We went to visit an old friend today. Not that she is really ‘old’, rather we have known her for so long it is difficult to remember a time when we didn’t know her. Even though we met her when we moved to Colorado, it seems she has been part of our lives for much longer.
When we first arrived here, Kristen took a job at an eating disorder treatment center. Kristen met her there where they ran a group together. It was a group that treated the women who lost the fight to live up to our market driven ideas about what a woman was supposed to look like. The last acts of defiance being a finger down the throat or outright starvation. Kristen had a hard time with it and eventually left the field, but Denise, our old friend, always managed to retain a visage of sanity while wading through the complete absence of it.
I wish I could say that we were looking forward to our visit. Like the time we all went to the Bahamas and hung out with mom and Jerry, cruised around on our sailboat and enjoyed the crunchy feeling of salt drying on sun-kissed skin. Or like the many times she came to visit us at our mountain retreat or in our new home in Salida sharing stories and good food.
We got to the hospital around mid-day March 10th, 2015. It was a glorious Colorado spring day, which felt like utter betrayal. On one hand the whole thing just seems surreal very much like returning home from Seattle in March of 2012. That day too was a glorious Colorado day that refused to convey the betrayal of the State of Colorado when they burned down our house, 21 others and killed 3 of our neighbors. Denise helped us in the weeks that followed by sifting through the ashes in search of artifacts of our lives that in some ways ended on that March day.
The walk to the elevator in the “Inpatient” building of the hospital was like heading to the principal’s office. We weren’t sure what was going to happen when we got there but it most likely was not going to be good. We arrived at the room where family and friends sat outside. We greeted in the awkward whispers that people do in these situations, as if hearing yourself out loud would be much too stark a reminder why we were all here.
Denise had been having stomach pain and thought it was most likely something she ate or at least a bad case of gas. Unfortunately, the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that had produced a sizable tumor around her duodenum did not care what she ate, how good a shape she was in or how many people's lives Denise had touched or saved. It just "was", just like the sun "is" or a car accident "is." The prognosis was good right up until a couple of days ago, when it wasn’t. The bone marrow transplant refused to take, and even with all the practice that doctors get, there was nothing left to be done except manage the pain.
I was not sure what to expect walking through the door and had tried the best I could to be prepared. But you can never be prepared to see your good friend in this condition. The hand of death was on her, yet her hands were still warm. The high dosage of dilaudid was the only way to control the pain. She knew we were there evidenced by the nearly imperceptible nods and less imperceptible groans. Holding her hand I was still unconvinced it was actually her. With no hair and not having seen her eyes it was easy to convince myself that she might be an imposter. That is until the pain broke through the haze and caused her to writhe with a recognizable expression of pain piercing the otherwise slack, expression. Yes, as much as I struggled to deny it, this was our Denise lying in front of us, all but unrecognizable.
As we sat with her, we sifted through the ashes of her life with family and friends. In these stories we looked for the artifacts that would prove she had been here and lived well. We laughed, we cried and we said goodbye as the hospital radio station featuring old classics played in the background. It was a good ride Denise. You will not be forgotten.
Sunday, March 15, 11:25 am
Denise passed from this world on Sunday. Kristen asked me to write more about what this all means to me. I have to say, I really didn't know what I would write. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do have a few things to relate. In the vein of one who is as opinionated as I, how could I not?
It is utterly surreal. Denise was one of the good ones. She was supposed to outlive us all. The fact is, if nothing else, this whole thing is proof that looking for meaning in the happenings of life is a hapless endeavor. I know that Denise's life had great meaning to those whom she touched and those whom she loved and that loved her. We chose the meaning we assigned to those relationships as did she.
It is looking for meaning in the meaningless that is an utter waste of potentially meaningful time. I have very little patience for the pedantic, pseudo-spiritual explanations for these things like "God has a plan" or "illness is a product fear, anger and resentment" or "they must not have been vegan, it's karma." If that were the case, then I should have been taken long ago. Spare me, please. If you know me and have the urge to explain the inexplicable through some such milk toast, feckless banter, please check yourself. It serves no one and does nothing to lessen the pain.
And I don't want to lessen the pain. It is how I know that she meant something to me. I hope there will always be a smile along side a couple of tears when I think of Denise and the time she spent with Kristen and me. It really all comes down to that. Have we touched others and have we allowed others to touch us. I cannot really see that anything else makes a damn bit of difference in the final analysis. Thank you Denise for how you touched us. I can only hope we touched you with even a fraction of the same depth. God speed.