Life is an Unplanned March…

…but there are companions on the way.


Sometimes, you make a friend in grade school. She, like you, is tall—taller than the other girls, who are cute, tiny people that boys want to protect.

You, Amazon girl, will never need protecting in that particular way, which makes you kind of sad when you’re 11, 12, and 13, but kind of proud when you are 20, 35, and 50.

Your friend doesn’t need protecting either. And she also comes from a sprawling family that isn’t always polite…that, in fact, sometimes screams and yells and slams doors or pounds out to the ten-year-old sedan and drives off, screeching. Neither of your mothers owns pearls or looks like June Cleaver.

But you both prefer your families to the postcard-perfect ones that surely have plaster slathered over their cracks. Our families, you assure each other, are REAL families.

And this friend sticks with you through grade school, through the awful, awkward days of middle school, and through the hormone-driven high school years.


Sometimes, you are really, really lucky, and that friend stays with you beyond that, stays through early marriage and young divorce and the terrible transition, then the choosing of a mate who gets it, who understands what you’ve learned in a tasking school. She’s there when kids are born, when you cry over the challenges of step-parenting…challenges you find yourself failing to meet, time and again.

That friend sends letters in your twenties. When you’re in your thirties, you come home one day and find six perfect quarts of raspberries at your doorstep, gleaming like deep red jewels. Your friend zipped through town; she didn’t have time to visit, but she had time to leave you a wonderful gift.

You freeze berries and make pies all that winter, and those pies taste brightly of lifelong friendship.

She sends you birthday cards when you are 42; she cries with you when your never-like-a-sitcom-mom mother dies.

You help each other, even from a distance, over rough spots and tragedies, and you’re there to help each other NOT to mourn as you slough off childhood veneers—false fronts that may once have been cute, but that now, you realize, have nothing to do with what’s important, or what, ultimately, is beautiful.

When you look at that friend now, you see a young and yearning girl, and you see a wise and weathered woman, and you see the whole continuum between.

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a friend like that.


Sometimes, you make friends in grade school and in high school and they are so important. You can’t imagine life without them. And then comes college and there are so many different forks in the road, so many choices. And each choice you make takes you further down a path that leads you away from people who were once integral, and who grow, now, far, far away.

Sometimes, friendships, even the most dear ones, slip away.


Sometimes you make work friends…people with whom you share inside jokes and with whom you complain behind the cranky boss’s back. You weave yourselves into each other’s lives; you’re there for weddings and break-ups, baby births and parent deaths. You offer and accept rides, and you go out after stressful work events and quaff, together, one too many foaming brews.

Often, you spend more time with these work friends than you do with family members—eight intense hours a day, usually: who can say they spend that kind of engaged time with family?


And then life sighs and shifts, and your job changes.

Sometimes, the ties, once so tight, ravel. The threads spin undone; they are fragile, gossamer, like milkweed thistle. Breeze lifts them. And the people who very recently inhabited your every day now live in different realms.


But sometimes, the threads don’t break; they stay strong. And those people you met through work are woven firmly into your big picture tapestry.


Sometimes it happens like that with friends you meet in grad school, or through your husband’s grad work, or through your children’s schools. Sometimes you make friends through church or through clubs or community connections. Sometimes, students become friends. Sometimes, even, you meet people through on-line activities, through blogs and forums and classes, faraway people, but ones who share beliefs and humor and excitement about the same things that compel you.

Sometimes you think those friends are true life-longers, and you’re wrong, and sometimes, people you never suspected might sneak in, do. They sneak in; they fill that one empty, ache-y spot. They surprise you.

And they stay.


And sometimes, after life has done a masterful job of tumbling you, when you are polished and molded in ways you couldn’t have imagined twenty, thirty, FORTY years ago,—sometimes, friends come back.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a class reunion.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a catastrophic or climactic event that circles around someone you both loved dearly.

They come back, maybe, because social media makes it possible.

And you realize then that that friendship didn’t fade. It just stretched, on and on, through years and miles, in silent, transparent threads stronger than the webs that spiders weave.

