My friend Abby died yesterday. I'm not sure how well I'm going to do with this essay, because I'm so stretched between my grief, my desire to honor her life, and the fatigue that comes from waiting for an unwanted death, that I'm not sure how clear I can manage to be.
But it seems important to share this.
Last night, I got to live--at least for a little while--in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy. Which is perhaps an odd thing to write about spending time with friends after a death, and especially after the death of a woman who might have objected to my using the word "God" in any sentence where I was speaking of her or of her life. Never mind. I'll try to piece this together for you as best as I can.
Abby was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of this month. Two weeks ago, surgery revealed that the tumor in her colon was Stage IV. One week ago, sonograms and other medical analysis showed that the cancer was widespread enough that the only thing chemotherapy could guarantee her would be pain, and she and her wife made the decision for her to come home. "We realized that this is as good as it's going to get, " Abby wrote to us.
Home she came, to a bedroom that had just been painted her favorite color--purple--and a house she and her beloved had lived in for a little less than a year.
In between the visits from hospice nurses and social workers, Abby and Janet kept up a steady flow of communication with us all, letting us know that her pain was under control; that she was sleeping a lot; that she was thinking of us all. Like waves washing onto a shore, best wishes from friends arrived on their doorstep: casseroles, cards, Facebook notes and emails and phone calls, and visits. "It's the first time the house has been quiet all day, " Janet told me, early one evening this week. "Everyone keeps stopping by."
The last time I saw Abby alive was on Friday last week. Her breath was short, and her mind was wandering a bit--how much from the morphine, or from the "Ativan cocktail" she'd just been given was hard to say. She found the erosion of her razor-sharp wit and memory hard to bear, and was visibly frustrated with the constant ringing of the phones--the house phone, the cell phones for everyone present, with their dozen different rings. But she was grateful, too. Though the endless calls distracted her from her ability to say what she wanted to say, and though she felt the painful nearness of her own death ("I still have so much to do!" she cried to me, at one point) she also had nothing but praise for the friends, the hospice nurses, the endless stream of well-wishers.
She inquired anxiously how I was doing, at one point, and was there anything she could do for me? (Oh, Abby!)
Abby died at 3:00 yesterday afternoon, gently, in her sleep.
Janet called me around 6:00 or 7:00, and I told her I wanted to be there with her; she said that would be all right. When Peter and I arrived, we found Janet on the phone, calling one person after another. "I just don't want him to find out by the computer," she explained, hanging up from a call to wrap us each in a bear hug. "There are just certain people... I don't want them to find out from someone else."
Janet was focused on caring for us, caring for others, caring for Abby... She was not bustling from room to room, distracting herself from her grief. She was holding it and holding us all, wrapping us all up together in the strength of the love she and Abby had shared for one another and with us.
It was not silent. There were the phone calls, in and especially out. There was the concern for those who could not be present, but might want to be. There was the big box of photographs, spanning decades of Abby's life, her daughter's, and Janet's, which a changing pool of a half-dozen or so of us shared with one another along with matzoh-ball soup, knishes, and fistfuls of kleenex.
It was quiet when Janet announced that she felt it was time to call the funeral home to come for Abby's body.
"They'll be here at nine," she told us, minutes later.
I reflected back that it seemed important for us to be there for Janet when they arrived--did she agree? She did, so Peter and I went home briefly, to care for our dogs, and make a few calls of our own, to "our" part of the phone tree. Passing the word.
We returned, anxious Janet not be alone when the funeral staff arrived. We need not have worried. As one person hugged goodbye, another arrived. More waiting, photographs, sadness... and love.
The moment when Janet disappeared with the stretcher-bearers to assess the logistics for removing Abby's body was a hard one. At one point, I looked into the eyes of a woman I had never met before, and said, "Hi. I'm Cat. You don't know me, but I need to hug someone. Do you mind?" She shook her head, and we wrapped our arms around one another, holding each other as we cried a bit.
I know that woman now. And she knows me.
In fact, we all of us know one another now, who were willing to hold and be held in our grief. I have looked into the eyes of men and women I did not know a week ago, and found love and comfort there. Each of these people loved my friend, for a longer or shorter time. Each of them holds a small spark of her fire, and is bearing it forward within them.
We're friends within and through our friends. Through our love for them, we can love each other. Through our love for each other, we have our friends: alive still, whole and strong.
We comforted one another. We comforted Janet--awkwardly, I'm sure, but I know my friend, and her heart held enough grace to see beyond our lack of it. Janet and Abby both faced this parting with enormous courage... and grace.
It takes grace, to remain grateful for love in the midst of loss. It takes grace to see the small gifts of reflected memories in the eyes of the friends who love you and grieve with you. It takes grace not to give way to bitterness, or blame, or anger (as we all will eventually do, at least for a while).
I am deeply grateful that Abby and Janet were able to stay in that grace together.
My friend's death is a tragedy, a lost color in a rainbow, a lost instrument in a symphony that demands her song. We who remain are inadequate to carry her stories as they should be carried; we are inadequate to comfort one another, let alone her wife, our friend. That is true.
But it is also true that those who live with open hearts and with gratitude for the small and human gifts of love receive something extraordinary from time to time. There is something there, waiting to be allowed inside, that is bigger than a knish or a kleenex, or even a human heart.
I have seen flocks of birds rising together in a wave, flying so close that wing nearly brushes wing. With invisible signals, they know: now we wheel. Now we soar. Together in one wave they crest and rise and fall, gathered in beauty. To me, that is a vision of the Kingdom of God.
And last night was a vision of the Kingdom of God.
Wheeling and turning, embracing and mourning a friend, we stood gathered by grace and by gratitude into the living presence where there is no loss, there is no death, and every eye reflects back all the love it has been given, fully and without distortion, into the eye of every other.
The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy, the Kingdom of Love is right now, forever, and every minute; if we let it. If we have the strength (or the grace) to find the love, even in the heart of loss.
We do not need to wait for heaven. We live in the Kingdom now.
May God heal all hearts.
Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one. She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.