“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin
A pair of iguanas atop a third mate, mugging for my camera at the pet store.
A pair of iguanas atop a third mate, mugging for my camera at the pet store.
I love this dreamy throwback photograph, taken on the outer banks of North Carolina circa 1960. My beautiful mother in law Mary (on the right), adored this summer refuge where her parents owned a home. She is pictured here with her best friend Dottie. When I look at their carefree expressions I can almost feel the warm breeze and the lazy days of summers past. I love her retro swimsuit too which she sewed by hand. She left us two years ago after a brief illness. At her memorial service, I met a lovely older couple who spoke of Mary (as we all did) with love and adoration. As we reminisced I couldn’t stop staring at the elegantly dressed woman who seemed so hauntingly familiar. As I held out my hand, she introduced herself as Dottie…
Nothing that is can pause or stay;
The moon will wax, the moon will wane,
The mist and cloud will turn to rain,
The rain to mist and cloud again,
Tomorrow be today.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I discovered this image taken over fifteen years ago in a small town on the Amalfi Coast, while going through a shoebox filled with old photos. As I strolled past a beautiful old church I was struck by these four men sitting together on a Sunday afternoon, the middle two deep in conversation, the bookends, content in their own thoughts. Each gentleman bore a unique expression though their emotions are difficult to interpret. As only in Italy, the fashion sense impressed, particularly the vivid blue socks and old style fedoras. The fellow on the far left sported a more casual but equally dapper attire with his jaunty tweed cap and stylish sneakers.
I think it was her laugh. That mirthful, contagious laughter that I miss most. Just over a year ago, life became a shade grayer when I learned the news that my beautiful friend Grace, departed this world unexpectedly, so unexpectedly, at 49 years of age. Move on, they say. Life goes on. She is gone. Take comfort in the memories. All logical, all understandable. But what they don’t tell you is how do you find another best friend with whom you click so perfectly? A friendship that does not even come for some, once in a lifetime? Yes. I have moved on but I can’t forget her.
She first entered my world 10 years ago, when our children attended a three’s group at nursery school. And then as the years rolled on, we found ourselves again entwined when both our children, now in their teens, joined a springboard diving team in a neighboring town. And our friendship which began slowly, progressed from the occasional wave in the market to daily phone calls, often exceeding an hour in length. In an age of computers and texting I loved those phone calls. We delighted in discovering commonalities from our youth; how we both loved teen idol Scott Baio or debating the merits of which was the better beach; The Jersey Shore (her choice being a Jersey girl) vs Jones Beach (mine, growing up on Long Island). I would cradle the phone under my chin as I made the beds, never wanting to hang up as there was always just one more story.
Her tough façade shielded a gentle heart. She once trapped a possum that was ravaging her vegetable garden, in a cage she had purchased at Home Depot. That was so Grace. Why call a professional when she could do it herself? The next morning as she crept up to check the cage, she was devastated to discover that in trapping the creature, it had perished. As she dejectedly opened the trap door, the possum sprang out…She laughed and laughed as she told me she had forgotten that possums played dead…
Grace was steadfast and unwavering in her beliefs; a formidable participant in any discussion. A topic that came up frequently between us was the amount of driving time needed to arrive at a certain locale. We often carpooled together to diving and Grace claimed it took her no more than 20 minutes from her home to the YMCA, wherein I would argue that was impossible, as our house was closer and she could not get to the Y in less than 25 minutes. There were never any loud arguments just a persistent impasse. “Perhaps you drive faster than me?” I would remark. And she would confidently smile and say, “No, 20 minutes door to door…” and so it went for years with no declared winner, just a constant volley between us. It always took 5 minutes less when Grace drove anywhere.
Her two favorite words were “divine” and “fantastic” which she used with abandon. You felt like there was nothing she could not accomplish. She was the definition of a do-er. She was loyal, funny and protective. She loved Hugh Grant movies and the city of London where she had lived in her single years.
Above all, Grace loved her family. Her husband Craig and two daughters were the light and purpose of her life. She was the best mother imaginable and her spirit is seen in the unique and beautiful personalities of her daughters Maren and Devon.