Waiting threads, pending the right time, the time when all the busy days of career and kids and noisy bustle have settled down—the time when you sit your butt down in front of the fire and think, “What’s really important here?

And you look to your family, of course.

And you define, now, at last, when time and resources allow, what you really mean by ‘work.’

And you think about your friendships.

You thank the good sweet Lord for that steadfast friend who always stayed. And you marvel at the people you met along the way, the exact right people at the exact needing time. When you think about the ones that became permanent parts of your hectic, unpredictable life, you get more than a little misty. You feel more than a little undeserving and more than a little blessed.

And you giving up trying to understand why, and you just accept the lovely, warming truth of the people who return. You get it, now; it’s really true. You’ve got people, wonderfully different, variously gifted, constantly surprising, and always precious people.

They will be there for you when it’s time to celebrate.

They will hold you up when the mourning sinks like a weight too great to bear, lands in the basin of your belly, and knocks you, helpless, to the ground.

And they will be there in the everyday, in the ordinary irritations of dishes left in sink, undone, and snarky acquaintances, and roads that need to have pot-holes patched, and in the tiny joys of new curtains and way-finding and family triumphs.

You didn’t earn this; you didn’t anticipate it, and yet, it’s yours: this amazing team.


Life, for many of us, is an unplanned march.

But there are companions on the way.


Tales Told By Friends

February stumbles into March. Things are up, and things are down.

Sunday afternoon, the sun shines. It’s 60 degrees; we shed our jackets on our walk.  Crocuses bloom and daffs push up, and the world seems washed and ready for newness.

The next day, the sky pushes close, gray and glowering, and snow begins to fall. The heat churgles back on, the heavy coats come back out, and it feels just as though an opened door has abruptly slammed shut.

Then there are changeable days of pouring rain, of gentle shine, and of wind that rattles the stubborn brown oak leaves.  It’s an unsettled time, and it’s a time of concern. People are sick.  Deadlines loom.  There’s stress, and there’s pressure, and there’s uncertainty.

And then, into this uncertain, late-winter mix, slid beneath the doorway of fret and worry, three stories arrive.  They are stories from friends:

–Linda–a friend from the early times–all the way back to grade school and high school years.

–Sharon–a friend from the after-college days, those heady days of young adulthood and claiming identity.

–Larisa–a friend met through the place I work now, and a friendship forged through such adventures as trudging half-marathons together.

Their stories speak to me of  bravery and endurance, of answering calls for help even in the darkness, of the spirited embracing of life. Their stories ground my thoughts and remind me of things that are important. Linda and Sharon and Larisa are generous with their stories, and I know this: these stories are things to be shared.


Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots

Al's boots

Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.

He was only 22 when the railroad took him on. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. And, young as he was, a family man.  Al and Linda–she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively–got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.

They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown.  Scott arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad. They hired him as a laborer; he’d barely worn out his first pair of boots when they made him a welder.

The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio, in 1978.  He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.

Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families’ children in her home.  She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care.

Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states.  He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami, and to a lot of less well-known places in between.

The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through more pairs of boots. He worked a lot of 16 hour days.  He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of drinks and snacks.

Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares.  He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants.  He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.

The railroad made him a manager.

Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions.  In 1999, the railroads merged, and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana.  They stayed there for two and a half years…long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots.

Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, “We say we’ve come full circle.” They moved back home to Westfield, New York.  Their home town, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.

When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away.  He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those.  He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.

But Linda couldn’t bear to throw the boots away.  There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them.  And–gifted with taste, and an unerring eye–she found just the thing.  When they celebrated Al’s retirement, those boots held place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.

How do you show the measure of a man?  Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way.  During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family.  Al grew into management.  He grew into manhood.

You know the times weren’t always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair.  You lace them up and you get out there and you work.

It’s what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad.  He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day’s work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn’t want to leave his family and his warm home.

All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.


Sharon’s Story: The Curious Incident of the Whisper in the Night-time

It is 3 AM [Sharon remembers], a deep November night, and she is suddenly–as if summoned–wide awake.  She lifts the shade of her bedroom window, and sees that, in the pouring rain, some sort of large animal prowls the backyard. ‘Coyote!’ is her first thought, but this wet beast is bigger.

