Sharing friendship, sharing loss

Bereavement is a deep pit of sorrow, but a caring hand can help pull you out

January 08, 2012|By Patricia Schultheis

In starless, predawn darkness, I was driving on the Beltway last January, and I was stinking. I'd woken to find my Dickeyville home had no hot water — and no option but to take my friend Carolyn to her appointment, as I'd promised, without showering.

For Carolyn and me, hassles like broken water heaters are reminders that she and I are widows. With one hand, we dial the repairmen and write the checks, and with the other grope for an absent hand.

Two years earlier, Carolyn — tall, blond and almost catatonic with grief for her beloved Johnny — had sat beside me in our bereavement group.

"You were saying the things I was thinking," she later told me. What, specifically, I had said in those bereavement meetings, I have no idea. In those early months, my grief had been a bumper car bouncing from rage to despair. Still, our friendship had grown, even surviving a two-week trip to Turkey and Greece that tested whether it could withstand Carolyn's natural reserve and my flibbertigibbet sociability. (It did.)

So, despite not showering, I was happy to take her for her colonoscopy.

Carolyn lives in Carroll County, where the broad pastures of Maryland's rural heritage roll away before fading into woodlands. This peaceful land is so generously fertile and gently rounded, it's like the stooped shoulders of a forgiving grandfather.

And the new outpatient medical center perched on the crest of a ridge looked hopelessly temporary. A violation matched only by the relentless cheeriness of its staff.

At 7:30, Carolyn was the only patient. Would I want to be with her while she was prepped? her nurse inquired. I told him no — I'd brought my book, my coffee and my plumber's number. Well away from the perky girls behind the sliding glass window, I settled in.

The next two to arrive were a man and a woman with a loose chignon knotted on top of her head. One of the perky girls handed the woman a questionnaire, and she began filling it out. Her companion not saying a word, the woman muttered she didn't know the answers.

She didn't know her weight, nor her height, she said, but then she'd suddenly write something down.

"How old am I," she asked. "Of course, 67 ... I'm 67."

The coincidence struck me: I was 67, too. And, watching her, I knew I'd probably never again have what that woman had, the comfort of a someone beside me while I filled in the blanks of my life.

When the woman was summoned away, the man stared in the way a person does when his mind needs a rest. Or is weighed down with granite-hard worry.

In the time it took him to stretch out his legs and unkink his knees, she returned. Whatever procedure she was undergoing was a two-part process, and the first step couldn't have gone better. Beneath his baseball cap with its Army logo, her companion's four-square face brightened.

At first, the two of them sat, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a warm, dozy silence. And then the woman began chatting again, this time about "putt-putt golf." And the man, too, began talking about "putt-putt golf." The giddy fun of his observations lit the woman with a rejuvenating vibrancy. I watched them ride a river of understanding flowing beneath their words. The man rested his left ankle on his right knee and said something I couldn't hear. But she touched his arm, and then her fingers brushed the inside of his thigh. Oh, that old sweet heat.

The longer Bill and I had been married - 41 years when he died - the more I had been struck by the wonder that he and I still had something to say, still could make each other laugh and kindle the fires within.

"We're good for about five or six hours apart," I once told a friend. "And then we have something to tell the other." Seeing a fox. Or an especially beautiful moon. Or one of our sons calling with good news. Or bad. Or our cat catching a goldfinch. Six hours, and we have more fuel to keep the fire going.

Earlier in my widowhood, a little scene like the one transpiring in that waiting room would have washed me in an acid bath of grief. And I would have wanted to grab one of the perky girls' pencils and stab those two, with their putt-putt golf.

But that morning, I simply turned from watching them and called my plumber and then followed Carolyn's nurse to where she was emerging from her anesthesia.

In the recovery room, I realized that Bill's cancer had given me a gift: having been in so many such rooms and seen so much unarticulated discomfort, I could read my friend's eyes.

"You look cold," I said. Carolyn nodded, and her nurse bustled away to find another blanket. And then he got a chair for me. And when he had Carolyn lay on her side, he moved the chair so she and I could look at each other.

"I wonder if he thinks we're lovers," I said. Carolyn understood the irony: The only reason that we two women had found each other was because we'd lost men.

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