My friend Helen died a few hours ago. Her daughter just called me sobbing as I was headed back into the house from my barre class.
Helen was our next door neighbor at the old house. She was there waving from her porch the day we moved into our beloved little home on tree-lined Mt Royal Drive. She had lived there for nearly sixty years.
Helen was quiet and always accommodating to a fault, but once you got to know her she was wisecracking and fiery. She remembered everyone on birthdays and holidays. The kids on the street called her Grandma Helen. She loved Tariku and never once looked askance at him, even at his most challenging moments.
Helen was ninety-one. For the past few years she’s been in an assisted living facility and I would sometimes go there to hang out and hear her stories. She once showed me a photograph of herself perched on the back of her husband’s motorcycle when they were first married. She raised four kids and then decided to go back to work as a cook in the cafeteria of one of of the local public schools. This was back when they actually cooked fresh, healthy food on the premises. She showed me pictures of huge pressure cookers filled with rice, stainless steel counters lined with trays of golden turkeys. She was so proud of that job.
On the weekends, she and her husband (now long-gone) used to go dancing. She loved to dance.
I often talked to Helen about my worries. She would laugh and say, “You sound just like I did.”
The hardest thing for me wasn’t coming to terms with the fact that Helen was going to die. She was eighty-two when I first met her, so it’s not like it was a surprise. But I was devastated when my witty friend began to fade mentally. It deeply saddened me that she seemed frightened and confused near the end. A few months ago, I went and visited her and we just held hands and cried.
I called the family into the living room this morning and told them the news. Tariku was so uncomfortable. He wouldn’t sit down. He rolled his eyes and fidgeted and said some really weird stuff (about graves and corpses). I suggested some appropriate things we can say to people who are grieving and then I kissed him and let him go out with his Auntie Jo for the day. I did my best not to shame him or correct him too harshly.
He is incredibly uncomfortable around loss, which makes sense, given the history of loss in his short life. He also tends to freak out when I express strong emotion. I think it makes him feel unsafe. This is the first major death in our lives that he’s really old enough to grasp. I’m going to try to give him a lot of space to have his own reaction to this, rather than the one I deem suitable.
My dear friend Claire Bidwell Smith is a writer and grief counselor and we talk often about death. We talk about how we might want to die, which is, of course, more a conversation about how we want to live. We talk about what might happen to us afterward. We talk about how to approach the topic of death with our children. I’m so glad I recently read an advance copy of Claire’s new memoir After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go (you can pre-order). It gave me a vocabulary for approaching the topic of death with Tariku. It made me realize that I don’t have to have all the answers. Or even any of the answers. I just have to have a sense of what it means to lead a meaningful life.
In school, T learns that when people die, they go to be with Jesus in heaven. It’s not exactly my personal belief, but it doesn’t have to be. I tell him that it might be true, but no one really knows. That the Beatles may have said it best: And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make. Helen gave so much love and compassion– to her family, to her neighbors, to everyone around her. And that’s what remains. That and a really cool black and white photograph of her on a motorcycle wearing a thick ponytail and pedal pushers, her arms wrapped around her husband’s leather jacket, a wide, sweet smile on her face.
I will miss you, Helen. I will always miss that time in my life, when you stood waving hello from your porch and Scott and I first walked through our doorway, our life together still so hopeful and new.
Here is another door. You are walking through it. I am waving goodbye.