My friend died yesterday.
Now I find myself in the kitchen, ready to bake an apple pie to bring up to her family, which includes her husband, homebound with a debilitating disease. My tiny and slight friend had cancer, and in spite of dealing with that and caring for her husband, she’d been in a good place. A few weeks ago, she threw a party to thank all her women friends who gathered around her during the last year, driven her to appointments, brought food, and created a web of support during this challenging time. She called the party, So Far, So Good.
The apples I’ll use are the ones my husband and I gathered from the heritage apple trees at a local land preserve. My friend served on the local land trust with my husband, and loved this particular preserve. My husband called her the “welcome naysayer” on the board. That’s the kind of person she was: she saw things clearly, and wasn’t afraid to say so.
I pull out the pie plate, gather the flour and butter. Then I notice the stovetop is dirty, so I clean it. The rings around the burners are spotted with black, so I remove them, and tackle them. As I replace them, the stainless steel teapot, covered in a film of grease, catches my eye. I never clean it. Now I scour it until it shines. I remember when we had to put down Abby, our first Springer Spaniel. The vet was kind enough to come here. It happened so quickly, they go so quickly, you know, once that needle goes in, they’re gone. And then they took her away, zipped in a black bag. My husband left for work, and I was suddenly alone. I called a friend, crying, “I don’t know what to do. She said, “Clean out a closet.” And somehow it helped.
So I finish the stove, then tackle the sink and the dish drainer. Grief, like all strong emotions, carries a physical energy. As my hands move from one task to the next, I think about all the women who cleaned through their grief. I think about my mother, who was a cleaning fanatic, and how much grief and loss she may have cleaned through. Not just the grief of death, but the grief of life itself, the grief of loss and disappointment, of needs unmet and wishes unfulfilled.
Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and for a moment experienced the utter blackness of how death might feel. I wondered how it was for my friend, in those final moments. I hope she went quickly.
She’d become so thin. She was small and slim to begin with, but chemo had worked her down to bones. When you hugged her, there was nothing to hug, no padding on her skeleton. But she glowed. During her last year she grabbed onto life tighter than ever, she appreciated everything. The sickness brought her a radiance that I hadn’t seen in the few years I’d known her.
The cleaning calms me. I can bake the pie now. My husband will clean and peel the apples we picked. I will fill that pie with all the love and compassion I can. As I make it, I will think of my friend. I will remember her tiny hands that could do anything: knit, sew, garden, edit. She was both an editor and writer, had a meticulous mind able to deal with intricate detail with an envious ease. She designed her own knitting patterns, edited cookbooks, knit and sewed for the Muppets. When one of us had a problem with our knitting project, she would say, here, let me, and fix it in a flash. She was a wizard that way, a wizard with her hands.
She was elegant, savvy, and private. Until she became sick a year ago, she took care of her husband single-handedly. She had a wide circle of interesting and intelligent friends. Last summer, I helped her clean out the garage in the house she had just sold. Later, we drove over to her friend’s house to see the gardens.
In the car afterwards, I commented on the friend’s high energy and the lovely design of the gardens. “She’s one of us,” my friend said, and although I didn’t know exactly what membership in that club meant, I was content to be considered worthy of inclusion.