 years, or her BFF of 54 years. . . what makes me so special that I should feel hypothetically entitled to be granted one more imaginary minute?
Was I special?
What is it about death that makes me doubt my special-ness. Does it die with the one who was loved? Does it disappear behind the veil with their persistence and laughter?
Or is it, perhaps, if I believe I wasn’t special, then it won’t hurt as much because it didn’t mean so much?
I believe in love, and I think I believe that love is a bond that cannot die. I think I have to believe this about love, because if it is not portable to the great beyond, then I don’t think I could really get out of bed again.
Enduring love is the only “afterlife” in which I believe.
My friend was elderly, and yet, there must have been a rather foolish part of me that thought she would live forever, that believed I’d never have to face a world without her zany humor.
Somehow, her voice continues to fill my head. I hear her make those noises she’d make when she was amazed or delighted by something, the oooohhhs, and gasps of wonder. Despite seeing over 75 years of the world, she never ceased to be amazed by the smallest gestures of tenderness, by the beauty of nature, by the majesty of animals.
I did the stuff you’re supposed to do.
I cried. I brought food to her wife. I went to the services. I cried more. I got piss drunk and fell down. I collected all the cards and little treasures she had ever given me and looked at her sloppy handwriting and laughed.
I walked in the woods. I sat at her grave and talked to her. I patted the freshly rolled out sod, crumpled into a ball, and cried again.
I started to feel better, as though the hallway were lit with skylights.
Then I felt like shit again, and it was dark and I was bumping into stuff.
At the burial, one of the funereal directors plucked roses off of the arrangement on the casket and passed them around. She said we could place the rose with a prayer on the top of the casket to go down with my friend, or we could keep it in memory of her. I clutched at mine while everyone else kissed theirs and placed them on the casket.
I thought of the red rose corsage I wore a year ago at her wedding, how I’ve kept it tucked into my mirror in my bedroom.
How could it be? How could all of this be real?
It’s confusing how my brain is trying to fold around this information and digest it like a carnivorous plant. I suppose the good news is that I don’t have to completely get over my grief for her today. It’ll take time. One minute at a time; one breath at a time.
I’ve never cried such fat, wet tears.
If I were sitting with her, she wouldn’t hug me. I know that sounds weird and kind of cold, but it isn’t at all. It’s perfect.
She listens to me with her hands on her thighs, fingers curled in towards her thumbs. She breathes and nods slightly while I cry. She gives my space and lets me have my feeling, my dignity, my rage.
Then she pushes a box of tissues toward me. She tells me with a wry grin that she has examined the woman before her, and she does not find her lacking. She hands me a candle.
I dry my face, and plod forward.