Ode to My Friend, Fly Away Dove

pigeon-1643090_640I first met M in a long-term, free support group. After the meeting, she was the first person who introduced herself, welcomed me, and told me to call her anytime.

She was one of those people who, as soon as you met her, reminded you of an angel. That sounds sentimental, but people who knew her will understand. She absolutely glowed with goodness and faith.

Although we both live on the East Coast, she had retained her Midwest accent from her hometown. One of her favorite expressions was, “Good for you!” with the accent on the word “Good.” She would use this expression enthusiastically whether you achieved a major accomplishment, experienced a huge awakening, or simply got your highlighted.

A few weeks after we met, I gave her a call. I don’t remember our exact conversations, just that she inspired me with her words and her voice. We also spoke a lot after meetings and soon became friends. But other issues led me into a deep depression.

When it got really bad, and I was afraid to be alone in my apartment with my disturbing thoughts, she let me sleep on her couch. I slept there one or two nights under a quilt that was probably homemade by her sisters. In the corner was a desk stacked with Bibles, devotional readers, and recovery books, where M did her “quiet time” with God every morning. During the night, her fluffy husky/retriever mix dog slept on the floor next to me. I knew I was safe.

After a day or two, the worst of it had passed, and I slept in my own apartment. Since M had healthy boundaries, I intuitively sensed that crashing on her couch for the rest of my life, soaking up her warmth and faith, was not the solution. (Darn.)

I sought professional help and went to various support groups more regularly. She attended the same meetings as well. She’d sit with her trusty checkered lumbar roll tucked between her back and the metal folding chair, her gray-streaked hair spilling out of her baseball cap in curly tendrils. She always welcomed newcomers, saying how she always felt like a newcomer and was a “slow learner.”

But I don’t think that was true at all. I think she was so wise that she didn’t even know how wise she was. She was wise enough to know that childlike innocence would make new people feel safe around her. By talking about her own inner child so gently, she welcomed the children hidden in all of us. (Other children, from her students to her grand-nieces and grand-nephews, loved her too.)

I am a slow learner myself, and I struggled with many issues after I met M. But one day, strongly inspired by her own faith, I got down on my knees and told Jesus, “Ok, I am sorry for my sins, I’m putting my whole life in your hands, please save me and take over my life.” (I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like that.)

When I called her the next morning to tell her, she was so happy for me and jotted the date down in one of her devotional books. She would always remind me of that day when it would come around in future years.

Several years later, after I finally met (and married) the right man for me, we moved into the apartment/condo community where she lived. (I really wasn’t stalking her—it was the only reasonably priced place in our housing market.) M and I took lots of walks around the loop road. She was always so healthy, walking every day, swimming at least five times a week, and eating organic/whole food everything.

She also introduced me to a huge, amazing thrift store where we hunted down many fashion finds. Sorting through the crazy color-sorted racks, trying skirts on over our jeans, was pure fun.

But, oh, God, please help me, because now I am thinking of how we went to the thrift store less often in the past couple years. I also began attending a different type of recovery group, which she didn’t attend, so I saw her less often at meetings too.

Sometimes I invited her over to our place, but she often had to decline. (She worked up to six days a week at two jobs, was very active in her church, and had many dear friends.)

I now wish I’d extended more invitations to her and been more spontaneous. Because last month, after seeing a doctor about symptoms that she thought were from a minor car accident, she was diagnosed with terminal, Stage Four pancreatic cancer.

I can’t believe that someone as alive as her could have gotten a terminal diagnosis. How could she be dying? I think she may have saved me from dying by offering me her couch and companionship back when I was so depressed. After I heard the news of her cancer, I wished we’d spent more time together in the past year.

However—and I don’t know how to say this without sounding like, “Yes, let’s make her cancer about ME”—her illness had the effect of bringing us closer again. With a prognosis of up to six months to live (in the end, she had less than two) she quit both her jobs to rest in her apartment. And I knew, with a certainty I don’t usually have, that it was God’s will for me to help her now in her illness, as she had once helped me in mine.

Her illness was physical and terminal, mine had been emotional and relatively short-lived, but there were parallels in other ways. Because now I was the one being with her, just sitting on her couch and providing company, bringing her the special rice milk she liked from the store, watching Heaven Is Real with her and just listening.

We prayed together too, although I am so shy about praying that she was the one who initiated the prayers. I still remember her holding my hands and praying to God, thanking him for all his gifts even while she was dying of cancer.

She had many other friends helping, both from her church and from other parts of her life. I certainly was not the only member of her vast support network, nor was I the most helpful, so I don’t want to overplay my role. But I happened to be the closest physically (within walking distance), and I work from home. So I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with her in the last month of her life. She always thanked me, but as I told her, the blessing was mine.

And I meant it. It was my joy to help her with simple things like decluttering her VCR tapes and washing her dishes—and more complicated things like replacing her pain patch, something I did with a complete lack of ability or finesse, accidentally sticking myself with a corner of the pain patch, then freaking out from the scary “black box” instructions and calling the poison control center!

By the way, the lady at the poison control center had a gravelly, bossy voice that made me immediately visualize a tough broad smoking and rolling her eyeballs.

Meanwhile, my poor friend M (you know, the one who actually had the cancer) was sweetly waiting while I talked to poison control, worrying about myself.

I had no ill effects, but in the future, I would definitely read all the directions first and use medical gloves. Those pain patches can actually be dangerous. (“I am not a doctor, this is not intended as medical advice,” and so on.)

