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No, really. I was just bragging to hubby about how smart I was to leave the last few stalks in the garden as it would provide yummy fresh-from-the-earth vegies, when I went to pick some.

Pride comes before the fall. I stood looking at the mess made of all my efforts in confusion. The tops were off every kale plant, the parsley was sheered off at ground level, and the plump little brussels sprout globes were gone from the stalk or badly mangled. ‘What the…?’ I thought. Then I saw the hoofprints. The mesh fencing was still mostly up, but a section had been sort of smushed down to about four feet. Just high enough for an elk or a member of the elephant family of mammals to step over.  That’s when I realized that I probably wouldn’t want to eat the few remaining vegies because they have elk spit all over them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an elk close up, but they are big, really big. Trying to keep them out of any food source is a bit like trying to scare off a mastodon with a broom. Both the extinct mastodons and very much alive elk are both herbivores and neither have particularly vicious reputations, but it’s probably smarter to just let them stomp quietly along their merry way and clean up the wreckage afterwards.

Sounds like a few relationships I’ve had, and, to be fair, the results of a smattering of my own actions. I admit it. But it’s also a lot like what happens in life.

Last week the best friend my husband and I have made up here, died of cancer. To respect the family’s privacy, I’ll call him Bob and his partner Jodi. We were with Bob through the diagnosis and his first treatments, including spending time in Seattle where he had his bladder removed. Then chemo, and when that failed, they turned to experimental immunotherapy.

It worked, the tumors shrank and he was told that though the cancer wouldn’t leave him, he could expect a good five years of reasonable health by continuing that treatment.

Having been on the board of a cancer charity where I worked closely with City of Hope for many years, I know a little something about what people and their families go through with diagnosis and treatment, and the many uncertainties. So, during conversations at that time, we promised our friend that we would be there for his girlfriend, Jodi,  who had only been with him for a single year before she found herself a full time caregiver, a role for which she was not prepared but stepped up to with grace and courage. Though in many conversations she privately confessed to me that she ‘had not signed on for this.’ I understood, it is a huge thing to give up your life to care for someone, especially someone you have only known a year.

Then the unstoppable pain started in one leg, nothing contained it, not codeine, not morphine, nothing. Bob resisted our suggestions to go back to the doctor and I knew that he was afraid of what they would tell him.

And it’s what they did tell him. Two tumors in his abdomen had grown together, and when that happens, the cancer speeds up. He now had a four by six inch tumor pressing on nerves and they gave him three weeks.

I went into neighbor mode. I cooked meals and delivered them, offered to run errands, sit up with him if necessary, anything I could think of to ease their pain. But in this time of covid, there were limited things I could do, and my husband was still recovering from pneumonia, so I had to keep a certain distance. Sometimes when I came to drop something off, I would wave through the window, and on one memorable afternoon, Jodi came flying out of the house putting on her coat and begged me to just take her for a drive for a few minutes.

I took her to one of my favorite spots and parked under the trees in the rain. She talked, and I let her, joined her, and tried to prepare her for what was to come. She’s been through deathbed scenes before, but it’s different when it’s your one and only, I know that, but not from personal experience. I have done home hospice for relatives and friends, but not a partner, so I could only express sympathy and rub her back as she wept. I hope it helped.

I’ll never forget the sound of soft rain on the roof of the car as the windows steamed and grew foggy from the exhales of my weak words of comfort and her gasps of sorrow. It is hard to die, but it might be harder to watch someone you love die. I don’t know yet. I’ve only done the latter, after I’ve been through the former, I’ll let you know.

My husband and I never did get a chance to say goodbye to our friend. Thankfully, though it’s strange to say, he died fairly quickly, slipping into a coma and then his labored breathing stopping at 12:45 on a Wednesday night. I happened to be  awake when Jodi texted me at 5:45 a.m. asking if I could take his daughter, who had come for the end, to the flyaway bus about an hour away so she could get to Seattle and the airport. After a quick discussion, hubby got dressed and left to drive the daughter all the way to the airport, (about two and a half hours one-way but we couldn’t bear the thought of her having to take a bus just hours after her father’s death) and I went to be with Jodi.

I stayed all that day, helping her clean up, crying, listening, encouraging her to sleep. She tried several times to lie down, but would pop back up again when her brain screamed reality at her. Twice she called for me and when I went in, she asked me with pathetic desperation that tore my heart, “He’s not coming back, is he?” I told her no, he wasn’t, but that he would always be with her.

So I took a chair and sat by the end of her bed, propping my feet up close to hers, and we cried more, and laughed in that sad gurgling way one does when one more onslaught of grief will snap you in half. At one point she looked up at me with alarm in her eyes and asked what was wrong with her. She said she felt like someone was tugging at her right sleeve. I explained that lack of sleep will do strange things to your body’s physical sensations, but I also suggested that it might be him, just patting her arm, letting her know it would be all right, and I told her to watch for signs from him, ways that he might try to contact or comfort her. We discussed things that they shared a love of, eagles and the sea both figured strongly in her heart.

At about five o’clock in the afternoon, she finally fell asleep. I stayed an hour, then decided to head home, leaving a note.

You are loved,

You are supported,

I am a phone call away.

She slept for several hours, but woke before dawn. I joined her a bit later and we spent another day just trying to sort reality and absorb the blow. It’s a feeling of total helplessness and the only remedy is to get through it. By the third day I took her out for a drive  just to get her out of the house. As we drove through a dense part of the national forest, an eagle swooped from a tree and paralleled my car for a hundred yards or so before veering off into the canopy, and we held hands and smiled through the tightness of tears in our throats. Now, a week and a half later, she’s doing much better and I’m helping her look for a new place to live. She does not want to stay in his house without him.

Death is like elk or even mastodons in the garden. One long swoop of a tusk churns up everything we’ve planted, every well plotted future meal and harvest. We don’t expect it, we can’t stop it, but we can listen with awe and gratitude to the bellowing in the distance as the herd retreats, leaving us to clean up, to replant, to reflect on the fragility of our human endeavors. All of us are temporary, they seem to say, that’s okay, it all comes back together in the end.

And yesterday, when I went to see my friend, she told me with a smile that she had woken in the night and heard him calling her name, not sadly, not desperately, just to let her know he was there.

I thought about that moment. His strong, loving voice echoing from the distance far ahead, letting her know the way, so that we she can follow and not get lost, and that there is nothing to fear.

Like a herd of mastodon calling across the Pleistocene marshes, ‘We were here, we too passed this way. Do not be afraid.’

So I will replant my garden, I will love and lose and learn until it is my time to pass through those marshes.

And I will not be afraid.

I miss you, “Bob”.

Shari, January 17th 2021