It’s twenty years ago today that you left this earth, and I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.
About how can it actually be twenty years.
About your laugh. And your strength. Our shared love of embroidery. Your strong legs walking beside me as we did a volksmarch for the Mid-Florida Milers club.
I’ve been thinking about you under a white sheet in a hospice bed in South Florida, gaunt and whispery with a mouth full of sores, ready, so ready, to leave your cancer-racked body behind.
I’ve been remembering how Susan was the only one of the group of your fellow stitchers who managed to hold it together on that last visit. Susan was a minister and a hospice chaplain and accustomed to dealing with the dying, and when she said to you, “Lorraine, if the Lord calls you today, are you ready to go?” you answered, faintly but truthfully, “Oh, yes.”
It was twenty years ago today and forty-eight hours after that last goodbye that you “slipped the surly bonds of earth.” I was thankful I’d made that car trip, though it was mighty hard to fight the tears threatening to break through my determination that your last view of me would not be of me crying. Mighty hard to keep my voice from cracking when I managed to say “I love you” for the first and last time.
Just a few more seconds, and you would have seen me crying.
I’ve been remembering how we met and how we walked and your old silver Mercedes; how, unlike me, you weren’t afraid of getting lost and astonished me with all your alternate routes to get us to our destinations.
I’ve been remembering how angry I was at God when I heard the awful news through that awful phone call at someone’s house (whose was it?) on a Thursday night where we were all stitching, that call from your new life in a new city, that I’d been happy for even though it took you away from us; the call in which you admonished us to not start planning your funeral yet. Oh, Lorraine, how like you that was!
Pancreatic cancer, you said.
About which I knew nothing.
But a little later, when I knew a little more, I couldn’t understand it. I’m sure you couldn’t either. Did you get mad at God like I did? Ask Him “why now,” when everything was going so damn well?
And I’ve been remembering another phone call—the last we had before that last visit, how you told me that you were doing better. I’ll never know for sure if you truly believed it or if, as someone implied and now seems most likely, you just wanted to put my mind at ease. I can still hear the relief in my voice as I said how glad I was.
Not knowing the doctors had given you all of six months.
Or that you’d last only four.
* * *
There’s another thing I don’t understand, old friend. How it still seems like you’re just behind a door. How it is that even while the sadness is gone, and the anger, a tiny part of my brain has never quite accepted the truth. I guess it doesn’t really matter, since I also believe you’re very much alive in a world with no more partings.
I wrote you a poem after you left us, a poem that has never seemed good enough, but it is so hard to write about someone who has died without sounding maudlin (at least it was for me!), and you didn’t have a maudlin bone in your body that I ever saw, though you didn’t have the easiest life.
But I think you would have liked it. It was twenty years ago today, and I am thinking of you, and so I wanted to share this poem again, even with those who never knew you. To honor you.
I’m glad you were my friend. I’m glad there were no barriers of generation between us in spite of our quarter-century age difference.
And I’ll see you again one day, just behind that door.
* * *
WE ARE STILL WALKING
The hardest trail we walked
was the railbed in Savannah
abandoned to all but the promise of snakes—
gray gravel with no grass for our feet,
a canopy of sun leaving just breath to breathe
until water was manna that I poured on my neck,
thinking “Never enough,”
until I walked the floors of a hospice
waxed clean of tread and tears
while the white knife of cancer
carved the flesh from your bones
and the timbres from your voice:
That day I left you wrapped in sheets
and bags of fluid, when all the water in my eyes
would never be enough. I knew then
I’d been wrong, that this path was the hardest.
Yet we are still walking. You stride
across my mind with your resolute tread
and strong back unbent. I can level
the trail of memory as I wish, discarding
bad days like pebbles kicked from dirt. There
my footing is sure and you are still beside me
with your face turned towards the sun,
and we are still walking.