She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.

Sharon manages the estate of a well-known Harvard professor. She lives in a jewel-box of a home on the grounds.  From her front door, she can survey the pool and the rolling yards.  There are security lights that shine all night long.

The pool at night

She watches the animal approach in the glow of those lights.  When it gets close enough to activate the motion sensor on her porch, more light floods on. Sharon sees this is a dog–a big dog–one with a collar.

She tries to decide what to do.  I could go out, she thinks, and bring it in out of the rain, make some calls, and try to find its owner. 

But this is a strange, large dog.

It could be mean.

It could be rabid.

While Sharon ponders, the dog explores the edge of the pool, which is coated, in that November darkness, with fallen leaves. In the slickery rain, those leaves may have looked like a solid surface for walking.  The dog puts out a paw, shifts its weight, and falls abruptly into the water.

Sharon is galvanized.  She calls 911 and she grabs her raincoat and a flashlight. She runs out to the pool where the dog is thrashing and crying–really, heart-breakingly, crying.  And Sharon knows that she has to go into the pool and get the dog.  By the time helps arrives, it will be too late.

She says a prayer, and she is in the water.

She grabs the dog’s collar and then it’s like unseen hands are helping. Sharon feels as though the dog, which stops thrashing, is LIFTED from the water.  It puts its paws on the pool’s edge; Sharon pushes gently. The dog is out of the pool. It shakes itself off, and it follows its dripping savior gratefully into the dry garage. Sharon rubs it down as best she can, and she discovers the trembling beast has tags with not one, but three, phone numbers to call if found. Someone, she thinks, really loves this animal. She reassures the dog that all is well.

Sharon leaves the dog in the dry garage, and takes her flashlight out to the top of the hill to flag down the police.  They arrive quickly; they call the owner; they bundle the shivering dog into the back of the patrol car.

Sharon–soaked and freezing–hurries back into her house. And she thinks: What woke me at that moment in the middle of the night? 

Another minute, the next day, and Sharon would have missed her.  The dog’s owner pulls into the long drive just as Sharon is leaving. She is, the owner, a middle-aged woman with an armful of flowers, two ecstatic cards declaring Sharon a hero, and a special needs son, waving from the car. The dog is the little boy’s devoted companion. The dog, the owner tells Sharon, is a rescue dog itself.

There are teen-aged siblings in that household; one, the mama thinks, left a door ajar, and the dog was just bound to explore.  There are busy highways to cross on the route it must have taken to get to the pool by Sharon’s home. Something kept it safe. The next thing it knew, it was five miles from home and drowning.

Except that Sharon heard a voice in the night, and she listened to its call.

A rescue dog, a child in need: Sharon figures a whole army of guardian angels were at work that night, and one of them woke her up.  That angel must have known that Sharon would not hesitate; that angel must have known she was another rescuer waiting to help that child, ready to save that dog.


Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink

Larisa, the youngest of nine grown siblings, balances between two dear women at thresholds.  Her mother, Janette,–she’s Mimaw to the kids–,will be 90 this year.  Larisa’s daughter, Cassie, just turned 18.

They are close, Cassie and her Mimaw, who now lives in an assisted living situation–a nice place, but not the family home where Janette raised and launched her brood.  Larisa and  her husband Aaron built their home right next to Mimaw’s.  Their kids were in and out, every day.

Janette misses that.

But they visit, all the time.  When Cassie comes, she and Mimaw talk about birthdays, and Mimaw wonders what special thing Cassie would like for her special day.

Cassie confides that she wants a tattoo–something her parents have told her could only happen when she turns 18.  Mimaw gets interested.

When she sees Larisa alone, she confides that she’d like to be a part of that.  Maybe, suggests Janette, she and Cassie should get tattoos together.


Larisa is shocked at first, but the idea flutters down, settles gently in, and takes root.  Maybe, thinks Larisa, they could all get tattoos.  But first she calls her mother’s doctor, who is intrigued.  Ninety-year old skin IS different, the doctor agrees, but it could work.  The artist would have to thoughtful and gentle and observant.  The design would have to be simple and monochromatic.

