Four years ago, I drove across the Bay and met a couple of friends out for lunch. We had a grand day chatting with each other and doting on the one friend’s new grand baby that her daughter dropped by to show us. From all outward appearances, we were just three good friends talking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company. No one would have suspected that one of us had stage 4 cancer and was weeks away from dying; weeks away from leaving her friends and loved ones and succumbing to a disease that she had so gallantly and courageously battled.
I don’t remember the topics of conversation or laughter and it really doesn’t matter. What I do remember, though, is the way Janet looked at me when we started leaving that afternoon. I remember those piercing, loving blue eyes of hers and the killer smile that always made you feel loved and cared for; and how she stood in the parking lot as the three of us were saying goodbye and how time suddenly stood still as she appeared to take a mental picture of us and everything around her.
And the longer she looked, the tighter the knot twisted in the pit of my stomach. I knew my friend, and I remember feeling that something was terribly wrong. So, taking the bull by the horns, I asked her if there was something else she needed to tell us – if the cancer had worsened?
She gave me that reassuring smile of hers and told me to get on the freeway – that she’d give me an update on everything as soon as she knew – as soon as the Doctors told her.
“Stop worrying,” she lovingly scolded. “I promise I’ll call.”
I knew that she wouldn’t. She knew it, as well. But what could I do? What could I say? We all got into our cars and home we wistfully drove.
And shortly after our lunch date, regular communication with Janet stopped.
Phone calls went unanswered. Emails and Facebook messages were far and few between. And those messages that were answered were cryptically short. The panic set in. The realization that my dear friend was dying hit home. She was leaving without saying good-bye. She was leaving and protecting me – protecting me one last time – not because she was selfish; not because she didn’t care…. She was so dedicated to me, so faithful and so caring. She knew I was unwell. She knew I was fatigued. She knew the drive over to her would be taxing and compromising, so she kept me at bay; kept me safely ensconced in a protective cocoon.
Like a butterfly escaping and transforming anew, I broke thru my cocoon and eventually her denial; and insisted I drive over – insisted I come – because I selfishly needed to; selfishly cared.
She knew that I loved her. She knew how I felt. She knew that I needed one last time for “good-byes”.
My dedicated, loyal friend; my Lancelot from the start. School was our Camelot and I was her Arthur. From the moment I met her, she was my aide, my confident. She graciously followed and did more than assist; she inspired and cheered and laughed when I blundered – and always the protector – she lifted me gently and helped me transform. She taught me, she cared for me; and when I was too ill to teach, she selflessly took over and never complained.
“How could my Lancelot die?” I needed to know why.
So ride-over I did and our visit was great. We ate and we laughed and we said our farewells.
And when I arose from her bedside to leave her frail, beautiful, blue-eyed-self, wearily lying in her bed that day; I remember walking toward the bedroom door, eyes misting, looking at the floor; not wanting to look back, not wanting to break down. But me being me, and her being her – I glanced back one last time, took-in her loving eyes one more moment, and then broke down sobbing, as she bravely smiled on, and out the door I went – out the door I staggered.
Crawling into my car, I began to compose myself, when I suddenly saw Janet’s husband gallantly standing on the sidewalk next to my door.
“Hey,” he began. “You doin’ ok?”
“Janet’s worried that you’re too upset to drive all that way,” he continued.
“She sent me out to make sure you’re alright. So, that’s what I’m doing, ‘cuz you know Janet, and if I don’t she’ll be upset. So, are you ok?” he dutiful asked.
I answered that I was and he nodded ok.
I drove on and got home and have no idea how; but of this I am grateful, of this I am certain – Janet’s life was a precious, flawless gift to me, and I will always be thankful for her dedicated, unconditional love that she showered on me and so many others.
Last year, as I celebrated my 60th with a whale watching trip out of Monterey Bay, I thought of Janet (as I often do on especially beautiful days) as we headed-out on the open seas of the Bay, and began to tear-up for a brief time, when I suddenly sensed this light presence next to my glasses and noticed a monarch butterfly fluttering to the right of me. I never saw a butterfly so far away from shore before and it brought a smile to my face and lightened my heart. As I watched it disappear into the horizon, I couldn’t help but think that somehow this beautiful butterfly was Janet’s attempt (from beyond) to let me know that she was ok and that it was time to let go; that she lost her battle with cancer, but that our friendship was still intact and that she was an integral part of my life and who I was – that as long as I was alive, SHE was alive – and for that I am eternally grateful.
May you all be blessed with the unconditional love of a friend or dear one, and may you know the joy of bestowing that same love on another.
I’ll catch you the next time, looking at life from my shoes!