With the turn of the ignition, it’s clear something is wrong, not with the engine but the ventilation—does my minivan not understand that ventilation is everything in summer? Sigh. I’ve already packed the backseat with a spinning wheel and a large bag of spinning fiber, with my current knitting project and a few felted pieces to show and tell at the craft gathering in the next town over. I’m already running two hours later than I planned.
Still, I recall the last time the same problem occurred with the ventilation, it was a fuse. It’s too hot to wrangle fuses, and I’m too late. But I remember the last time—it was the day of Karen’s housefire. I remember that car breakages are often signs, in my life at least. I’m solo today, and I can handle looking at what once was my friend’s sweet condo with a view of the sea. I drive up the steep road, with my car windows open wide, once again.
The house is progressing, with no signs of soot or damage. I crane my neck upward so I can see. New window casings replace the charred triangles. There is still no ‘for sale’ sign, and I can see through the windows that the ceiling is being reconstructed. The patio door is propped open and I wonder if the owner is inside. I don’t want to meet him. A dumpster still occupies my usual parking space, with No Trespassing signs posted above, possibly to ward off any of Karen’s friends.
I call Karen’s sister-in-law again to leave a message, remembering patience as I recall how inundated with phone calls she must be. “It’s Denise, from Gloucester. Please call me and tell me where Karen is, how she is, how I can reach her. I know she’ll want to catch up with me. Is she able to see visitors?” Immediately I remember my own mantra: she could’ve died already, it wouldn’t be my fault, as she’s been crumbling since I met her.
It’s been almost three months since the fire. The last time I talked with her was eight weeks ago, when my children were still in school. She’s changed hospitals twice since then and last I heard her body was rejecting skin grafts. Each time I think I can’t bear to see her, can’t bear to see her hurting any more than she was already hurting, I imagine the friends who knew her when she was strong and vibrant in body as well as spirit. She was a chef, and married to a chef, living on the Vineyard and throwing all-day parties each Sunday, upscale potlucks for twenty or thirty or how every many people would fit. Twenty years ago perhaps?
Karen is fifty-six, a shut-in, perhaps to be living in some sort of a healthcare facility for the rest of her life, now. All she wants is fresh organic food, fresh air, and enough hours of solitude to meditate quietly. All she wants is a really good cup of coffee in a real mug. She can tolerate the loss of the use of her hands, and she can tolerate the creeping blindness that leaves her just a little light. She can tolerate more pain than anyone I know. But she can’t tolerate lack of independence, and being away from the ocean. At least, she can’t tolerate it forever.
It’s Karen who I’d talk through this last month with, more than anyone. Like my mother’s year of crumbling health at the end of her life, Karen’s ears and imagination crave description after description, the details, and she paints connection after connection, adding insight and delight. I remember vaguely a quote from Jesus about weeping with those who weep and dancing with those who dance, and it was about Pharisees and important theology, I’m certain, but Karen, better than anyone, knows how to dance and weep with others, for others. Like my relationship with my mother in that last year, I find myself saving up scenes to describe for her. If someone wants to live vicariously through another person, I am a good choice. If someone wants to locate the plotline in my long ramblings, I am also well-served. But I wouldn’t choose just anyone.
I close my eyes in the driveway and remember the rhythm of my once-a-week workdays: a deep breath and up the stairs. An exhale of relief as I hear her voice in the bedroom door. “Good morning, Karen” is followed by “I’m making coffee,” is followed by her calling “please make a cup for yourself when you bring it to me. I want to hear everything.” Everything! Imagine! To the kitchen to see if the new coffee pot remains unbroken or if I need to find yet another one. Hum and check the laundry, the trash, the state of the refrigerator and what kind of good leftovers remain from Suzanne, the regular caretaker and my good, good friend. Pull down Karen’s favorite mug and my favorite mug, pour a dollop of maple syrup in hers and some cream in mine, and set a tray with napkins, apple slices, a small vase of flowers. Will she want to talk today, or will she be eager for work to be done? I want both, each day, also.
For a month or so last winter, before the hospital bed arrived but after she’d fallen badly enough that she spent most of her time in bed, Karen and I held our morning meeting in her queen-sized bed, propped up on pillows. It was my job to manage mugs of steaming coffee as we pulled the blankets up over our knees in the winter draft. I said something about being in my bed with my boss and she laughed and laughed, her right hand hooked carefully around the mug handle—any loss of concentration and the mug would drop, and the bed would need to be changed again.
I wouldn’t call Karen my best friend, even then, and I hesitated to call her my friend, only, because we knew each other only in order for me to work with her. I believe I dropped by once or twice in my off hours, to drop something off, over the course of a year’s worth of work. I deliberately worked to hold thoughts of Karen only for my workdays—her physical needs are so huge, it seemed I’d worry about her all the time if I got started worrying in my off-hours. And yet to whom on earth do we commit hours of conversation time, outside of our spouses and children? Karen took in more of me than my friends could possibly schedule. It has been work, yes. But she said from the first meeting, “Oh, I knew you were a writer from the first time you spoke. I bet you are a good one. Tell me how I can help.” She’s been an inspiration and a helpful organizer of my thoughts, while I cook her lunch and keep her coffee cup filled.
How will I manage not working for her? I worked for the small hourly wage, but the money was so inconsequential—she paid me her with her heart and soul and her good ear. She gave me everything she could in this astounding year.
I’m afraid when I see her that she’ll be greatly altered, that my Karen will be long gone, deep in pain, medicated out of her alertness. She’s lived a long life with many friends, and time closes when geography changes—I need to be prepared that she might not remember me at all. She might not be conscious. She might be locked in a psychological hell that is in some ways well-earned.
I don’t know how it will feel, but I need to see her. If she is bad off, I’ll stroke her hair like a baby, she’s been so good to me. I think back to her last seizure, how I drove in from the bookstore and held her hand, thinking she didn’t even know it was me, but she wouldn’t yell at me like she did her sister—she was terrifyingly docile, not arguing about the ambulance coming. (The sweet EMT said “ma’am, I don’t see anything wrong with her” and I replied, “sir, my blind friend could knock you across the room with her bad arm on a good day. She’s a fierce woman, not a quiet invalid.”) I’d like to think she’ll be well enough to take in a real mug of really good coffee, which I will bring with me, just in case she is strong enough to hold it in her crooked right hand and trade stories like precious secrets. If she’s unable to take it in, she will appreciate the gesture. Or I will, if that’s all.
The car gets too hot as the minutes wear on, and it’s time to show up at the craft gathering. I said I’d be there, and there is nothing to do here at the empty condo on Witham Street. I take a last look to make sure the place is as empty as it feels, and pull the sizzling minivan out of the driveway one last time.