Sunday, May 31, 2009
a bright burning star is gone
my friend died yesterday, she was only 43. her name is lenea and we have been friends for 27 years. in high school we were inseparable in junior and senior years. neither of us fit in very well in our suburban high school, we didn't think like the rest of our peers. both eldest children, we bitched about our siblings and compared notes on all the ways our parents failed us. lenea had a smile that made your heart melt. we shopped together, went out drinking with fake ID cards and dressed up for halloween. we shared a very strong bond even after high school ended, in fact, she felt abandoned when i left for a year in europe after graduation. by the time i returned, she had moved to the east coast for college. we've had our ups and downs, like every relationship, especially one between two strong-willed opinionated women. uppity women, one could say - in our younger years.
time and distance never changed the love between us. even if we hadn't spoken in months, we could call each other and pick up a conversation right where we left it last time. our friendship brought great comfort to us both over the years.
yet, as i hung up the phone today after receiving the news from her husband, i was flooded with guilt and shame for all the ways i failed her as a friend when she got sick. the emails i left unanswered because i was too busy. i should have sent cards and care packages from the first news of her illness. she should never have to had wondered for a second if i cared for her.
three years ago, i didn't know what it was like to face a serious health issue.
then i got cancer, and a friend i cared about deeply and depended on dropped out of my life completely. i was puzzled, then hurt. hurt turned to bitterness and then later, to acceptance and some kind of forgiveness finally came. i saw that we are all struggling on some level and those struggles can get in the way of being present to others. even, or maybe especially, those we care about the most. being present for a dear one being sick takes courage because it brings to light our own frailty, our own vulnerability to disease.
if she can get cancer, so can i. maybe if i don't engage with the illness, it won't be real.
it took my friend lenea to show me how to get to acceptance. after i seemed to disappear from her life when she got sick (did i know how serious it was? i don't think so. i remember i thought, she is married, she has lots of friends there to support her, she doesn't really need me. months flew by in the blur. the blur of work and worry over the everyday. petty worries. while lenea's life, her fight for life, was 3,000 miles away. i didn't know she was fighting for life, but i should have asked) lenea went through all those stages. her feeling were really hurt and she tried to put me out of her heart, to save her energy for healing. she finally got well enough to write me and express her forgiveness. she missed me and wanted to re-connect, even after i hurt her feelings.
here is a portion of an email from 2 years after she got sick where lenea explains what she has:
"Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, organs and muscles. It is similar to lupus, however in this case, the body views each component as foreign and wages war. The disease manifests itself in the form of inflammation and subsequent development of scar tissue. When the process affects organs such as the heart and lungs, the development of scar tissue results in a loss of organ flexibility (i.e. loss of function). My lungs were saved and now have approximately 50% capacity and my heart is impaired. All of this means that I can participate in limited exercise and have a modified life style. I am also supposed to restrict the amount of red meat and salt intake. Eventually it may become necessary for me to consider a heart / lung transplant. I am undecided about whether that is something I want to pursue. I believe that in this life there are stars that burn long and stars that burn bright. I would like to think that my star is a bright burner."
today i am humbled and grieved. her heart stopped and my oldest friend is gone from this earth. lenea's last email to me was so cheerful, she reported her health improving steadily and she was thrilled at my acceptance into graduate school. she always, always believed in me and wished the very best for me. it often grieved her to see me struggle in life.
i think of the little things that cause hurt feelings and wedge between friends. there are people i should call. i have too often let friendships lapse and drift away for no reason at all. no good reason, anyway. fear of rejection, a resistance to emotional confrontation, an tendency to be self-absorbed when i am broke or ill.
close friendships are one of the foundations of good health and long life. i've never had a particularly easy time making close friends and today i finally get the truth: i need to keep the friends i have.
nurturing friendships is simply the most important work of being human. what are we, indeed what am i, without my connection to other people?
thank-you, all my friends who read this blog for your kindness, your patience with me and the gift of your love.
today i feel profoundly unworthy and deeply grateful.