It wasn’t something I needed or wanted. Not something I secretly admired. It did not come wrapped in pretty paper. And it was not tied with a lovely bow. It was, in fact, rather ugly. And yet, it was a gift. Or so I am told.
It all began with my friend, Mar. She was part of a group, some of whom had been close for decades, that I met while attending a lifelong learning class. Recently retired, I hoped to find new companions as I moved into a new stage in my life. And luckily, this closely knit group of women welcomed me. Each of them was a unique personality, but Mar was the standout from the beginning. Short and stout, she was The Lady With The Hats. She was midway thru her second round of chemo and radiation in her battle with lung cancer. The first time she went into remission for several years. But now it was back, along with other health issues. Mar had lost all of her hair. But she refused to wear a wig or headscarf. Instead she gleefully admitted her love of hats, and had an amazing collection of them. There were ones for all the seasons. Hand knitted wool ones for cold weather. One of a kind crocheted ones for warmer days. Dressy ones with embellishments for special occasions. Berets, baseball caps, and even a modified top hat that she wore at a jaunty angle! And she loved the comments and compliments!
What seemed like flamboyance was really the only time she liked being noticed. For the most part, Mar was quiet and difficult to get to know. A woman of few words. She was not warm or affectionate. And she regularly fell asleep in class or at movies, amazing us when she awakened by remembering everything that had happened during her nap! But as I got to know her, I realized she was an incredible storyteller. The best ones were about her family, especially her father. To say the least, he was quite a character and likely carried a “flamboyant gene” that he passed on to his daughter. The stories were frequently bawdy and laced with words – well, let’s say some were X-rated.
As Mar got sicker, I became her designated driver to group events. This one on one time gave me the chance to hear some of the best tales. And there were times when she had me laughing so hard I had to pull over to the side of the road. It also gave us an opportunity to talk about politics, religion, travel and our life stories. Looking back, Mar’s illness and our road trips together were likely the first gift she gave me.
As the months passed, it became apparent that the second round of chemotherapy was not working. And it was this setback that displayed the real character of the woman. Sick as she was, Mar hosted her traditional High Holiday dinners and made sure that those of us like me, without family, were part of her family. In some ways, it was the strangest family I ever met. Two grown sons, the youngest of whom lived with her and would take on the role of caregiver, seemed to communicate with their Mother and each other only by yelling and harsh remarks. I learned that this was their way and always had been. As it had been even when their grandparents were alive. Three generations of people unable to express loving emotions. And yet, throughout the house were family pictures spanning those generations. Mar barked out commands, demanding that everything from choice and placement of dishes, timing of food, and even topics of conversation met with her approval. Stubborn and controlling, all the while being a steadfast friend, Mar barrelled her way thru life the same way she did thru holiday dinners.
More character traits revealed themselves as time went on. She was practical and stoic, fearless, unstoppable and courageous . Most of all, she was firmly convinced she knew as much, if not more, than her doctors. And so, she convinced them to try yet another round of some toxic mix with horrible side effects that might give her a chance. “My doctors are really pissed at me because I won’t die”, she said with a devilish tone. And so she endured more than most of us thought possible. As did her son, R, whose caretaker role became nightmarish since she refused additional help.
Knowing full well that she would likely be unable to attend the events on our group calendar, Mar insisted we review them all with her – just in case. And there was one evening out that she was not going to miss. It was a 75th birthday party held at a local restaurant for her dear friend of more than 50 years. She instructed me to pick her up at 5. I was terrified. By now she was on oxygen and a portable tank was her constant companion along with a variety of pills. I did not know how frail she was, if we could get her in the car, if she could be sure not to exceed her 2 hour time limit or if I could handle the responsibility. I pulled up to the driveway and she emerged, dressed in a new pantsuit, a smile on her face, and a remarkably jaunty step. It was a wonderful evening.
And of course, she insisted on exceeding her time limit. Driving home, her breathing was labored. But she got out of the car, turned to me and said with a grin “I knew it would be alright, Carole. You do know CPR”. Then she walked up the driveway, slowly, and did not look back. It was our last road trip.
