Sadness and Sorrow Side by Side in a Friendship

My 96 year old friend Susan broke her ankle, has bleeding ulcers and just returned home after a second long visit to the hospital. Incredibly, her 99 year old friend John also was hospitalized on the same floor. Visiting Susan at bedside, John apparently said he would “throw a party for her when she got home.” Since both of them are really quite ill, Susan later remarked to her “keepers” (caregivers) “I think John has a screw loose.”

Susan broke her ankle after lunch with a friend at the Dolphin Restaurant. The Dolphin looks like a typical New England Tavern — one story with a white clapboard exterior and black shutters on all the windows. Susan and I have enjoyed many meals in the cozy knotted-pine interior. Every time we have eaten there, Susan has directed the parking. Cane waving and pointing, she has insisted on parking in the back and using the rear entry. This entry has 3 rickety stairs leading to a tiny porch and awkward screen door. This is where Susan broke her ankle.

As I talked on the phone with my favorite keeper, Joanie, she asserted, “Susan never uses that dangerous back entrance. She always goes in the front. I don’t know what she was doing there.”

My mouth was agape. I responded, “Joanie, Susan has always told me, as she probably told her friend, ‘Go to the back, it is much safer!’” I suspect that Susan was doing what she wanted, away from watchful eyes.

Throughout all my visits, I was always terrified that Susan would fall. Now I worry that Susan will die soon. She has told me on numerous occasions that she is “ready” and she does not want to live unable to walk, see or hear. But Susan was absolutely determined to walk again up until the broken ankle. Now she only has the energy to talk on the phone for a minute.

Selfishly, I am not ready for Susan to die. But how do we let go of those we love?

In losing Susan, it that like I will lose so much — a surrogate mother, for one. Having already lost my mother, my stepmother, my god mother, my sister and my father, I don’t think I can go through more. I am crying as I write this. Yet the gifts of this friendship really do weigh more than the sorrow.

I have found a kindred spirit in Susan. Our inquisitive, stubborn, demanding minds are similar. Also, Susan is more broad-minded than anyone I know on the East Coast, even those decades younger. We discuss politics, and I have sought her counsel concerning my own problems many times. For me, the West Coast “odd ball” of my family, Susan’s warm acceptance has been cherished.

And I have discovered that as we age, sometimes life gives us back a tiny piece of something we have lost. Visiting Susan, crossing the Sagamore Bridge to the Cape, over and over, driving back to and through the past, I recaptured the last summer of my own mother’s life spent there some 40+ years ago.

When I first met Susan, she was striding briskly down her long gravel driveway, towards our car, shouting directions. I liked her right away. But I did not know that Susan was really grace coming towards me. And grace is something I can live with.