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On Dying and a Necklace I Never Wore

Tomorrow is the service for my friend who just died of cancer.  Next week would have been her 58th birthday.  Random memories of our friendship pop into my head with regularity. I can hear her warm voice turning to honey as she responds with her honey endearment that she always used when we spoke. I study the art she has made for me over the decades of our friendship; seeing the thousands of strokes of color individually for the first time. In one portrait, I am young with my first babies laying on my chest. I think she drew me more beautiful than I am… I have always thought that and she always reminded me- no, truly, you are that beautiful. Real friends see your beauty first, often even before you do. They grab onto you in your sadness so you don’t slip too far down, forgetting yourself.

Death mystifies. Memory becomes the bridge to the full-bodied form of love. But some deaths haunt me, never resolving into the sweet space of holding someone’s loss in your pocket like a familiar stone. Accepting the weight of it is the comfort. This week, a local pediatrician died at his own hand, a doctor I knew who stepped in to see my kids sometimes in the same office with our pediatrician. I knew him also from the sidelines of the Y tennis courts as our kids played Round Robin and from the grocery store. I was at his house one time when his wife was having a jewelry show. I bought a necklace made of heavy rectangular black and gold beads, which I have never worn. My memory from that visit was when she showed us the new out building they had added for her to have a swimming exercise pool followed by her showing me her separate studio where she did her work and also slept. It was her space; she explained about her boundaries. I remember wondering if I was crazy or she was. I wasn’t surprised to learn of the divorce or even that it was bad, which usually means that people  hurt each other with the same intensity that they once loved. This was his second bad divorce.

I try to imagine this gentle man, on the long walk up to the top of our highest look out, new gun in hand, freshly purchased from Walmart,  hiking up to his last breath. I don’t know if thoughts of his children ran through his head or the many mothers like me who valued his wisdom. Maybe there was only a singular thought of sour love, of the countless hours of effort in building a family now lost. We are weakest with a broken heart, the most powerful and consistent muscle in our body is also the place that makes every other wound feel small.

The doctor’s death reminded me of a mother I knew who owned a children’s book store. She disappeared one day, only to be found a few days later under water in a nearby reservoir. Her backpack was filled with stones still weighing her down. I can’t quite let go of the vision of her, picking up those rocks and putting each one into her backpack. What could she have been thinking? This is where the mystery of death gets tainted with the questions of what could have been said or done. Our memory bridge to the past is clouded with doubts and despair.

Death is upon us every day. There is only one lesson that bears repeating over and over again until we get it. We only have time for love. Everything else is a distraction at best; at worst it leaves a residue on what is good and true about life’s real work.