Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Our Dear Chris
My dear friend Chris died last Friday, January 24 at 4:02 pm. The week before, she had had a massive stroke, and in the end, she died at home. Thursday morning, the day before she died, Ann and I went by to say goodbye.
Only I don’t feel like I was saying good-bye. Chris and I have been friends for almost twenty years and soul sisters since my brain surgery seven years ago. Often, she would give me a ride to someplace where we would visit together, and as she pulled up in front of our house at the end, she would pause at the disabled parking sign and say, “Hey, I want you to know that your friendship means a lot to me. We have become deep friends so quickly….” Once she said, “I don’t know why that is. I have some idea, but….”
I didn’t ask her at the time what that idea was. It seemed like she was talking to herself more than to me, and I didn’t want to push into her privacy. She was, as her partner’s twin sister Ellen said, “an open private person.” Now I wonder, and she will never tell me, and so I’m guessing.
The most obvious reason is that we both lived with disabilities, she from diabetes and me from brain tumors, though I am more at peace with my disabilities than I think she was with hers. Chris and I know what it’s like for our lives to change while the world does not. We know what it’s like to slow down. We know what it’s like to feel great love and grace and gratitude along with our pain. We love the world and people, books and poetry.
Chris and I laughed together a lot. I remember once when she was talking to me about her diabetes and told me how irritating she found it when people talked about “the three times I ran around Green Lake today.” I may have talked about that in the salad days of my youth. No more. A decade or so ago, she was the librarian for the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. Now I’m a student in that school, and there’s no library there anymore, but I think of her every time that I go to the “research commons,” a large room that used to be the library. Now it has tables and computers but no books.
Chris was more radical than I am, though I’m moving in her direction. Though I was more a child of the sixties than the seventies, the era when I grew up, my preppy add-a-beads and pink and green skirts, tempered my natural tendencies.
Chris moved to Seattle in 1973, when she was 25, and I was in third grade in North Carolina. She was for a while a Wobbly, and she always loved Pete Seeger songs. Her longtime friends Bryher and Gude returned to Seattle to be with her and Donna as Chris died. They had some photos from Chris’s early days when her hair was brown. Funny, it had not occurred to me that her hair had ever been anything different from the white I knew. (Of course, I would have known that. It just never occurred to me.)
Though Chris would get an advanced degree as a librarian and do jobs like being the Health and Sciences librarian at the University of Washington, she always identified as a working class person. Once she told me that her favorite jobs had been the jobs where she was a cook. She was the first cook at what I think was the first lesbian tavern in Seattle, her friend Bryher’s Wild Rose.
Chris had a great spirit. She has always been so present to the person she is with. In this connection, I was always present with her, too. I think she invited me to be present. I honor that presence, and aim to be like her.
(I really need a new verb tense to write about Chris. That’s because part of her “was” and part of her “is” and in English we don’t have a tense for the eternal present, which is what I need now.)
When Ann and I visited Chris and her partner Donna’s home to say good-bye to this gentle person whom we loved, we went into the room where her hospital bed was situated. She had always loved color, and she wore a tie-dyed t-shirt. When she opened her eyes, she could look out the windows to the mountains and the trees, and in her last two days, to sunlight. As I held her hand in mine and said, “Hi Chris, it’s Mary,” she opened her eyes and looked directly at me, with those gentle blue eyes that have always taken me in. She could not speak, but she grunted a little which may have meant, “Hi Mary. I’m glad to see you,” or “I’m in pain and need more morphine,” or both. Ellen says this grunt was her new laughter, so I’m hoping that it was one of those expressions of joy that I have become accustomed to hearing from her. I like to think that seeing me might have brought her some joy towards the end. So much of her life was joyous.
I read the poem, “God Says Yes to Me” and held her hand for a while. I chose this poem because it is down-to-earth, amusing, sweet and generous, as she was. I’m guessing she loved the “Sweetcakes” part, and if I were still to call her name in the ways I have been, I might call her “Sweetcakes.” I think she’d like that.
God Says Yes To Me
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
Having been a patient in the hospital for brain surgery and then returned home to a bed on the first floor myself, I remembered how glad I was to see people and how quickly I tired, so after Ann and I each held her hand for a few moments, we left to join her partner Donna and her dear friends Gude and Bryher in the other room.
Donna has lost weight (maybe it has been water weight from all the tears), but she was gracious and gentle with us. She told us how much Chris had loved us and had talked about us. I said something like, “Our spirits connected. We were very much present together.”
Though Chris and I were soul sisters, we were relatively new friends. I think we were both more listeners than talkers, but we talked easily together and sat comfortably together in silence. So in some ways we knew each other well and in some ways we were absolutely new to one another.
Last year, we attended a writing group together once a month, and we talked about that writing and shared it between sessions. We were once invited to answer the prompt, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” We were both more explorers in our writing than answerers, so I wrote about three animals (cat—how I see myself—dolphin –how others see me –turtle –how I truly am) and she wrote about two (elephant—her spiritual center—and basset hound—her mentor).
When Chris wrote about the moments she was in love with, of course she wrote about cooking: “When I was a cook, I felt like a ballerina dancing to get all the ingredients added….I was definitely a ballerina.”
Chris’s favorite poem that she wrote was about her experiences on trains with her mother, which in the beginning was about their early rides together and became in the end a metaphor for her mother’s ride into death, “a train [Chris] could not ride.”
At the end of the poem, Chris wrote, “And I know everything’s OK when she’s on a train. / I have always believed that and still do.”
Chris is on that train now. And she’s okay. And so am I. And so are we. And we are more than okay because we knew each other. We are loved and lovely, all of us.