The meaning of a life
Once again I am called upon to look at life through the lens of the death of a loved one. I have written some cheery posts lately, but interspersed with these intentions are life and death events, seemingly at an increasing pace. I’d just written a post about the loss of a friend, and l was about to hear of the loss of another. Neither of these women had been my contemporaries in age, but both, in their different ways, had great influence in my life.
I was on my way to a regular monthly board meeting on Saturday when I got a call. I let the answering machine pick it up as I don’t like to get involved in telephone calls when I plan to leave in just a few minutes (or any other time, either, if the truth be told.) When I heard the person’s voice, though, and heard him state his name, I instantly knew who it was and why he’d called. It’s not as if this person and I chatted often, or even at all. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. There would be only one or two reasons he’d call me, and one reason more likely than any other.
I held the phone, and waited for him to tell me the news. In many ways, it was as if we’d spoken very recently. We’d had a long history of entwined families and friends; we’d grown up together in the same city. I listened as he told me how he’d gone over to his mother’s home—only 50 feet away from his own—and found her sort of crumpled on the floor, with a towel in her hand; empty, spilled coffee cup nearby. Apparently she’d made her morning cup of coffee, had spilled some, and leaned down to wipe it up. This would be the last act in her long and eventful life.
I first met…I’ll call her “Jane”, here…(her real first name was so unusual that I’d rather not reveal it. I’ve never heard anyone else called by her name which, I’d been told, was from an opera) when I was four years old. She worked as a secretary at an organization my family was involved with, and seemed to think I was fairly OK, for a kid. I remember thinking she was not horrible. I was wary of new adults; they seemed kind of loud, clueless, and might at any moment give one a smooch, or pat one on the head and feel they had every right. Jane wasn’t like that, though. She acted as if she thought even a four-year-old had a brain. Which I did. If you think I have opinions now, you should have seen me then!
As our families got to know each other, she and my mother, who was a few years older, became very good friends. And I? I became a teenager. I don’t know how you feel about teenagers in general, but it’s taken me a very long time to get to appreciate them. I didn’t like them when I was one (which included not liking myself, much), and I spent my entire teenage time waiting and wanting to get older so I could stop being a teenager, and also get away from those other teenagers. Now, I try very hard not to judge people based on their age, but back then…well, I was a teenager; what can I say?
I didn’t feel I could talk to my parents for a variety of reasons; some of them actually valid. I could talk to Jane, though. Somehow, even though she was my mother’s friend, she was able to see me as who I was, separate from Mom. I did have a rather distinct personality, which horrified my parents (“where did this child come from?”), but Jane thought I was kind of interesting and unique. Looking back on it now, I don’t know how I had the nerve to do this, but I’d often wander into her office after school (or, as I got older, during school, when I decided to “liberate” myself from attending classes regularly) and just sit there. She’d say “Hi, Muse, there you are again”, and utter her signature phrase, “What’s doin’?” And I’d tell her, whatever it was. Sometimes she was busy—she was at work, after all—but I was content to wait, if necessary. Sometimes she’d put me to work; adding up columns of figures on a calculator, or sorting papers, or running errands. Other times, her elderly mother was there helping out, too. We had great times, like a family-away-from-family. They were actually quite nice to put up with me, but it seemed normal to me at the time.
Finally, I grew up old enough to move away from home. After being asked, not all that politely, to “leave” my high school (I later put myself through college, so don’t worry about me!) I found a job, an apartment, and started to live a life of much less tension; age 18 1/3. Still, Jane remained friends with my mother. They actually got closer. Somewhere along the path of our intertwining family events, my father passed away. Jane’s husband also passed away (he is a whole other story; he and I had an ambiguous relationship).
Also somewhere along the way, I entered into a long(ish) term relationship with the elder of Jane’s two children. At first, this was all well and good. Jane thought it would be a great idea for me to ‘marry’ into the family (which, quite frankly, was never my intention). I was drawn to this relationship because there seemed something fated; almost…karmic about it. That’s another long story, and I don’t like to talk much about my personal life, so I’ll just say that, after a few years, it ended. A lot of things happened around this time. I lived in Hawaii for a year; I came back; I got a different job in a different city, and Jane, now a widow, decided to move away to another state as well. Her son; her younger child; the one who just phoned me on Saturday, had relocated to a wonderful wilderness that was, as well, a tourist retreat. He and his family built his mother a house near their own, and Jane was content to leave the city behind. She and her son encouraged my mother to move up there, too, but my mother wasn’t having any of it.
In the meantime, my life had moved on, and it was a bit awkward between us all now because of the ended relationship. Still, Jane and I exchanged holiday cards, and the occasional email. I’d hear news of her from my mother, too; their relationship remained as strong as ever.
Jane and I had a bit of a falling out during my mother’s last illness. Jane would call every single day during the last two months, and if Mom wasn’t up to talking to her, she’d speak to me. Although my mother had nursing care, and a hospice nurse, I was the “official” caretaker and liaison, and it was a trying time for me. I began to realize that, although Jane had always seemed such a strong, independent person, in so many ways, she had a shadow side that came out at this time. I know now that Jane was beginning to feel the effects of several grave illnesses herself, but I didn’t know that then. All I could tell was that she was riddled with guilt. She didn’t feel up to leaving her home in another state, where she’d been for some years; but she felt she owed it to herself to visit my mother one more time. My mother had been to see her a couple of times, so she felt she owed her. But, she also felt that it would be emotionally devastating for her to make the trip. She would ask me what to do, to which I, unhelpfully, would reply “whatever you think is best”. I’ll admit, I wanted nothing more than to get off the phone! My mother was dying! I had things to do, and my own emotions to process!
After Mom died (Jane didn’t come), we continued to exchange holiday cards, but it was never really the same. I know now that Jane had many fears and frustrations. She’d been an excellent musician, but lacked self-confidence. She fell in love, way too soon, with a (probably) inappropriate man. She had her two children very early, and gave up her musical dreams. I think when we first met, she saw in me a bright, talented, musical child, and was interested to see where that child would go in life. None of us would have guessed how our paths would intertwine.
I’m left feeling as if I’ve lost a family member. I have come to be at peace with who she was, and have even forgiven who I was. Her acceptance of me when I needed—more than anything—to be heard, will always be something I’ll cherish. And she taught me with her words, and with her example, to live my own life; to take responsibility for that; and to nurture those dreams which still are mine.