Larisa calls her siblings.  Some share her shock, at first, and some seem disapproving, and Barb signs on to get a tattoo, too.

They research designs and take them to Janette, who selects a simple heart that weaves into the word, “Family.”

They research tattoo artists and find Six, a local legend (Six is, students tell me, the rock star of tattoo artists in our county.)  Six is not fazed; he has known older folks who wanted tattoos, and he knows how to proceed.  They will do a test dot first and see if Janette’s skin will take the ink, or if the ink will run or smear. Or–it might just hurt too much. If any of those things happen, Six assures Larisa, they will abort this mission.

There are four of them at the tattoo shop that day, and the thing goes off without a glitch. The four women leave the parlor with tasteful hearts on their arms, permanent reminders that family is what’s important.

The staff at the assisted living facility waits for Janette to return from her foray to Six’s domain.  Many of those caring souls have ink on their arms, too.  Janette, on her arrival home, gets a standing ovation .

But Larisa worries about healing, so she visits the next day.  Everything is fine, her mother says, and she’s glad she got the tattoo with Cassie as her granddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday.

Now it’s time, Janette tells Larisa solemnly, to think about her own milestone, that birthday coming up in a couple of months.  She’s thinking another tattoo might be in order.  What does Larisa think about…hmmm…maybe a butterfly?

The artists and his subjects


I think about the different kinds of bravery owned by these three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.

I think about Linda and Al, and their dedication and devotion.

I think about Sharon’s unflinching response to a mysterious, inconvenient, challenging call.

I think about Larisa, the connecting link in a chain forged by love of family and a spirit of adventure.

Gratefully, I take their stories and I hug them close, and I push, past puddles skimmed with ice, out into this particular March morning.

Witness to the Razing

The sky is screensaver perfect, and the trees are just beginning to blush out of their summer greens–paintbox golds and oranges and scarlets tinge the trees that line the roadways.  Dell is heading north to see her young friend Peter who is dying of AIDs.

Peter is a rascally, impassioned, deep-feeling, determined young man–young in Dell’s terms anyway, at 37. He has been HIV positive since he was very young, and he has had full-blown AIDs for at least 15 years…long enough that they all decided it was a chronic disease and not a deadly one.

Ah, life and its little tricks. Now the clock is loudly ticking.

Dell has a disposable pan of still warm brownies in the backseat and a plastic jug of lemonade, two things she knows will tempt Peter. And, since he is a long, attenuated bag of bones, she feels eating anything will be hopeful.  A little energy, a little bulk.  Has to help.


She has a mini scrapbook of clippings she has saved for him, articles about things he cares about–drama programs for disenfranchised youth; meals for street people; how libraries are supporting people with disabilities.  Before Peter got so sick he had to stop working, he and Dell butted heads at the Linnville Library, where Dell ran programming and Peter volunteered.  Dell did a great deal on a tiny, grant-funded budget; Peter wanted her to do a great deal more.

He dragged her into the realm of dreaming; she kept him grounded.  Along the way, Peter’s family being loudly absent, Dell had–together with fifteen or so other motherly people of a certain age–unofficially adopted the boy.

And then Dell had moved seventy miles away with her family–new opportunity for Martin, better services for Jack: a no-brainer.  But there were strong cords attaching her, still, to Linnville, and Peter was one of those cords.  She wrote every week, and he often wrote back, or he texted jokes, or emailed photos of things happening at the library where he had, for a year or so, filled her old position. And once a month she tried to get back for a visit, but her old friends recommended she try a little harder and a little more often this Fall.  This Fall, Peter’s medical options had run out.

There is no expressway to Linnville, and Dell enjoys the curving country roadways. They dip into Amish country, and she must, often, slow down to safely pass big buggies led by horses with hooves so sturdy they remind her of Clydesdales.  On the country roads, too, it’s good to be mindful–Amish valley or no–that the chickens are generally free-range.  The deer are, too.

