Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Trust in me when I say

I have been visiting lately with a friend who is in hospice, dying of cancer. And before you for one second think that I am a good person for doing this, let me say that I am doing it entirely for selfish reasons.

My friend is the mom of a large family, six kids, a couple of whom I went to high school with, that she raised largely on her own. That family meant a lot to me growing up - one boy was my best friend, another was one of my first crushes. The oldest girl took me to New York City for the first time. They lived four doors up from us. And the household was full of the usual Eight Is Enough contumaciousness - somebody was always getting married, or living in sin, or getting in trouble, or, whatever, chasing a pet around or something. None of that shit ever happened at my house. At my house, nobody ever even burned the toast.

So their house was, in a way, real life to me. And their mom was always - always - busy.

Now that her children, my contemporaries, are grown, successful, gone away, there has been space there. She joined the garden club and the sewing group, both of which my mom is a member of, so I've gotten occasional news. But still there was rarely time when I was in the neighborhood and not busy with some scheduled thing.

And then she got cancer. Years ago now. It's completely unfair, as cancer always is, but, I don't know, more so in her case. Because she was a nurse, because she cared for other people all her life, because she entered the Peace Corps as a grandmother, because her greatest vice was peanut butter and pickle relish sandwiches. It's just unfair, ok?

She has dealt with her illness in the same way that she dealt with all the everyday catastrophes attendant with having six children - philosophically, with perspective and candor and unusual calm. This summer, she entered a hospice program that allowed her to live at home, get her meds, have a wheelchair. She managed pretty well, but this autumn she began to fail. That's when I started coming around once a week.

During my visits, we just hung out. I had her to myself - left my boys with my parents for the afternoon and evening, which has been wonderful in and of itself. I told her funny stories about the kids and about the library. I knitted a scarf for my mom. She got me up to date on her kids, all of whom I had lost touch with. That perspective of hers was awe-inspiring. When I fretted about a kid, or about anything else, she was sympathetic and always had interesting suggestions, but mostly reminded me that worrying wasn't going to help. I found we thought the same way about a lot of things - we gave people the benefit of the doubt right up until the same point. And then - forget it!

More than once, when we talked about her kids, I expressed my admiration at the way they leapt to each other's aid without hesitation, ditched their jobs and lives to jet home when she needed them. "Six!" I would say, "Six kids, and they all grew up generous and good, and also funny and smart! And good-looking!" She laughed and admitted she had no idea what she'd done right.

I have such anxiety about my kids. They were born perfect, and they are smart and polite and beautiful now. I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since the Apgar score came back. Probably ever since I got pregnant. I told her that one time and she shook her head. She said she couldn't help feeling that all their good luck had finally turned - we had just learned that her youngest daughter's husband had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer himself. I said, "You know that's a fallacy - there's no sum total of misery in our lives and we'll get it sooner or later - right?"

She said she knew that. But it's hard not to believe it sometimes.

I love you, Bobbi. I hope I am half the mother you have been.