The Next Step
Peace of mind doesn't depend on having all the pieces
I said goodbye to my friend recently.
Two weeks prior, she wished me a happy birthday. Two weeks and one day later, I held her hand and thanked her. She was already gone. She passed away while I was in the subway.
The days and weeks and months, and even the past couple years, made it impossible for her death to come as a surprise.
But that still doesn’t make it less of a blow.
We’d known each other for roughly 40 years. Through dance classes, university (me), jobs, retirement (her), sickness, surgery and many celebrations. She believed in me as an artist, as a person, as a teacher, and most importantly, as a friend. We both saw me as her little sister. She saw in me abilities I couldn’t see in myself, and she spoke her mind to everyone she met.
As her advocate, I knew what my friend wanted and was determined to represent her wishes and to see that those wishes were honored. But there was one question I hadn’t asked. Though I had planned to ask if she wanted me there in her final moments, she passed away before the question passed my lips.
We had spoken the day before she died and I told her I would be back to visit her two days later. On what turned out to be her final morning alive, I changed my mind. I could not wait two more days. I had to go to her today.
She had called me twice in the middle of the night and left a voicemail asking me for information on her oxygen level. Calling in the middle of the night or extremely late was not entirely unusual.
Unfortunately, I was asleep and missed the call.
The next morning, I heard her voicemail and called. When she didn’t pick up, I called the nurse and asked her to enter the room and let her know that I was calling her back.
I could hear the nurse communicating with her and my friend seemed to be indicating she did not want to talk on the phone. Her not wanting to talk was not as alarming as you might think: it is very hard to speak when you have to wear an oxygen mask most of the time.
Still, I had a strong feeling that I needed to go to the hospital. It was a far commute, so I moved my afternoon commitments and notified my assistant that I would be out-of-pocket after I finished teaching my morning class.
There are many things that happened next; calls to me, calls from me, my rushing somewhere and my waiting somewhere. In the end, all I can say, is that while I realized that I didn’t know what she wanted, I learned what I wanted: I wanted to be there. Despite my efforts, that did not happen, and so all that I could do now was hope she left this world the same way she did just about everything else while she was here: on her own terms.
My friend was a woman who knew her mind. If dying alone was what she wanted, it would be easier for me to let go of what I wanted. Because more than being with her while she passed, more than anything else, I wanted her last moments to be as she wished.
The truth is, I’ll never really know what she wanted in those final moments. Not while I’m alive, anyway. And there is nothing more to do. I could make up stories and interpret the events in a way to put myself at ease, but those are simply interpretations. If I want to be at ease, I need to choose to be at ease based on something real.
What do I know? That I showed up. On that day, and in the days, weeks and so on before, I showed up. I remind myself of that because, I believe, in matters like this, it is better to focus on what you know than theorize about what you don’t. I find some assurance in things like the fact that I and her neighbor (who is also a friend) will bring her ashes to where she wants them, and that by carrying out her remaining wishes, I can continue to show up. Fully.
Being able to live with “not knowing” is something we all face. Every day. And at some point, on every scale. Life has gaps, where the answers are not clear. If we cannot handle the not-knowing, we will have a lot of trouble living life. So I’m letting go of what I don’t know and I trust that in the letting go comes the next step.
Is my friend happy now? At peace? I don’t know, but I sure hope so. She’s out of physical suffering, and that’s a gift. Being able to hold her hand and speak with her…that was a gift I'll cherish forever.
What’s next for us? For her, I hope she rests in peace. For me, it’s to live. So really we have the same mission: take the next step.