Anyway, the pain patch incident wasn’t such a great memory. But of course, while I awkwardly applied the patch, she said, “You’re doing a great job!”

During that bittersweet time of her illness, there were good memories too. One time as I washed her dishes, she rested in her recliner and said, “It’s so nice just to have you around.” I still hear those words in my head. They were one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Obviously, I wish it wasn’t cancer that gave us lots of time together. Because it took all future times away. Still, those moments with her were timeless. Something about impending death gave the present day a stamp of permanence. Simple moments like eating kale salad with her or watching DVDs together on her couch are crystallized in my mind.

We still took our walks too, although they were much shorter and slower than before. The cancer slowed her down, but she still loved the fresh air. After walking a little bit, we’d sit on the bench and stare at the golden leaves on the trees. The traffic hummed in the distance on the county highway, but it had the effect of soothing white noise, like an ocean. (She loved the ocean, often visiting a friend who lived on the beach.)

Thank God, oh, thank you, God, that M and I had some “goodbye” chats. I told her how much she’d helped me, and that she was one of the main reasons I’d turned my life over to God. And she talked about how she was looking forward to seeing Jesus. But sometimes she said, “I just can’t believe this is my life” in a surprised voice. It wasn’t angry or sad, just surprised.

Thank God that I was able to listen to her goodbyes without glossing it over with unrealistic rah-rah pep talks. She had Stage Four pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver. It was too late for any type of cure—this was confirmed at the best cancer hospital in the country. She knew she was dying, but as she said with a smile, “I know where I’m going!”

She got the diagnosis in October, and in early November she quipped to me, “Well, looking on the bright side, at least I may not have to live through the elections!” (Incidentally, she did make it through the elections.)

One afternoon as we sat on the bench and stared at the gold and auburn leaves on the trees, she said, “I could sit here forever.” In that moment, I knew that after she passed away, I would sit there again and think of her, and try to bask in just a bit of her warmth from Heaven.

I am not ready to sit on that bench again yet, although part of me is sitting there this second, having this conversation with her now as I am having a “conversation” with you.

After her diagnosis, I think I saw her almost every day, if not every day. But pancreatic cancer moves fast, at least hers did, and soon her walking got slower and slower, her face seemed to get paler. Yet, through it all, she still glowed. How can that be? It wasn’t a physical glow but a spiritual glow.

After lots of prayers, she decided to move back to the Midwest to spend her final months in her sister’s house. Her other siblings and dozens of nieces and nephews would be only a few miles away. I knew I’d miss her, but I also knew it was the best thing for her and her family.

Two siblings flew out here and helped her move out of her apartment. Together they all flew back to her sister’s state. I had a chance to say goodbye to her that morning, and I waved as she rode away in the passenger seat of the rental car. I did not let her see me cry. I saved that for later.

When I texted her to see how the trip went and if she was settled in, she said she was settled in fine but her energy was low. She thanked me for bringing her donated books to her church library (she was always thinking about how to help others).

I had no idea that would be the last thing I would hear from her, although I had a bad feeling when she didn’t reply to my future texts. Her already fragile health took a fast downward turn about five days after she left. She died a few minutes after midnight, on the day before Thanksgiving.

As a mutual friend remarked, the sad timing near Thanksgiving was also somehow fitting, because M was the most grateful person she’d known. She was the most grateful person I’ve ever known too.

But I am not feeling grateful now, I am angry. She herself wasn’t angry about the diagnosis, but I was and still am. And I miss her. I just want to eat kale salad with her again or walk into a meeting and see her smiling face and curly ponytail. I want to hear her voice on her home answering machine saying, “Take care, and enjoy all the gifts that this day has to offer. Buh bye!”

I know I will have to work out my anger as well as my grief. I pray that somehow I will hear her voice telling me how to do that.

Maybe that has already begun. One of the things she gave me, while I was helping her pack up her apartment, was an old copy of one her favorite devotionals, Quiet Moments with God, by Lloyd John Ogilvie. She had bought a new copy because the old one was coming apart and held together by tape. But she couldn’t part with the old one either, so she gave it to me.

I treasure that book! It has her name handwritten on the inside cover, her highlights of passages and verses, and her little, cryptic notes. Sometimes, she simply wrote dates or years on top of an entry, or a star, or one word like “wow.”

Each page of the book has a printed date, but sometimes her penciled-in dates are different from the printed dates. I’m guessing she read the book out of order and cycled through different pages on different years.

Anyway, an hour after I’d heard she’d passed away, I was flipping through the book, searching for those little notes and stars and handwritten WOWs, desperate for some little sign from her.

Then I found it. On the devotional page for August 24, she had written in the corner, Promiseland, 06—me. I know she often went to a campsite in Promised Land State Park in Pennsylvania. (She loved camping.) My theory is that she was in a tent there in 2006 when she first read that entry.

But I think it’s a bigger message—that she is in the promised land now. Because below her handwritten note that said Promiseland, 06—me, the books has this printed scripture verse on the page:

“Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
For then I would fly away and be at rest.”
—Psalm 55:6. 

img_20161228_191457580To me, that page is a message from M and God that she is flying, flying, yet also resting in God’s wings. Because if anyone had the wings to fly up to Heaven, it was her.

2 thoughts on “Ode to My Friend, Fly Away Dove”

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