"You look like hell," I said, when we were finally alone.
"Thank you." .
I stared out at the sailboats on Lake Michigan.
"Are you afraid," she asked, extending her hand.
I took her hand. "Yeah," I responded, still staring out at the lake.
I couldn't tell my very best friend in the world, that I was sad, angry and afraid all at the same time. Instead I said, "I can't quite articulate it," while holding back howls of grief.
The moment I walked into Sue's hospital room, I thought, you're not going to make it. To tell her that would have been unkind. Instead I decided it was better to play out some old B movie melodrama. When she asked me if we could go to the pierogi fest next summer, I said, "Sure, it's a date." All the while imagining, if she made it, that she'd be too frail to make the long drive. I had a vision of placing her shrunken body in a wheelchair, perhaps covered by a blanket, and rolling her around some food booths for things neither one of us would still have any appetite for.
A few days later, Sue was in a coma . The night before she had been rushed to emergency surgery to repair a perforated bowel. I awaited anxiously for the door to open to the consulting room that Sue's mother and brother had been in with the doctors. "Oh, Debbie," Sue's mother said as she hugged me and then took my hand. "It hardly seems right." As we walked down to where Sue was, she explained to me that Sue's organs were shutting down. She wasn't going to awaken.
Before I entered her room, I had thought about what I was going to say in my goodbye.
Murphy's Law of Final Goodbyes seemed to be entirely in force. I fumbled it entirely. I had hoped, perhaps absurdly, to leave Sue with a final meditation. I wanted to remind her of a week we spent in a cabin on Lake Superior. My cellphone, the very one I thought was in need of being recharged, rang as I was saying goodbye. I said "excuse me" to Sue as I slipped out of the room to see who it was and to turn the phone off. And then an orderly came in to take her temperature. I was perplexed why they would need the vitals of a woman who was virtually dead, but at least she was as unobtrusive as possible.
I also found the Classical Muzak distracting, especially since it was the same few notes over and over again. I was half hoping that the woman who had once given me a Talking Heads tape would awaken long enough to complain. Sue, I couldn't help thinking, would have laughed at the absurdity of it all. I can still imagine her throwing her head back and laughing that hearty laugh of hers.
We were improbable friends. I was starting graduate school. She was struggling yet again with Freshman Comp. She had lived all of her life in the suburbs. I had grown up in Chicago in a neighborhood near the mills. She was Episcopalian. I was Jewish. She was very religious. I was far from that. Despite the obvious differences, we complemented each other in a very deep way. We both had a strong sense of social justice. We both loved nature. Together we had some great adventures.
Sometimes Sue irritated me because she could be foolish. Other times she was very brave. Other times, too, like when she went to Al Anon, she was very emotionally open, more so than most people I knew. Sometimes she could seem absent, as if she were disappearing, even from herself. But she was generous, forgiving, loving and, above all, hospitable.
Many times we didn't do much of anything. Just companionable. We would drift in and out of each other's orbits, always to eventually reconnect. And when we did there was always a simple joy. I can hear her still, upon hearing my voice on the phone, joyfully exclaim,. "Oh, Debbie!" The love that flowed between us was exceptional. Many years ago she proclaimed me her chosen sister. And, in the end, her mother said, "You were practically her favorite person." Sue was practically my favorite person, too, and I will always feel honored by the thirty-one years of friendship I had with wonderful, kind and decent woman.
In this heart of mine, you'll live all the time.