I haven’t posted in this series on mourning for a while, but today I only have one thing worth writing about. My beloved friend Mary passed away early yesterday morning in New York – my 3:23 in the afternoon in Nepal.
I understand that Mary’s death was not a huge surprise, except that every death is a surprise in its finalness. She was 71 and she’d already beat the odds many times. The doctors were always saying she might die. I never tired of hearing about all the times she had, in fact, died. She always chose to come back – from the promise of an easier place, from her father beckoning at the foot of the bed, to this world, to this body, to the blue couch in her living room that we sat on for many long afternoons. Where, in addition to other topics, I plied her for every possible detail about dying.
But I can’t imagine my life without her.
We texted often – she was the queen of the multiple exclamation point with a space preceding it !!! – and talked on the phone like champions. She’d say she only had a minute and then we’d talk for no less than an hour or three. Our longest conversation was 4 hours and 11 minutes and it began at 10:03 pm. For the last fifteen minutes or so, we talked about the record we’d set, and how late it was, and how we should hang up, but how we could never seem to hang up.
Once, after we had talked late in to the night about this choosing and coming back, I was lying on my bed thinking about injustice and heartbreak. If souls choose their destiny, what is the point of all these violent and cruel games? I can’t understand why our souls would choose to create this world out of all the choices. I told Mary that I believe in balance, not kindness or purpose. She said I was really smart, that I had a special gift with words. We discussed it until two am, and when we hung up, I felt smart, and Mary still had kindness and purpose. She never minded that I would throw stones at God and then come back to her to get organized.
Mary was never in a hurry to finish a story. She’d say she had to quickly tell me one more story really fast and then the story would take twenty minutes to tell and then we’d analyze it and think of all the other stories it reminded us of and all the life lessons it offered for another forty minutes.
She called me “kid” or “you turkey” so I called her “kid” or “you turkey.”
One time I trimmed her hair with office scissors in the staff bathroom.
I met Mary when I came to the clinic as a patient in 2006. The fact that she became one of my best friends in the history of ever, and that I would talk with her on the phone for hours and hours late in to the night, makes my story completely like almost everyone’s story of Mary. She became one of my mom’s best friends. I became friends with the other patients Mary became friends with. I listened and re-listened to stories of best friends she’d kept since kindergarten.
I never felt that the army of best friends Mary had diminished my best-friendness with her even a little. This is one of the important things about the nature of the universe that Mary taught me without ever explaining it. I just understood with her that there was enough love for an infinite amount for everybody.
I wanted to record so many of her stories. But I never recorded the story about how she got her finger stuck in her friends’ designer bowling ball and ended up in the emergency room attached to the bowling ball. I never recorded the story about how she fixed up her sister with the doctor who tended to her during her first heart surgery forty years ago, or the story about the proud old woman Mary insisted get into her car on a steep hill one day, and how Mary said, “Don’t you just want to cry?” and then cried with the old woman in the car because the hill was so steep and it was so hot. I never recorded the story about the hour she spent chasing down a lost purse in a store for a complete stranger who had left on a bus, and how the bag turned out to have a precious bundle of cash in it, bringing the owner to tears. I never recorded the last story she told me, the night before her surgery, about how the residential suites at NY Presbyterian Hospital are only for VIPs, so she got the mayor of Wallingford to write a letter about all the Very Important things she’d done in Wallingford, and then she mailed it to Angela upstairs, who promptly arranged a residential room for her dear Bill and Colleen. (When the mayor sent the letter to her house, he threw in an edible arrangement.)
Mary, I know you would say it’s totally unimportant that I never recorded these stories. That’s because I’m always trying to keep the past with me, scraping at it with my fingers and toes and arms and legs and everything, and you found all that hassle extremely pointless. You weren’t much for books or movies and I love books and movies. Your living was people. You said books were disconnected from people and took you out of the moment when you could be talking to someone. All this documenting and remembering that consumes me was always, to you, a distraction from the wonderous, fleeting present.
When Mary told me stories about her grandkids and kids, or about dating gentle Bill, or about the best friend she lost when she was sixteen, it was never boring or self-indulgent. Her family brought her so much joy, you couldn’t not be happy with her. I listened to the same stories and looked at the same pictures and read the same poems many times, and I always felt lucky to be in her delight and gratitude.
I spent more time talking with Mary about God than anyone else I’ve known or ever will know. We talked about everybody’s dying. Hers, mine, our friends’, her mother’s, the relatives – we relived and examined all of them, past and future, death in the abstract, the question of choosing, the question – or lack thereof – of God.