She crests the hill toward her turn-off and brakes in dismay; the route she usually takes, an orange sign announces, is closed due to construction, and the detour will take her around and through a little industrial city and then on ten extra miles of  country roads.  She will be late.

She messages Peter and plunges on.

Traffic, at least, is not too bad, and she settles in to the unfamiliar route, enjoying the rural sights.  There is a paddock with fat sheep guarded by vigilant llamas.  Around a broad, sweeping curve, there is an enclosed meadow with goats–tiny goats standing on little structures and peering at the woods beyond, at each other.  At her as she passes by.

The goats remind her of a photo she has of Peter, from a library outing.  Not a country boy at all, but the teens cajoled him, anyway, into visiting a farm after they’d had a discussion about local food. The farm had goats, and one of the girls–Tabby, who was plump and insecure and worshiped Peter–insisted he come and pet them with her.

“Oh, no WAY,” said Peter, but Tabby was inexorable, and finally he stepped gingerly through the gate, his shiny loafers squinching in the warm muck of a post-rain goat yard.

And he fell in love.  The little goats gamboled around him, came up to investigate him, clustered around Tabby, to her vast delight.  Peter capitulated completely to the charm of the goats, and Dell has a photo of him from that day.  As stick-like as Ichabod Crane, he is bent with one hand extended, his improbably brassy blond hair falling over his forehead.  Little goats jump all around him, all except for one that has stopped, facing Peter, staring straight into his eyes. Peter’s grin is joyous, boyish, and surprised.

“The Goat Whisperer,”  Dell dubbed him, and Peter scoffed it off, but he was secretly pleased, she could tell, to have crossed a barrier into a land he’d never thought to inhabit.

She drives around Burton, the little industrial city with its gray towers and billboards for bank loans and the benefits of breastfeeding.

After a long stretch of country, she hits another little town and recognizes it as Crete, famous for its family-owned chocolate factory.  She passes the factory heading into town, rolling down the window to enjoy the rich scent of warm chocolate.

In the town itself, she stops at the one light–red, of course–and looks over at a beautiful little white church.  It is polished and welcoming and, she thinks, getting a repair job.  The yard is full of construction equipment, and a crew seems to be just assembling. The windows are empty, gaping holes, and Dell thinks they must be putting in new.  She imagines beautiful stained glass, black-leaded, fitting snugly into those apertures.

The pretty little church, somehow, warms her heart.  She finishes the trip to Linnville with some kind of undefined hope bubbling.


But it is not a good day; Peter feels terrible.  He can’t eat the brownies, although he says, a little snarkily, that he is sure the visiting nurses will help him out there.  He drinks a little lemonade.  They talk about the elephant in the room.  Peter tells Dell he is deeply, intrinsically weary, and not at all afraid.  He asks her to read a poem at his memorial, and she does not even try to pretend it’s not looming.

Peter lays down but can’t settle, so she reads to him from his current book, a  Wallace Berry, and by the time she is done with a chapter, he is snoring lightly, and the nurse has arrived, eyes lighting at the tray of brownies.  Dell gathers up her purse and keys and phone, asks questions the nurse can’t really answer, and heads home.


Clouds clutter the sky now–not screensaver clouds, but ominous ones, and most of the animals on the roadside have gone in to shelter.  It’s a grimmer ride; she turns on NPR and listens to war talk, talk of pain and devastation, and she forces herself not to shut the radio off.

And then she pulls into Crete, where, again, she hits the the red-light, and she is shocked.

The pristine church is gone, flattened: a pile of wooden rubble.

She makes it to the chocolate factory parking lot before she has to pull over. It is thirty minutes before she is fit, again, to drive.


Peter dies that Sunday, at 9:30 in the morning, with three good friends–one of them his beloved minister–at his side. None of his family made the trip.

They lay him out at the church, and the family finally does show up; they’re staggered by the lines of people waiting to say goodbye.  Regret begins to seep through their anger and their guilt.  It is a rough and ragged viewing.