The poison concoction did not work. But Mar was still not giving up. She heard about a clinical trial, and proceeded with combat-like efficiency to speak to, berate and exhaust every doctor she knew or could find. This was the first battle she did not win. And so she came home and began to rearrange her bedroom, which would now be her primary residence. She refused to get a hospital bed, because, she said, they “reminded her of hospitals!” Her favorite time worn leather recliner was placed next to the bed, a portable table over the seat to accommodate her most important possessions: the daily newspaper, her glasses, the TV remote, and her needlepoint. She was almost never without a piece in progress, carrying them everywhere in a tote of her design. They were beautiful, full of vibrant colors and unusual stitches. She was working on a piece for a young cousin who would be Bar Mitzvah in a few months and was determined to finish it.
And so, life went on. Mar did manage to come downstairs every Tuesday. It was, after all, the legendary MahJong game, a 45 year tradition, with most of the same women gathered around the card table that R graciously set up. Her illness did not diminish her competitiveness. She won many games and had no problem lording it over the others. When she got too tired to continue, she went upstairs as the others played, their loud hoots and hollers and gossip a happy reminder for her that life was still ongoing. It was important too, because with the exception of those 4 and me, (I never learned to play), Mar had no other visitors. It made me angry and sad, but I learned that many people, otherwise compassionate, are uncomfortable visiting someone who is dying. One woman described it as”creepy”; another as “too hard”.
And then, a few weeks later, Mar disappeared. R left a voicemail saying she would not be playing that day. We called her cell and home phone and left messages for the two sons as well. First, just gentle inquiries as to what was going on. Then frantic and desperate calls. No response. Six days later, we found she was in the hospital, and a day later, she was home. No apology, no explanation for her silence. Just a simple statement: she was back and would be under hospice care.
The Mah Jong games ended, as did the Tuesday group visits. There were now just two of us who sat with her ; her longtime friend L and me. But it was not quite over. Memorial Day was approaching and the sacrosanct celebration of an early dinner and a few toasts at a favorite steak house was not an option. “Why not bring the celebration to her?” someone suggested . And we did. Hot dogs, hamburgers, salads and drinks were assembled. We planned to have R bring her downstairs and out on the patio. The weather was perfect. And R and his brother surprised us by insisting on doing all the setup, grilling, serving and clean up so we could have as much time as possible together. It was a memorable day, made even more so by an enormous strawberry shortcake that Mar devoured with something approaching gluttony! It was the last time she was outside.
I had never spent time with someone who was dying. And as the days went by, the physical changes – the texture of her skin, her coloring, the sounds she made when breathing, and her hallucinations, were taking a toll on me. I had nightmares. And I began to obsess about how my life would end. Surely I would be even more alone than she. And yet, I surprised myself by finding the strength to continue to visit. I read the newspaper to her, chatted endlessly about my days, sat quietly beside the bed, and when she was awake watched TV with her. Her favorite station was the Hallmark channel. She loved the silly, romantic, always- a-happy ending stories and had watched them faithfully for years. So the TV was always set, day or night . I am not sure why, but I was certain that even when Mar was not fully conscious, her soul wanted the company. And I was determined to give it that.
I arrived for my usual visit on Tuesday at 1. This time, it felt different. R greeted me with a strong hug, as did his girlfriend, J. They asked me to sit with them. “Today is not a good day for Ma, he said. I’m not sure she will even recognize you. And she keeps on yelling out numbers, 26, 29 and more. So if you don’t want to go up, it’s ok”. But I wanted to.
As soon as I entered the room, I noticed that something was wrong. It was the TV. Set to a music station playing a heavy, Classical Wagnerian ode. “What in the world, I thought?” as I grabbed the remote and turned the volume way down. Mar opened her eyes. “Hi Carole. What month is it”? she asked. “It’s June”, I replied. “Is it hot”, she asked. “Very”. And I proceeded to tell her that school was out, all the children were in pools or under hoses, and that L’s three young grandsons were spending a lot of time with her and driving her crazy! She smiled and closed her eyes. Then suddenly, she sat almost upright. “Carole, she said loudly. 269! 2-6-9”!! I looked at her, puzzled. “2-6-9” she hollered, scaring me with her vehemence.