Mary said she didn’t want any fanfare after her passing, and I told her I was showing up anyway, even if it was by myself in the rain (which would be impossible anyway, given the legions of best friends). I said if I got hit by a bus and went first, she better freaking show up on my day. I didn’t care if that made me less enlightened. She told me there could be a hurricane on the day of my funeral and nobody would come, and that I had to come to a place in my heart where that was okay with me. I said that was the most awful thing I’d ever heard.
Mary didn’t “believe” in God. She just experienced God. She let me argue with her about God and wear myself out, so that I could rest on her experience. Mary helped me make a tenuous peace with the fact that life is easier and fuller and more magical with God, and you can’t win the argument either way. So you might as well be with God. All her dying gave her cred with me in the God department. She knew things I don’t know. She wasn’t afraid of anything except for the pain her death would cause her family. That was no secret – it was a wisdom and fear she offered freely.
Mary was the very first person I ever spoke to about IMT, which eventually healed my body, brought me irreplaceable teachers and friends, and changed my life. She was the person whose arm I curled up under on a fluffy couch during the scary and uncertain week I first moved to Connecticut. She was the person who I sat with at parties and funerals, and who had time to talk to me almost every single day for an hour or two about big wide things, during a period of my life where I felt unmoored and panicked for long, terrifying hours at a stretch. She was the person who, during a moment of lingering emptiness or need for contact, I could always text or call without feeling like I was imposing. She appreciated every last fiber of human connection that this life offered her. My search for meaning was as beautiful and important to her as it is to me, and she was never too much older or wiser to include me in her journey too.
The last time I should have seen Mary was just before I left for Nepal six weeks ago. I was giving a talk at the Hartford library about the earthquake, and it was unfortunately on Mother’s Day. I was feeling sad and disconnected because nobody was around, and I was preparing to return to an unknown Nepal suffering new destruction and loss. I hoped I might get lucky and see some familiar faces in the crowd. There was a small audience of about fifteen people, two of whom were my parents and two were my good friends Steve and Jackie. I put on my bravest face and did the talk, which actually went pretty well.
Later that evening, I got a text from Mary. “Well, we tried !!!” she said. I wrote back to say it meant everything to me that she’d wanted to be there; her text finally brought a little bit of lightness in to my heart.
“No, we WERE there !!! ” she replied. Turns out that Bill and Mary had delayed their Mother’s Day plans with their son Billy, drove an hour to Hartford to surprise me, and arrived 10 minutes after my talk had started. And Mary, being Mary, said it would be rude to enter after the start of the talk, so they sat outside the closed library door. The one I was staring at the whole time during my presentation, with no idea they were right on the other side.
Mary told me later that she was listening to my presentation, but I know she wasn’t concerned with the details. She was there to provide her presence, not to learn about Nepal. They waited and waited, but when the program went much later than planned, they had to leave to go to Billy’s house. So I never saw her. I never snuggled my nose on to her shoulder and got wrapped in her hug, which was the one thing I wished for so much that afternoon, and the one thing she came there to offer. But she was there the whole time.
She was there the whole time.
This is the enduring image I am left to wrestle with of you, my beautiful Mary. Maybe it was your higher wisdom at work, because that was our last meeting. I know that my task is to take comfort in the idea that you are just there on the other side of the door, where I can’t see you, waiting for me to be done with all these cumbersome details, bearing witness to my story so that I can indulge in my own relevance until I find my way out of the room. But today, this is too close to how I actually feel. You are just where I can’t get to you, and I only want to jump in to your arms. It is too soon to appreciate your nearness when I am enraged by the door.
I love you, Mary. I will never be able to quantify your impact on my life. I think this is all new, and you are still basking in the glory of the kingdom where you have finally arrived. I know that with time you will find your way to us, and we will find your way to you. I know impatience won’t help me, and you know I will be impatient anyway. I know you are not afraid, and you know I have borrowed your courage and will have to find a way forward now with my own. I miss you so much. Your last text to me says: !! Drive safely !!! You know perfectly well you sent that to me in reference to a tractor I was preparing to ride on for 12 hours, delivering tin roofs in the hills of Nepal on ridiculous jeep roads. You turkey.
I wish I had at least recorded the story about the bowling ball.
I really should go now. This has gone on much longer than planned and nobody is going to read it to the end. But it always takes so long to hang up, and these aren’t the kinds of things that can be rushed. This is what happens every time. I know you will read it to the end and that’s all that matters.
Ok then—see you in the morning, kid.
. . .