During one of those conversations we have in our lives and then set aside in the memory banks until it's time to make use of them, I remember an elderly woman telling me the worst thing about getting older was not the deterioration of the body, nor the shock of realizing you have less years left then you've already lived. It was saying goodbye to those you loved and cherished, over and over again until there was no one left but you.
I was young enough when she told me this to feel sadness for her but I had no way of understanding what she was saying. I thought it was about loneliness. I thought it was about having no friends or family left. I thought it was about being alone and not having a choice about it.
It was none of those things. It was instead something I can barely put into words but that anyone who has experienced the continual loss of friends and family understands all too clearly. The closest I felt to anything like this before was in the 80's where it seemed I spent most of my life going to funerals and memorial services for people my age who died of AIDS.
It sounds horrible to say, but part of you does become numb after the first dozen deaths. It doesn't mean I or anyone else loved or cared any less for those that died. It was just that after so many a part of you begins to shut down as a self-preservation mechanism so you don't go throwing yourself off a cliff from the unbearable grief.
And now after losing so many friends to illnesses and so close to losing yet another one, I find myself retreating emotionally into that safe place of numbness. But I pull myself back because I don't want to be that elderly woman so many years ago who tugged at my heart with what I thought then was loneliness but was instead just overwhelming despair at being the last one left.
I think of that. Being the last one left. I have so many people I love. I am surrounded by people I love. Just the thought of losing one is too much. I can't imagine losing them all. It's just too horrible to contemplate. But being old makes you contemplate it. You see the age and the sickness on the faces and bodies of those you love and it's the most horrible feeling in the world. And each time you have to let go, you have to make yourself strong to endure it one more time. And through it all, you have to stay whole and sentient and honor the meaning of the word "alive."
For me, part of the healing process is writing about the person I lost. Tonight I'm writing about Lydia. She's still physically present but we said goodbye several days ago because we both understood it was time. There's a point where even typing becomes an effort, where someone has to hold your head up so you can read the words sent in return, and it starts to seem ludicrous. She still managed to overwhelm me with her courage, her wisdom, and her compassion, but I sense it took all the strength she had left to write the words she did to me. I will cherish them because I know how important they were for her to say them to me.
She was the youngest of our writing group, the most emotionally scarred of the group of women who met once a month to camp out in the Sierras and write together and try to heal something in ourselves and each other. No experience in my life will ever come close to matching what that did for me, and no friendships will match the depths we all explored in each other.
There were fifteen of us, with three or four who were occasional participants. We are down to five and soon, much too soon, we will be down to four. And yet, even grief is a measured thing, even sorrow is something that becomes small and selfish when measured against far larger griefs. Our time in the Sierras was a way to try and understand, to put into words what happens when the world we think we know, becomes a world we are horrified exists.
We were children of war, born in countries that suffered from the tyranny of a small but powerful few. Lydia and her mother were the sole survivors on her mother's side of the family. I still remember the horror I felt when she read a poem to our group about trying to grow a garden and finding pieces of clothing, long forgotten household goods, a pair of broken eyeglasses, a child's toy stained with blood.
Both our grandmothers were Yugoslavian when it was something they saw grow from a desire to live in peace as one people, but both moved away before the dream came crashing down: mine to Trieste, and Lydia's to a small community just over the border in Slovenia. Both our mothers married Americans and came here with us. Both of us grew up and became writers in the adopted language of our mothers. Both of us created art and poetry and spent hours and days and years dreaming of that magical world we knew was possible if only human beings woke up and discovered their similarities instead of their differences.
The first day we met, we recognized all that in each other without having to say a word in explanation. It was in our eyes, in the words we wrote, in the way we sat in a beam of sunlight and listened to the creek's song high in the Emigrant Wilderness of the Sierras. We knew each other. We knew what it meant to be exiled in body and spirit and that was and will always be our bond.
Last December when Lydia learned she had Inflammatory Breast Cancer and that it was terminal, I was the one who fell apart. I walked around like a zombie for days, cursing everything I could think of, yelling at life for doing this, for the unfairness of taking away my one friend who knew my soul almost as well as I did. I was angry. I was depressed. As someone who rarely experiences mood swings, this was a new thing for me, and I didn't deal with it well. I retreated. I didn't want to talk to anyone but Lydia.
And for months we've exchanged hundreds of emails of the kind two crazy writer women exchange. They went on and on and on and covered everything we could think of: stories we remembered from the writer's group, the strange man who was hired to be our guide through the unfamiliar canyons and trails and who kept to himself, the husband of one of the women who was so stunningly attractive we all stared at him like silly little giggling girls, and the many hours of lives translated into words by women who were all raised speaking a language other than English. Our words were in one language and our memories in another.
But we also shared uniquely American experiences, ones that we learned to laugh about but at the time drove us mad with the insanity of it all. We talked fondly of our mutual success story, a woman who lived two blocks from Lydia in the huge apartment complex. We knew she was abused, that the bruises on her face were from her husband, and that she was terrified. It took weeks but Lydia slowly gained her trust and together we managed to get her away and into a shelter. Since it was a time in our lives when we were both fairly poor, we hit up everyone we knew for money and furniture and household furnishings to give her a new start. When she graduated first from High School at the age of 41 and then completed college just short of her 50th birthday, both Lydia and I felt like proud parents.
And then we talked about her evil twin, the woman who used both of us with her sad story. We believed her. We once again raised money and found furniture and a place to live. But this time the story was completely made up and we fell for it. But in one of our conversations a couple months again, we laughed about it, at how easily she managed to find the soft spot in our careful armor. But at the same time, we knew that one bad experience was worth all the women we helped in our lives. We may be suckers for a good story, but so what? There are worse things to be and when one of our success stories wrote a lovely note to share with those who helped her, we both cried because two years before that the same woman was illiterate. Life evens out that way.
I promised Lydia I would write my memories of our conversations so her daughters would one day know that side of her. I've been doing that. It's been hard. I cry a lot. I curse at the world a lot. And I hug my friends a lot.
And now as Lydia lies in that place of half here and half already making the transition, I think of what she taught me that will carry me forward with her passing and that of all the passings to come: I always make new friends. I always find room in my life and heart for more people. I've grown increasingly picky, but I do add to the assortment of fruits and nuts periodically. It's my insurance, my comfort to know there are people out there who I have yet to meet who will one day be my friends. It's how life works or none of us would be able to get out of bed in the morning.
So to my dear Lydia. Thank you. And may your transition be easy. You've earned the right to have it be easy. I love and cherish you and bless the day we met. It changed me in a way nothing else could. Thank you so very very much.