“How’s work, Shannon. Are you enjoying it?” My dying friend whispers, hoisting herself up every few minutes to keep from slipping further into her wheelchair. I lean in super close, praying I heard correctly. God how I’d hate to ask her to repeat herself. Clearly taxed from the effort to get the words out the first time, one more attempt to speak will tap deeper into her fast-diminishing reserves of energy.
I can barely absorb what I’m witnessing – an atrophied shell of my statuesque, five-foot-ten honey-skinned friend who, just a few months ago, could shift the energy in a room by merely entering it. Her voice naturally soft, she compensated for it through poise and confidence – stepping in a half a foot closer toward each person she chose to speak with. To some, perhaps off-putting. To me, and the legions of so many who knew and loved her, a bold, gutsy way of connecting to others with zero fear of getting too close.
“Fine, fine. It’s going just fine.” And now I’m leaning in a half a foot closer. Except I’m not bold or gutsy at all. Scared, in fact. As I shimmy my heavy, wrought iron designer patio chair closer to her wheelchair, failing to get the two to line up properly, I avert my eyes out over the lake – fixating on the tiny diamonds dancing on the sun-kissed surface as I rattle off some saccharine response to how my job’s going. It’s the Fourth of July. With a cloudless sky. A happy hour heat enveloping my bare arms. A time to celebrate. Not rue.
So why can’t I look into my dear friend’s pleading eyes? Eyes begging me to see her as I always have? A loving friend twenty-plus years my senior who has shown me, in countless instances through her actions, through her human interactions, how to embody grace and spread it around?
It’s a perfect Fourth of July on Lake Washington. And the five others around our table appear too damn OK with all of this. Too comfortable with what’s right in front of us – a treasured friend/wife/mother/business partner who’s about to die way before she should…
“Hey did you see that no-hitter last night?” “Shannon your Waldorf salad is awesome. I need the recipe!”
It’s all so perfect. Except it’s not. And of course all six of us know it, opting instead to hover just above the diamond-layered surface level through our own aversion mechanisms – looking elsewhere, shallow chatter – of the lake to avoid the reality that lurks below. We are losing our friend. And it hurts so very bad.
I turn back toward her, white-knuckling my fingers to the arms of my chair, determined to lock eyes and souls with my dear friend. But it’s too late. She knows I’m uncomfortable. And in her usual manner, excuses me before I have a chance to dive down under the surface and tell how much I love her. How scared I am of losing her. How badly I want go back to where we were just a year ago. Scratching at the tawny little lock of fuzz that has recently replaced her thick Nordic mane, she looks up over her opposite shoulder toward the nurse:
“I think I’m tired now. Please take me back upstairs.”