The memorial service, in that conservative small town, has very little room of any kind left, standing or otherwise. Peter is eulogized by a wide and wacky range of people, from Tabby to Sister Camille from the Catholic church to the bank president. Some homeless folks talk about his presence at the library, and a few urban friends from his younger years tell tear-stained stories.  Roy, the minister, is eloquently angry at the useless disease that stole away an essential life.  Dell reads her poem without crying.

They all file once more past the open casket.  When it is Dell’s turn, she slides the picture of Peter, grinning joyously at the little goat, into a space between his chest and his arm, pats his cold hand, and goes downstairs to help pour coffee.

‘Perfectly Dreadful. How are YOU???’

A hot, sunny Labor Day morning: I pull up in front of Kim’s entry bower. Our friend Larry has planted her trellis with morning glories; their leaves are richly, deeply green and glossy, although, Kim says, the plants have never bloomed.

“What’s up with THAT?” she asks rhetorically, noting that Larry has never seen such a thing happen: morning glories always bloom. But not these, not at Kim’s house, not this year.

There are pots of brightly crisp annuals; there is an old, lazy cat basking in the sun.  There is Kim,–the day after her 60th birthday–lifting slowly from her shaded seat inside the bower, turning to pick up her purse and a book we’ve shared, and starting the slow trek to the passenger door.

I open my door into traffic, bound out quickly, and run to hug her.

“How ARE you?” I ask, exuberantly.

She gives me a look that says, clearly, ‘Now, THERE’S a stupid question.’

“It’s good to see you,” she says quietly.

I am such a thoughtless idiot.  I have just asked my dear friend, raddled by course after course of chemo for her metastatic cancer, how she is. “How are you?”—that trite non-saying of our modern life.  I expect, of course, the perky non-answer: “Fine!  Good!  How are YOU?”

But fine and good don’t apply here, and “How are you?” is a stupid question to ask someone in the last stages of cancer—or someone enduring any kind of debilitating disease. I need to turn off my auto-pilot; I need to think, and learn.

We drive to Timmy H’s, on this morning when many hard-working people (not, alas, the staff at Tim’s) have the day off, and we are lucky enough to find a table tucked into a corner, a table not surrounded by a whole bunch of happy people anticipating the day’s barbecue or boat ride.

We talk about the thoughtless “How ARE you?”  It’s such a knee jerky thing to say, I tell her, and she says she knows; she hears it all the time.

We talk about things that might be better to say–things like, “It’s good to see you, Kim,” or, “I’ve been thinking about you,” or even just, “Hello!”

With Kim, the keys to conversation now seem to be honesty and observation.  She is a person who has always met life right where it hits her; other people with cancer might enjoy subterfuge, the pretense that they are blooming and what could possibly be wrong? Kim does not want to pretend. So that’s an obvious rule I need to remember:  each person is different. Meet each person where she is. Observe, observe, observe.

Kim says so many people tell her she looks good. This is not something, when she feels, bluntly, like crap warmed over, that she really wants to hear.

I think about my mother’s friend, Janet; many years after Mom died, I saw Janet in the supermarket.  She’d just been released from the hospital after surviving a massive heart attack.

I said hello, and gave her a hug, and before I could say anything else, Janet said, “What do you think of my color?”

I was stumped for a reply.

“My color,” she said.  “Everyone seems to like it.  I’m not a cussing woman, but if one more person says to me, ‘Oh, your color is wonderful,’ I may just start.'”

Oddly, it was true; she was rosy-cheeked and looked like a stereotyped picture of glowing health.  But, two days out from a heart attack that damned near killed her,–feeling, she said, like she was recovering from being hit by a large, speeding truck,–she did not want people discounting her health challenges by telling her she appeared to be fine.

So I make a mental note: don’t tell a sick person how good she looks. And don’t, says Kim—for God’s sake, and for your own safety, DON’T—tell her, “Keep smiling!

Kim says to think about what YOU would like to hear if the situation was reversed. If you say what you think you’d probably like to hear, it might not be exactly the right thing to say,–you and your friend being of course, very different people,–but it will come from a place of thought and observation.

