Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sometimes the Good Die Young

Two years ago I spent the last weekend of July with my friend Sally in her Houston home. We had a great visit. I am thankful that I chose to go see her that time. Her home has been a retreat for me where we would relax together once or twice a year. We would gossip about our kids and our clients and even have fun discussing work related problems. (I know, I'm a nerd.)

Sally and I met while working together at that big accounting firm that can no longer be named. Both our husbands were attorneys. We were pregnant at the same time and shared the same obstetrician. My second child and her first child were born a few weeks apart. Our families vacationed together when our children were little. Sally and I left that accounting firm and started our businesses about the same time and continued to stay good friends for twenty years, even though I had moved north.

A week after Sally and I visited, she died while participating in an open water swim event. Sally's local swim club had traveled with spouses to have a fun-filled weekend, culminating with the swim club members racing from Alcatraz Island to the shore of San Francisco. Near the end of the race Sally quit swimming, about a hundred yards from the finish, and could not be revived. When her husband called me that Sunday afternoon and told me the news, I thought a boulder had landed on my chest. It was as devastating as when the doctor told me my daughter had a very serious and rare form of cancer that needed immediate treatment. When told about my daughter's condition, the bottom fell out of my life, but was soon restored with hope and activity. There were things I could do to help and save my daughter. But Sally, she was gone.

After hanging up the phone, I packed a bag and drove the 275 miles to Houston, still in shock. My daughter was living with Sally and her husband during a summer internship. We had to get her packed up and moved out of the way so that Sally's children could come home and have their space and privacy. It was an awful week of disbelief as I called Sally's clients and helped any way possible. Unexpected death is jagged and raw. It stays immediate and aches for a long time.

I will never know exactly how or why Sally died that day. I like to think that her death, by changing the end of summer travel plans of her college age children, kept one or both of them from a disastrous course. Sally would have traded her life for the life of her children in a heartbeat, and perhaps she did.

I do know that Sally was prepared. She had done her best to coordinate the assisted living care of her parents and was pushing her siblings to be more involved going forward. She enjoyed her children and they were thriving. A few years previously she threw a grand to-do in celebration of her 25th wedding anniversary. She had confided to me that she didn't want to wait for her 50th, since her husband's family's longevity record was not the greatest. She wanted to make sure she had the chance to celebrate her marriage and her family.

Sally and I often disagreed on politics and religion. I am a compassionate conservative. She was a compassionate liberal. I think she questioned the value of organized Christianity and the interest God had in her individual life, while I see God's hand everywhere. To me, it was no accident that her life was in such order. She had everything caught up so she could spend several weeks touring the Middle East with her daughter, a trip scheduled to start shortly after the San Francisco trip. It was no accident that I had visited her the week before and, in an unusual course of conversation, she showed me exactly how her work was organized and what was finished and what was left to be done. It was no accident that her husband was surrounded by close friends throughout his terrible ordeal. It was no accident that she had secure relationships with her children.

I miss Sally and always will. I miss having her on speed dial to share jokes or laments. I miss her sentimental attachment to pets. I miss her exasperating tendency to obsess over small details. I miss our shared future of grandchildren and retirement adventures. I'm still mad at her for choosing this particular adventure two years ago. I wish she had changed her mind at the last minute and just enjoyed the festive weekend without unnecessary risk. But it was not in her nature to back away from a challenge she had committed to.

The wise teacher Dumbledore said that the dead we loved never truly leave us. Because of who Sally was and how she lived her life, I now try to leave fewer things undone. Remembering the joy she had with her pets, even in the midst of their infirmities, helped me decide it was worth the trouble to have a dog. I have more friends and cherish them more, knowing how valuable real friendship is and how hard it is to let it go. And, to the relief of my husband, I have taken hang gliding off my list of things to do, at least until I'm eighty.

It is a trite expression to say you should live each day as your last. Instead, I encourage you to live each day more completely. Live without regret for what was or might have been. And when you have the opportunity for true friendship, hold on to it as tightly as you can.

1 comment:

Sherry said...

Kerry, this reflection is worth reading again and again. Bless you for taking the time to write. Sherry