Friday, March 31, 2017


     I'm thinking tonight about love, loss and obituaries. An odd mix, I know.  After work, I stopped in to Sara's wake. There was a large crowd of women laughing and sharing stories, oblivious to the evening sleet and snow coming down outside. I stood on the fringe scanning for an obvious family member to give my condolences to or her best friend Pam. I found her and the requisite family member keeping watch at the back right of the building near the casket. After extending my sympathies to Sara's kin and clasping Pam's hand, I knew that etiquette dictated I say my good-byes to Sara.
     Even though I've had a lot of people I care for die in my life, I've attended less than a handful of viewings mostly due to distance, timing, work schedule or cremation.  I was impressed by the people at the wake milling about from clique to clique and chatting each other up, all with Sara literally just over their shoulder. It was probably a testament to her personality how large a circle of friends she had; from her career as an educator, to her church, to college friends, town friends and decades with the Girl Scouts. So many people there to honor her and remember.
     Which brings me to obituaries. When I read hers, it was dignified, short and sweet. I've only been involved in writing one, and at the time I was kinda really sorta messed up, so my siblings and I enlisted my husband to make sure that the words all made sense.  On an interesting note, when we submitted it to what I will call my mother's hometown newspaper, they re-wrote part of it. That pissed me off immensely at the time. After I read Sara's, I couldn't help but think about how much was left out and how much would be left out of all of ours, out of mine.
     I'm not trying to be morbid, really I'm not, and maybe that's why you have a wake or a funeral or a celebration or some sort of event to allow people the chance to say out loud what you meant to them.  And I suppose that your chance to specifically mention the people who are beloved to you needs to come with each day, because we never know when the day you're going to get hit by a bus will come.  I absolutely adore taking anybody I love aside and telling them to their face how important they are to me, because I need you to know how special you are.  Not Hallmark trite crap, but the real stuff that matters, that I enjoy observing. My grown-up nieces have all gotten used to that last tearful good-bye from their silly Aunt Heather when we visit; my whispered thoughts on how awesome they are, how much I love them. I don't want them to read a line in my obituary that says "she is survived by" many beloved nieces. They need to know exactly how I feel. My only nephew and the great-nieces and great-nephews haven't gotten as much of this due to distance, a gigantic failing on my part.
     And then where is the place in the obituary to mention your treasured friends, your mentors, life-changing teachers, your great loves, to thank them for how they made you the human you are? Perhaps we should think of our obituaries more like an acceptance speech where there's no music to play you off or an extended acknowledgements page or album liner notes, and then I suppose you'd need to write it yourself in advance. Why leave it to someone else, allowing them to create a mythos of the real you? They'll sanitize you, my friends, and you're much too complex for that.
     For those of you still around when my time comes, be prepared for a party. I want you to laugh and sing, to tell dirty jokes and read poetry out loud, to eat and drink and tell as many stories as you can. Talk about the question game we used to play in the car, as there will be no need for secrets at that point. Talk about what it was like to kiss me.  Did we act together? Sing together? Talk about what it looked like when I lost my temper, when my sense of humor strayed towards a 14 year-old males, my ability to conjugate my favorite curse words. You're welcome to say sweet and lovely things, but don't belabor it too much because I've never been good at taking a compliment. I will haunt you.    
     I will continue to tell you all how much I love you, whether you ever tell me back or not. I don't say it for any of you to feel beholden to me to reciprocate, but for you to know my heart. (Although, I welcome any feelings you want to share ...I'm dorky that way.) I will tell you how strong you are and how proud I am of you, how hard you're working on improving your health, what an amazing parent you are, how I admire your dedication to your elderly parents, your patients, your writing, your crafting, your faith, your true self. I want to celebrate your love stories and dance to your music. I want to look you in the eyes and tell you how fantastic you are and how lucky I am to know and love you.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Requiem for Sara

     Sara died this weekend.  Her best friend Pam called me today at work to tell me.  Sara was one of my clients, but we had become friends.  We met almost two years ago when she came into my branch to get some help after her partner of 20 years, Beverly, had died.
     Sara was the sort of stereotypical New Englander that pops into your mind when you conjure up an image of one; a gruff, almost unreadable exterior, masking an encyclopedic knowledge of the Red Sox and what the weather over the coming week is supposed to be, a smile that spread through her eyes long before it reached her lips and a lightly acerbic honesty that endeared her to you. When Sara came to me for help, I was my normal empathetic self, prepared to cry when she discussed her love story and armed with how I would guide her through removing Beverly's name from their accounts.
     She didn't want any of my bullshit, and she didn't need my empathy.  I wasn't going to get a love story, because that was theirs to own and not mine to intrude on. That was what Sara had left. We didn't cry, and we weren't taking Beverly's name off anything.  They would remain together on paper, if she couldn't have her in the flesh. Sara did share that she was upset Beverly had gone without any warning, that there was no way to prepare.  But can you ever be prepared.
     Sara came in a couple times a month, refusing to do anything online, preferring to work with us in person. We would laugh over something minor, talk about baseball ... I'd ask her how she was. She'd look me in the eyes and never say what I already knew. We did this a lot.  Over the last year, she started using a cane due to an exacerbated knee injury. No big deal, she said. She was going to get it taken care of after she dealt with a surgery that was planned in the coming new year. I pressed, and she told me she needed to have heart valve replacement. She wasn't worried, and I hid my fear.
     My mother had valve replacement surgery in 1996. It was challenging for her, and she took some time to recover, but she did. During the surgery, they installed a pacemaker, a standard part of the process then, although I don't know if that is still the case.  This pacemaker worked well until 2008 when it was time to change the battery.  It was this surgery, the "routine" one to replace the battery, that ultimately led to my mother's rapid decline and eventual death.  Her heart had come to rely on that pacemaker to work, and the shock of the change to her system was too much.
     Before Sara went into the hospital, she brought her best friend from college, Pam, to meet me. Sara had decided that she wanted to put Pam on her accounts to make sure the bills were paid while she was in the hospital. It was a very difficult decision for her, because it meant removing Beverly's name. The three of us soldiered through it though, and they had me rolling on the floor with laughter. They shared stories of their college days, female college sports before Title IX, how Sara had a hell of an arm and how Pam would still drive all the way down from Maine to share in their Red Sox season tickets. It was a good time.
     A week and a half ago, Pam called me to say that the surgery hadn't gone well. Sara had had a stroke immediately afterwards, and the surgeon wasn't very hopeful.  Strokes are a major concern after valve replacement; blood clots can form around the new valve - whether mechanical or pig valve - breaking off and speeding to your precious brain. My mother had a stroke several months after her surgery. Although she recovered fully from that one, she had multiple little ones in the years after that impacted her emotionally. She was always worried that a big one would come while she was driving and cause her to kill someone. Eventually, this worry and her worsening congestive heart failure led to her coming to live with us.
     This morning when Pam called, my first question was how Sara was doing. Her long pause confirmed what my heart already knew was coming. Sara had died on Saturday. She had struggled. She had suffered, even though the doctor told Pam she wasn't in pain. She had pulled her feeding tube from her throat, and then she died. I remained silent throughout and had to remind myself to speak before Pam had to ask if I was still there. She told me that Sara really liked me, and Pam felt it important to tell me, to not have me have to read about it after the fact. We cried, and I thanked her, told her that I would help in any way I could.  I didn't say anything trite about Sara finally being reunited with Beverly, because that would have been the sort of thing that would have pissed Sara off.  And honestly, I don't think they were ever really apart.