And, while what you do say might hit a perfectly clanging off-note, it’s better than not saying anything.  There are many people, Kim notes, who just simply avoid talking to her at all.  It’s as if her condition is embarrassing or horribly, horribly contagious. [Guess what, friends? It’s mortality, and we DO all have it…] It’s as if she has done something shameful and deliberately malicious by being sick.

I’m reminded of visiting my friend Cathy back home last year; she was completely confounded by her friend Ken’s behavior.  Ken was family-by-choice close with Ted and Elaine, and Elaine had a fast-moving, lethal brand of cancer.  She was entering her end days, and since the diagnosis, Ken had avoided her. He hadn’t visited or called, hadn’t even sent a card. It was as if, Cathy said, Elaine had done something deliberately to make Ken’s life miserable. It was as if Elaine was already dead and buried.

Gosh, said Cathy, sardonically.  Poor Ken.  How tough that he has to deal with his dear friend’s impending death.

There’s a good ending to that story: Ken went to see Elaine, and he discovered she had not become a scary someone else. She was the same person in a dying body.  Sure, illness had pared away a lot of the frew-fraw; she didn’t have to suffer fools anymore and she didn’t want to waste time discussing the weather or dem Yankees.  But her wit and warmth were intact.

Ken decided he could do some landscaping while he visited; that’s his gift.  So he planted a special garden that can be seen from Elaine’s bedroom window. He put a comfy chair right in the midst of the flowers and foliage, and some days, Elaine feels well enough to sit outside.  She might bring a book; she might bring a drink; she might just sit and soak up the sounds and smells and rays.  She tells Ken that, each time, she knows it might be her last day to sit outside and savor; her disease progresses relentlessly.

He is there now; he can listen, squeeze her hand, pull a weed, get the garden spot ready for its next viewing.

Ken was a late starter, but he discovered another truth: we can use our gifts to comfort dear ones.  Ken–like Larry–can bring forth beauty from the ground.  Others might create collages, knit prayer shawls, bake cookies, call and chat for 15 minutes, or send thoughtful notes.

And, maybe most importantly, we can listen. This dear one is an explorer in a land I’ve yet to visit–but it’s a place I will come to, one day or another.  I can listen with an ear for learning; I can listen with a will for sharing.  And in listening, I will learn how best to be a friend.

I would really prefer that, when I visit Kim, we would pile a few more friends in the car and drive off to explore junk shops, thrift stores, and garage sales, something we both love to do.  I wish we would talk about Dorothy Parker and Dawn Powell and how cutting-edge witty they were, and then trade books we’ll get around to reading, oh–down the line, when life is less busy and things settle down. I’d love finding new and funky coffee shops together, and treating ourselves to the gooey-est, yummiest treats on the menu.

But we’ve done those things; the sun has set on those thoughtless, carefree days, and a new stage of friendship has begun.  I enter this stage gracelessly; no doubt, I’ll be bumping into its furniture and knocking fragile vases off shelves–watching in embarrassed shock as precious things shatter.

Not knowing what to say or when to say it.

I want this: for Kim to be well and whole and happy. I want her to get a new motorcycle and go tearing down the road, off on an adventure. I want it because then my life will be easier, and then I can rest without the heaviness of impending loss.

But this time is not about me and what I want.  This time is about my very dear friend Kim, and what she needs.

And I have a wonderful resource: I have Kim herself, a guide and mentor in navigating these latter days, a trusted friend who shares her truth with me. I have the honor and the opportunity to walk this path with her a ways, and I will do my best to be awake and aware, to observe.  To stay the course.

It’s so much easier, isn’t it, if our loved ones just don’t get sick? But sickness happens.  It’s part of them, part of us, part of life.  We need to show up. We need to share it.  We need to cherish our friends, our family, and our time together. It’s too brief, and too fleeting, to waste.

Oh. Here’s something else we need NOT to do, something I promised Kim I would share–at the end of our visits, our chats on the phone, or our handwritten notes, we need not to chirp to that person who is ravaged by chemo, undone by cancer, exhausted by the battle, “Have a nice day!!!”

My friend Kim is a pacifist.  But she makes no promises if she hears “Have a nice day!” one more time.