Her picture hangs on the wall of my office--as she was as a young WAVE cryptographer during World War II. In profile, her upturned face shows a woman brimming with self-confidence and joie de vivre, bright and striking and determined.
Nothing has changed all that much. Now, even at 85, even facing a daunting range of health issues, she is one of the most vibrant people I know. Though physically she now bears the signs of weariness and pain, intellectually and spiritually, she sparkles still.
Or perhaps a better verb is "sparks." Whenever we talk and my own thinking is sharpened by hers, I often think of Proverbs 27:17, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." During one of my weekly visits, even though she is soon to face an excruciating new round of chemotherapy, we spoke of much more than that: of politics and presidents from Roosevelt to Bush; of the controversies racking the denomination to which we both belong; of books and family and mutual acquaintances. On all these topics, she has a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue. Once we were discussing a sermon in which the minister had asserted that he had always imagined the great cloud of witnesses, described in Hebrews, as like a stadium crowd at a race, cheering us on. I asked her if she really believed that people looked down on us from heaven, and she replied she didn't think so. "After all," she said, "heaven is supposed to be a place without pain and suffering, and looking down on us probably wouldn't give them much peace." I thought that sounded about right. And then she mischievously added, "Especially if they have to look down on all those red states."
Lest I drift too far into praise--something she would undoubtedly quickly call me on--I admit she is no saint. At least not in that saccharine, cloying way we typically employ that word. She is impatient with nonsense, opinionated, honest about her struggles with hypercompetence and the attendant difficulty of receiving. I can relate. Maybe that's why, though we are separated in age by almost fifty years, we have always thought of each other as friends.
Although I did not know it at first, she has had cancer during the entire time we have known each other. It is manageable, but incurable. But as it has recently grown ever more unmanageable, the possibility of her death has struck me hard. Indeed, after she called me to tell me of the heightened aggression of the enemy cells in her body, returning to battle so soon after she had endured almost a year of chemotherapy, I was crushed with disappointment for her and wept in my office, hoping no student or colleague would knock on my door.
I should have been prepared. It's not as if I have never experienced the death of someone close to me before. My grandparents, for example, are all gone. And my mother, wrenchingly and with terrible suddenness, died of a brain aneurysm when I was thirty. I live with that sadness still. I hear all those hymns about going to heaven much differently now; I find I can't sing them quite as blithely as before. And when I recite the Apostles' Creed in church, I know I've already had to think through whether I truly believe in the resurrection of the body or not.
But somehow a friend is different. Or perhaps it feels different because this is the first time I have had a close friend in this situation. "What do we live for," asks George Eliot, "if not to make life less difficult for each other?" Friendship, it seems to me, is a critical site where we enact the incarnational love of God, the God who laid down his life for his friends. And yet, this very ability to love deeply, allowing us to have deep relationships with each other, makes the thought of absence in some ways even harder. The assurance of eternal life and the promise of reunion in heaven is surely a blessing, but it cannot (and isn't supposed to, I think) erase our sense of loss, what Yeats meant when he wrote of the "folly of being comforted."
Nevertheless, she has gone a long ways in preparing me. When we went to lunch to celebrate the completion of her chemotherapy this spring, I was my usual Tiggerish self, enthusiastically cheerful about her return to better health. When I told her how pleased I was that she was better, she looked me square in the eye and said, "But you know I know it's only temporary."
I froze. Please don't make me cry in the restaurant, I thought, before finally stammering: "Well, isn't everything?" "Yes," she responded, "but it's the attitude towards the temporary-ness that's important. Too many people spend all their time worrying about how long they have left, so that they don't end up enjoying any of the time they do. I intend to enjoy it."
That hit home because I know my own impulse is exactly the opposite: to worry. After all, I hate the idea of friends moving to another city, let alone to that far country. Like my biblical hero, Martha, I can so easily be anxious and troubled about many things, always wanting, instead, to solve every problem and make everything better. But of course, as I have to be reminded again and again, that's not my job. Still, I've always loved Martha's fix-it response when Jesus came to Bethany after the death of Lazarus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." That sounds like exactly something that I would have said. But what's more important is that, despite her confusion about Jesus' timing, she had no question about his lordship. That sounds like somewhere I could start too.
Essays like this often tend to drift into platitudes towards the end. The topic is simply too vast--and we like resolution, even when we know it's false. I had hoped when I began this piece to convey at least a small sense of how uniquely wonderful my friend and our friendship is (though despite my weekly Tuesday visit, I was determined that this would not become a Calvinist version of Tuesdays with Morrie, a book I loathed.) Clearly, I don't have the skill. Maybe that's why obituaries-- with their lists of how Mildred, faithful employee of the telephone company, loved her cats and sewing, or how Fred, longtime fisherman and Rotarian, enjoyed his grandchildren and golf--always feel flat to me.
T. S. Eliot ends The Waste Land by asserting that we only truly live when we boldly experience
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
I like those lines a great deal, but I'm not sure the stuff of friendship needs to be that dramatic. Maybe the obituaries are on to something after all.
Each week, we talk and laugh and drink iced tea. When she is able to come to church, I worship with her and her husband. And we wish each other God's peace whenever we can--for surely that is all we can hope for now and hereafter.
Jennifer Holberg teaches in the department of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a member of the editoral board of Perspectives.