This is an excerpt from my book. It was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. One of my friends told me this was hard to read – because it made her think of friends she’d lost and how much time she’d spent with them.
I said, “So, should I run it? Is it too painful?” I felt the same as her, secretly, that I hadn’t done enough for others.
“Yes,” she said, “you have to.”
“No, it’s too hard,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It will change lives.”
That is what made me run it. Maybe it will mean one more visit with someone you love.
The visitors surprised them. The ones who showed up were the ones least expected. While long-time friends and family didn’t appear and, over this, Lainey wept.
Instead, they called and sent cards and said all the right things, loving things, things Lainey treasured. But still, it was a quiet, empty hospital room. While Lainey’s life came apart, she shared it with people she didn’t know, dressed in white, clocking 12-hour shifts. And, in the end, she shared it with a small unlikely handful of friends.
There were Mike and Carla. Friends of her parents from the days when they all had small children in school together, who lived nearby but had lost touch with them. Mike walked in one day carrying a music stand. He didn’t wonder if Lainey would be surprised to see him or his stand. He nodded hello, set it by her mother’s bedside and propped a Bible open on it, made a little small talk and then shuffled out the door.
“He works here,” her mother said. Her pale hand reached out and flipped a page of the Bible; then her eyes shut again.
Lainey looked at her sisters and then at the music stand and a small round of giggles rifled through them. Lainey played a violin in the air below her chin. Her sisters joined in, one on flute, one on the piano. They played a silent symphony until their giggles woke their mother and she opened small slices of blue eyes at them.
“You guys,” she admonished.
And there was her mother, back with them, laughing, the foursome complete again. It was a warm feeling, a blanket wrapping them up, holding them tight. Their mother was back in the fold, above the fray of illness, back where she belonged for a moment.
But when her eyes shut and she fell silent again, the music did too.
The visitors she thought would sit and while away an entire day of misery with them, eat in the cafeteria, kill time in the waiting room, instead came and went, efficient as a breeze. In they came, hugs, kisses, an inch of snow predicted, then out, goodbye, hugs, kisses, until next time. Lainey would try to leave the room to give them a moment with her mother, but they’d always grab hold of her arm and insist she stay.
She knew why, the fear was understandable. Welcome to our new world, Lainey sometimes wanted to say, bitterness in her mouth, anger like a fire across her tongue. Other times, she caved with love, for they feared what she feared and she couldn’t blame them.
The two who did stay and while away the days with her, were complete and total strangers. They arrived dressed in Hawaiian shirts in the dead of winter, straight from an Alabama vacation. Gerry and Kenny. They were one of her parents’ first friends in 1968 when they lived in West Virginia.
Gerry kissed Lainey and her sisters all over their faces. “Oh, how I love your momma!” she said, her hot cheeks pressed against theirs. Lainey didn’t say a thing, nor did her sisters.
Her father took only a moment to recover on the far side of the room before he bellowed, “Kenny, you old dog, what the hell you doin’ here?”
The flurry of activity filled the room, pushing the grief aside in its hurry. “Hon, look who’s here.” Lainey’s father leaned in and said their names to her ear, to make sure she’d recognize the friends she hadn’t set eyes on in years.
“Who are they?” Lainey whispered to her sisters, unsure of how involved they should be in the visit. What did Lainey have to say to these strangers? How had they even heard the days were being counted? But here they stood, two angels of mercy. And they didn’t just stay an hour, or even an afternoon. They stayed for two full weeks, the last two weeks, coming daily to see her mother, and then finally, to the funeral, the first to come, the last to leave.
Over two weeks time, Gerry knit a winter hat for each of them, often at the foot of the hospital bed. She prayed for the mother, she prayed for the daughters. She ate meals with Lainey and her sisters and sent Kenny and Dad off to the golf shop in a blizzard to see if the weather brought on a clearance. She told stories of Lainey’s mother and father, the world before Lainey.
And Gerry didn’t once pay any heed to the looks of doubt on their faces, their desire that she should leave strong on their mother’s good days. Their desire that she should stay fierce on the worst days. In short, none of them knew what to do with the likes of one long-time friend named Gerry.
“Your mother sent me a Christmas card every year,” Gerry said on the third afternoon, her hands bound by yarn. “But this year she said she might never see me again in this lifetime.”
Fear rolled through Lainey to realize that her mother had started her goodbyes. She said nothing, the tears there, held.
“I knew then that I had to come.” Gerry pulled a length of yarn free from the skein.
Lainey looked sidelong at the woman who had seen to it that her mother’s goodbye be in person and felt a love unfurl in a tiny corner of her heart.
“Kenny and your father worked all night in the oil fields you know,” Gerry went on. “Your mother and I would stay up nights and wait. And oh, did we have fun!” She laughed deep, leaning back, her needles crossed, pressed to her soft bosom.
But the best story came the night after her mother’s funeral.
“Your mother came to visit me the night after I got home.” Gerry said this as if there’d only been a change in the weather.
“What do you mean?” Lainey held the phone perfectly flat to her ear. She hadn’t seen or heard from Gerry in three months.
“The first night I got home, I went to bed and a light came in the room.”
“And you saw her?”
“No,” Gerry said. “I felt her.”
“How?” Lainey thought, Gerry was a lunatic after all.
“I knew it was her, no one else.”
“What kind of light?” Lainey sat down and sat still.
“A light that came from everywhere.”
“Like car lights through a bedroom window?”
Exactly, Lainey thought.
“But I knew it was your mom because of how I felt.” Gerry would give no ground to Lainey’s doubts.
“And how was that?”
“I felt peaceful,” Gerry said.
“And?” Lainey pressed.
“And, so did she,” Gerry said.
And something inside Lainey shifted, a small shove of hope up against the grief.