As I write this, it is a day before my neighbor and friend will begin her final journey. She is planning to stop eating and drinking in order to put an end to what has been horrendous emotional and physical suffering for many years.
By the time this gets posted, we will have said our final goodbyes, and I am fairly certain she will have died.
She called me at work yesterday, and asked me, quite insistently, to come over last night after I finished having dinner with my family. Honestly, I was so tired from a long day at work, I wasn’t up for a visit. But there was something in her voice, a voice that has called me many times for help over the years, that was different. I knew that I could not beg off.
So as my husband was cleaning up, I took a deep breath and walked the few steps across the street that I have walked many times before, often with a prescription in hand that I’ve picked up for her, or an extra challah that I’ve baked on a Friday night.
Her husband guided me upstairs, and I sat down on the bed right next to her. She actually looked quite fit, and happy, compared to many times in recent months where she barely looked alive. She grabbed my hand and my arm and made hearty physical contact with me. We looked into each other’s eyes, and I asked her what was wrong.
She told me that I needed to read her letter. In it she described the unbearable pain that has afflicted her over the years, both mentally and physically. I had known about her bi-polar disorder, and her severe Parkinson’s, but I had not known about her respiratory challenges as well, which have plagued her since she was a child.
In the letter, she referred to her conditions as “thieves,” in that they have robbed her from her loved ones. But I also know that she was robbed from her loved one – one of her beloved sons – when he was a young man. He died of cancer, and sharing stories of that loss and the loss of my own young baby boy is what brought us close together many years ago.
The trials she has been through – physically and emotionally – are almost too much to bear. And that’s what she has finally decided. That it’s too much to bear, and she can see what’s left of her mental acuity slipping away, and she does not want to live without it. Who would?
So with her doctors’ knowledge, and her family’s support, she is choosing to make her exit.
I sat with her for a long time last night, finally succumbing to tears as we talked. All the while, my mind was racing back to a time, eight years ago, when I was sitting next to my mother on her bed as she lay dying. And to the night that she tried to take her own life, on my watch, with pills that she had been hoarding.
I had found her, crying, not knowing what to do, and I told her that I wasn’t necessarily opposed to her needing and wanting to do this, we just needed to figure out what to do. She died three days later from the cancer that had invaded her own body like a thief, and so there was no need for me to do the research.
My friend has done her research. She knows what is going to happen to her as she begins to starve and parch. She thinks it will take no longer than 7 days.
But as we sat and talked, an amazing thing happened. We stopped talking about her news, and starting talking about mine. She asked me about me and my life and my kids, who she and her husband have watched grow up. They have often remarked on how much they love my kids, which always makes my heart soar a little, since we don’t have grandparents near by to qvell on a regular basis.
I told my friend about my promotion, and the enormous pressure I’ve been feeling around it, and how much it is already dragging me away from my family. But she saw the good in it. She told me how proud she was of me, and it was almost like being able to tell my mom about it, all these years later. She told me that she knows what a wonderful mother I am, and how my kids will step up and appreciate the fact that I have this great opportunity to shine.
It was such a gift.
Eventually, I needed to leave to get home for bedtime. She told me I should feel free to stop by to visit over the next few days, but she also gave me another gift – I should feel free NOT to stop by, if I couldn’t, or if it was too uncomfortable for me. She ended by saying that what’s good for me is good for her.
I feel a bit overloaded with big, emotional experiences of late – between being in an impending war zone, and now sharing these last moments with a friend who is staring death in the face and staring it down. I feel like the earth has shifted a bit under my feet.
Someday, I will tell my children the story of how their neighbor and my friend did something more brave and true than I can imagine. But until then, I’ll just have to hold her in my heart.
In memory of my friend and neighbor, Pat Arnold, who got to read this before she died.
Photo by sudhamshu via Flickr