Learning how to die with grace from a beloved friend
Afterword, by Phyllis Jardine
I lost a good friend a few months back. While I frantically rushed about, to do lists clutched in both hands, she peacefully slipped away. My friend was 78, my age today. Would I be willing to go so quietly? Could I make such a graceful exit?
Our friendship dates back to 1989. I was travelling alone to a Gerontological Nurses' Conference in Calgary when an invitation arrived to share a hotel room with a stranger–from Edmonton. Somehow this nurse had discovered we both had roots in New Brunswick, and, in her gracious manner, had reached out.
We talked long into that first night. And what a night it was. The Calgary Flames had just won the Stanley cup. The whole city was celebrating. We two fifty-some-things decided to forego sleep and join the crowd in the hotel's pub. The next morning, when my tired body presented at the conference, my new friend sat front and centre, smiling encouragingly as I blathered on about "Innovative Nurse Managers."
We kept in touch. In the late nineties, after my husband and I moved to Nova Scotia, my friend telephoned to say she too was pondering a move to the Annapolis Valley.
"Come," I said. "You'll love it." And she did.
And then, for ten years, she was in and out of treatments for cancer. She never complained. When she was well, we took long walks on our mountain trails, wandering through the woods talking about books and grandchildren. She had three children; I had three children. She had three grand-girls; I had three grand-girls. She wanted to be there for them. And for her friends. She'd email to say when she felt well enough to do lunch and we'd all gather to celebrate.
When we downsized and moved further away, I still visited my friend, but not as often as I should have.
I realize now that she had a lot to teach me.
On my last visit before she died, she appeared weak and tired, but still, in a strange way, confident. When I asked about her comfort level, she said she slept a lot.
"It is what it is," she whispered. "I'm in good hands."
Several times when I noticed her eyelids drooping, I tried to leave, but she would awaken and ask another question. She was still curious. Still wanted to be part of things. In the silence between our words, I sat, admiring my friend.
How does she know how to do this? What grace has allowed this woman to remain so calm?
And for some reason, I thought of dancing. My husband and I attended many dances all over the Annapolis Valley, but one stands out. It was last New Year's Eve at a new-to-us dance hall, where the band was more rock than rhythm, more noise than music, and I was ready to head home, put my feet up and have a glass of wine by the fireplace. But my husband took me in his arms and quietly said, Just follow me, my darling, we can do this." The muscle memory of years of dancing together took us around the room and into a new year. No anxiety, no worries about, "getting it right."
This, I told myself, must be at least part of my friend's secret. In the end, she figured out how to take her leave without fear or regrets. She knew she was loved. And she had the fortitude that allowed who she was to unfold in the face of death.
Will I have that strength?
My questions take on new colour in springtime, this season of renewal.
Am I capable of truly living to the end? Will I have the strength to say goodbye to loved ones, the faith to explore new beginnings, the privilege of seeing the heavens?
I don't have the answers. But I do believe there can be a noble path for dying; a narrative for letting go, a graceful retreat.
When Gabriel blows his horn, I hope to die safely in the arms of my husband, perhaps dreaming of waltzing to Anne Murray's "Could I Have this Dance?"
Or, like my friend, pondering Raymond Carver's last poem, "Late Fragment."
"And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth."
Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.