Although I will not see my cherished friend again in this world, I keep close to me the memories of her voice, mannerisms and of course that laughter. If I am to take anything away from this tremendous loss it is that age-old advice that life is fleeting. I am not one for hugging but what I would give to hug her one last time and tell her how happy she made my life during our short time together.
And, during those times when I don’t feel her near, I ponder where her spirit may be and then a vision comes to me which goes something like this…
A calm, deep, soothing voice is heard: “Grace, it is time to leave to greet our new friends. It will take you 15 minutes to reach the gate and if the clouds are thick, it may take some extra time….” A steady, confident voice replies “It takes only 10 minutes. I have been there twice now and there is no way it takes more than 10 minutes.” God, begins to object but then reconsiders. She has not been here very long, but he already is aware of her capabilities. That is one of the reasons he chose her for this job. He responds calmly “Very Good Grace.” I trust your judgment. We all did.
He was to attend a therapeutic boarding school in the rocky mountains of Colorado, for the next two years. A school that specialized in the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of boys who were struggling. He had battled anxiety and ADHD for as long as we knew him but lately a more sinister villain called depression was taking over. Public school was not working for him and his daily trips to the counselor left him dejected and angry. He hated school, he told us again and again.
He took refuge in nature. Whenever upset, he would flee to the solace of the woods, headlamp in place along with a survival kit he had purchased on the internet. Gregory loved the forest which seemed to hold for him, its own therapeutic powers. As a going away gift we gave him a lithograph night-light with a forest of trees etched within, the golden hue soothing and calm.
He is a beautiful boy with deep red hair, fine features and porcelain skin. His face reflects an impishness that is infectious. He is highly intelligent and intuitive. My son and he became fast friends three years ago and enjoy a special bond as best friends do. We both knew this path was the best thing for Gregory but it did not make his leaving any easier as he had become a fixture in both our lives and home.
All contact at his new school was to be via letter, no social media of any sort, so I made it a point that we would write to him, at least once a month. I have a book of postcards, each one a different flower fairy illustrated by the brilliant Cicely Mary Barker, an English artist known for her life-like depictions of fairies in nature. I chose for Gregory a red-headed mischievous faced boy fairy and penned in the margin “this reminded us of you!” I then enclosed a second self-addressed card already stamped for him to return to us.
The next card we sent to him contained a dried wishbone from our previous night’s roast chicken. Growing up my father would always save the wishbone for me and my sisters. I thought it was just the type of ritual Gregory would enjoy. “Find someone you like at your new school and break the wishbone!” I scrawled. “We miss you.” But then, a week later thinking again about the wishbone, I was filled with dread. What if gets the long end and his wish is to come home? What had I done? In trying to comfort him I could possibly have made him feel worse.
One afternoon several weeks later, I paused at my son’s bedroom door after hearing him talking on the phone to what sounded like Gregory. He was clearly upset, distraught and his words a hurried jumble of emotion. “I want to come home. I hate it here. I miss you so much!” He had sneaked his mother’s phone while she was visiting to make the call. After several moments, my son replied in a calm voice “You have to push through…” I had never before heard the expression nor my son use it. When I asked him what he meant by “push through,” he explained that his middle school track coach always told the boys to push through the pain no matter how hard and they may just find they were stronger than they thought.
I worried about how he felt losing his best friend “Do you miss Gregory?” His response was always the same. “It’s fine mom.” And then I realized, perhaps the strain of seeing his friend in so much pain was harder than letting him go.
The last thing we sent him was a care package right before Halloween. It contained fake fangs, a calendar book with different photos of forest scenes, two packages of his favorite gummy bears and a small stuffed owl that had strangely beckoned to me from high on a store shelf. I imagined the little owl sitting on his night table. I also included a pre-stamped fairy card he could send back to us with ease. When I called his mother to review what I was sending, she paused when I had mentioned the stuffed owl. “He asked me if he could have a real one last week for a pet!”
Several weeks later, we received the fairy card by return mail. Gregory’s familiar hurried scrawl contained the following sentiments: “I loved the red-headed fairy card — I am learning to play the banjo! — Thank you for the owl, I keep him in my backpack.” But it was the last line that remains with me. “I still don’t like it here” he confided, “but I am going to push through…” And those simple words were all I needed.