I looked at her, and then at the remote. “What the heck”, I thought. Then punched the numbers in. The TV tuned to the Hallmark channel. I turned and looked at her. She gave me a silly smile and a weak thumbs up. Then closed her eyes and laid her head back on the pillow.
We did not speak again. She seemed comfortable and I sat by the bed for a long time. Finally, R entered the room. He looked exhausted and sad. “She’s mad at me again, he said. She wants me to stay home. But I am going out for a while to a concert with J. Just for a few hours. The nurse is here, and the night aide is coming in a few minutes. Thanks for coming, Carole”. He hugged me again. Then stepped to the bed, close to his Mother. He gently rubbed her arm and then placed his hands on either side of her face. She opened her eyes. “I love you Ma, he said to my astonishment. I love you. You’re mad at me, aren’t you? Mar shook her head up and down, YES. You hate me sometimes, don’t you”? And again, YES. “It’s ok, Ma. You can be mad at me. You can even hate me. But you have to love me too. You have to love me too, Ma”. This time she shook her head side to side. NO! He kissed her softly on both cheeks. Then stepped away, looked at me, shrugged and left the room. I have never been in a place that silent.
After a bit, I walked downstairs to say goodbye to the nurse, a lovely woman who said Mar was the most difficult patient she ever had. So stubborn! I laughed. “She’s dying the way she lived”, I said. And walked out the door.
I sat in my car, parked under an old sycamore tree in Mar’s front yard. I could not move. I could barely breathe. I knew I had witnessed a day unlike any other, so life transforming for me and so terribly sad. How could she have left something so important go unsaid? How could my friend do that to her son? And at the same time, a bit of good fortune. I had deciphered the number code, and by doing so, provided her comfort and a bit of pleasure as she listened to her treasured Hallmark programs. I had done something good.
Mar died a few hours later.
Two weeks later I met by chance at a local diner the rabbi who teaches my Torah class.
I was eating alone and he stopped by the table to say hello. He asked how my friend was doing, and I told him she had died and that I had been with her just a few hours before she passed. He looked at me kindly, expressed his condolences and then said “It was a gift”. Then he moved on. I was stunned and confused. That simple sentence, “It was a gift” has haunted me ever since.
I cannot imagine what the gift was or who gave it to who. I have come to know that my being a steadfast friend until the end was a kindness, and I am glad that I was able to do it. Perhaps that can be considered my gift to her. I never thought of it that way. And it seems sort of self serving.
But what about that awful day and the fear, pain and sorrow I have felt ever since, could possibly be a gift? Perhaps this is one of those fancy packages that comes in layers, like a pyramid. And it will take some time to unwrap each of the boxes. The larger ones on the bottom are sweet and simple. The ones at the top are the special ones, more costly and precious.
Mar herself could be the large box at the bottom. A complex woman, who I loved, and at the end, filled me with anger and bitter disappointment. The gift? That people are not one dimensional. And that it is not for me to judge, but to accept the bad with the good if I am to truly love.
The second box could be filled with my wishful thinking. Perhaps Mar thought she had more time. That there would be another day or so when she could shake her head YES and let R know that she loved him. But there was no more time. Don’t Wait to tell someone that you appreciate and love them. Another gift.
There are other boxes in this pyramid of presents, but they are unopened. I am unable, or more likely afraid, to lift the lids. And maybe that is because they are the real treasures and so require more care. They remain tightly wrapped, daring me to be brave enough to open them. The gifts that will show me what I have yet to learn.
Most gifts come with a receipt so that they can be returned if the recipient can not use them or does not like them. Obviously, that is not the case here. But if I did have a return policy? I want to say that I would return the gift without a second thought. But then again – maybe not.
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.