My mind is playing tricks on me.
"You weren’t as good of friends as you thought you were. She wasn’t as important as you make her out to be. Your friendship wasn’t as deep as you want to believe. Your history together wasn’t as long as you believe it was. This loss isn’t as deep as you feel it is."
Yet, every day, Facebook shoves memories in my face. When I sit with her, her words don’t come. I stare at her foot. Focused on her foot. It’s a piece of her that still resembles who I knew. When I glance up at her face, she’s confused, swollen with steroids, sometimes vacant like she’s having a mini seizure, which she might be. But when I glance back at her foot, it’s her again. She’s right there, but she isn’t. I want to cuddle up next to her, to just sit and pretend, that it’s her again, the real her, and we’re just choosing to be quiet. But we can’t. Because you know, Covid. When I go to leave, she always wants a hug. But I can’t. Stupid virus. She cries as I drive away. Was it worth visiting? Upsetting her? Making her struggle to try to be the her that she was, for me, when she can’t?
Then another memory forces its way onto my Facebook. A comment of support from 10 years ago. During the height of my divorce insanity, when she kept me, even as I left her brother and moved with our children across the entire country, closer to her, but farther for him. A small check in to ask about a visitation, a cynical snide comment, the kind that kept me afloat so many times through all of the drama, when she was the one that I would call, to hear me. To listen, and understand, and feel it with me, carrying my anger for me, letting it roll through her and come back out in the new form of a fierce energy that pushed its way through the phone lines to embolden me and keep me moving forward.
When I arrive to see her, her friends come to me. They ask me what we should do. They all look to me to talk to her husband. To say those awful words…”Hospice. One month.” The words that we know but no one wants to say. When I ask why...why are they acting as if I’m in charge? One of them says, “Rachel always looked up to you. You are the one we look to because she put you in that place. She always acted like you were someone she looked up to.” It hits me as so odd. She was always my big sister. She was my protector, my shield, she fought for me when words would twist their way through her family, making me out to be the bad guy. Her words would ring out, regardless of how related the receiver was, and she would speak the truth, set the record straight, defending my honor.
I did a guided meditation one day. One of the questions we were asked to reflect upon was, “If the universe could give you one gift, what would it be? What do I need from the world right now?” The word that came to me was mentor. I need a mentor. But then, the word big sister floated up. I need a big sister. And it hit me. I need a new one because mine isn’t really here anymore.
Rachel didn’t just carry my anger. Sometimes she carried my fear. As a newly divorced mother, experiencing visitation and joint custody for the first time, with small children, it’s scary. From letting your babies go somewhere without you, to not knowing what went on while they were away, wondering if they missed you or needed you, if they understood why mommy couldn’t come...to the feeling when a stranger you only met in passing a few times is the one caring for them, and the later fears that that new person will replace you in your children's hearts...more fun, more interesting, less strict, better. Rachel would catch this fear, validate it, and walk me through the scenarios. She would relate with her own fear, her own imperfect joint custody scenario that had played itself out for many more years than my own. Much of the time, she found some sick and twisted humor in it that left me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe...seeing the sadistic reality as someone else’s story and giving a distance to it so I could appreciate the cruel sense of humor life has.
Several moments go down in history to me as purely and perfectly descriptive of the kind of relationship we had. One time, when I went to visit her with my boys, to attend the annual hot air balloon festival we liked to go to, her kids (my children’s cousins) were with their dad for the day so we needed to meet him there. We met up with him and his girlfriend...so it was me, Rachel (my ex-husband's sister,) her ex’s girlfriend, four children, and her ex. She turned to me and said, “It’s like an episode of the Sister Wives.” Leave it to her to find the humor in a demented situation.
Another time, she came to visit, to attend the boys’ baseball games and my daughter’s (my child with my new husband) dance recital. It was a marathon of a day. My new husband’s parents and my mom were visiting for the recital and games as well. My ex-husband, his wife, their new baby, and her mother and sister who were visiting, arrived. He and his wife went to get something and left the baby with her mother. My mother and my new mother-in-law were walking by and saw the cute new baby and went over to say hello, both of them being baby lovers. They had no idea whose baby it was. So all the older ladies are chatting and cooing, having no idea the kind of animosity they actually felt towards each other for all the reasons that divorce creates, and Rachel and I are sitting observing from a distance, knowing exactly what was taking place, even appreciating the irony that she sits here with me, instead of her being over there enjoying her new niece. The absurdity of the entire situation was something that no one else in that crowded sports field could appreciate. The two of us sat alone, together, basking in this sick joke. Then, later, after the reality of who the baby and women were had hit my mother in law and mother, and they had retired back to their own “home team” side of the field, Rachel ventured over to get some pictures of her new niece. She took my own daughter, completely unrelated and who absolutely adores babies, with her. She took photos of the boys with the baby, and many photos of the boys with my daughter, with the baby. Photos of her brother’s ex-wife’s child from a new marriage with his children from his past marriage, and his baby with his new wife. She later shared these photos on Facebook with her family...in full regalia of the utter ridiculousness of it all.
This woman held the ability to laugh, cry, scream, and throw her hands up all at the same time. And that night, that’s exactly what we did. She came home to stay with me for the night, after the dance recital celebrations were over, and we drank several bottles of wine, feeling all the feelings, her strained relationship with her brother, my awkward and resentful relationship with my ex’s new wife and her family, our anger at her brother, my ex, our anger at her ex, our frustration with her family, my frustration with mine...but in all that deep feeling, we found above all, the humor. We laughed and laughed...until tears rolled down our cheeks and we were left with a terrible hangover, and happy souls.
This is something that hasn’t left her...her sense of humor. I can no longer understand the jokes. They don’t make sense. But she tells them anyways, and laughs and laughs...looking at me to see if I am laughing...if I got the joke. I try. I’m probably not very convincing. Even though she's having trouble focusing, she doesn’t miss a single of my joke’s either, a brief quiet chuckle in response. I don’t think she knows that she’s dying, or maybe she does, it’s hard to tell. Her other friends say she has moments of lucidity, when she’s her again, but driving six hours round trip to sit outside with a mask on for a few hours, doesn’t give me much opportunity to catch those special moments when they happen. It makes me angry that I don’t get to. I’m bitterly jealous.
Should I hug her this time? It is the last time? Is it close enough to her departure that risk of viral infection no longer matters? Will I provide the comfort she needs? Will I be able to handle it? Before, when her mind was still functioning, I would tell her, “I should be sad about your cancer, but I can’t be, because I’m just so happy to see you.” Now, I dread it. I dread visiting the person that isn’t her. But then my mind tells me, you weren’t that close. She wasn’t that important. This is who she always was...an out-of-it confused distant relative. She’s just your ex-husband’s sister. He’s right. Who am I to call her my “close friend?” And maybe that makes it easier. To forget her. For my mind to negate who she was to me so it doesn’t hurt so much. So the loss doesn’t feel so real. So I can sit there, staring at her foot, and not feel anything. And I can drive away, maybe for the last time, without hugging her. But then Facebook shoves one of those memories back at me. When her words reach across space and time, through the wreckage of terminal brain cancer, and reveal her friendship to me once again, until all I can think is, I’m coming Rachel, and this time, in the face of the farce we are living once again, your death at the age of 49, after living for a year and a half with Glioblastoma, occurring during a, never-before-in-our-lifetime worldwide pandemic, amidst the sickest joke of them all, I’m going to give you a fucking hug.