I've written a few times here about my good friend Gertrude. This week, she turned 97. Before I met Gert, I'd never known or had the opportunity to really talk with someone who's lived that long. I am grateful to her for giving me a new perspective - for opening my eyes to struggles I had never known - for sharing her wisdom with me - and for appreciating what I brough to the table of our friendship.
This year's birthday wasn't exactly the happiest day.
About a month ago, Gert was hospitalized for anemia and dehydration. She spent two weeks in the hospital - getting thinner and sicker, despite the IV fluid and transfusions - by the day. After she was moved to a nursing home, the decline continued. Two weeks into the nursing home stay, she was moved back to Rhode Island Hospital, where it was confirmed that the colon cancer she has twice battled succesfully - has returned. Because of her age and how far the disease has progressed and because of how weak she's become and because of her wishes, it was decided that radiation and chemotherapy were not viable options. On Thursday, her 97th birthday, she was moved to a nursing home with a hospice staff.
I am struggling so much with how to go about saying goodbye to my friend. Although she has some very good days, days when I think she just might pull through this, I know that that's foolish thinking. I can see in her eyes, that she knows it too. And it is breaking my heart into a million tiny pieces. Many times in the past, when Gert has been sick, I was heartened by the look of sheer will and determination in her eyes. It was a look that said, "I'm going home from this place. I'm GOING to get stronger. I'm GOING to defy the odds." That look is absent this time. Her eyes tell me that she's tired, really-truly tired.
I suck at saying goodbye. It is just not something I'm good at. Especially now - with Gert. I feel like by saying goodbye, by letting my heart let go a little, by trying to come to terms with the world losing this wonderful soul, I am giving up on her. I am wrestling with two distinct, at-odds emotions - grief and guilt. Is it OK to grieve the decline, even though I feel like I'm quitting on my friend by doing so? Is it OK to prepare my heart for what will ultimately happen - or is this short-changing her strength (I mean, maybe she *will* pull through)? And how do I sit with her, holding those hands - so small, but that have held a whole world I'll never know -and not cry? How do I keep my emotions in check? How do I bring the most positive, strong energy I can to her when a piece of me is breaking inside?
This is not the first time I've lost someone. I realize that these are all normal emotions. But this time, this loss, feels so final. I have no grandparents left living - I have no great aunts or uncles. Gert has been a connection to the past that has meant the world to me. I see in her the same strength, born in hard-work and struggle, that I saw in my grandparents. I have found in her a connection to history. And she has inspired me to take advantage of my own ability to stay strong, to work hard, and to make the most of every able moment I get.
I know these next days - weeks - months? will be trying. I hope that I have the strength and the will to help my friend to stay as graceful and as steely as always as she makes her way onward. And I hope with all of my heart that she'll know, as she exits, what a difference she's made in my life.
Your good thoughts and prayers would be appreciated.