Although the story of our lives is punctuated by the big events, it is family and friendships that are the basis of our everyday memories, the shared experiences that are part of our story. Bruce had been reveling in time spent with friends and family, and as impossible as it seemed, the pace of visits continued to ramp up, cradling both of us in love and friendship.
I had considered not going to our May book club meeting at Susie’s, trying to balance time with Bruce against time with my friends and supporters, but I had decided that I needed some time with this warm, wonderful, inspiring group of women. I walked into Susie’s kitchen, already abuzz with conversation, and put my potluck lunch contribution of salad on the counter. I was instantly surrounded with hugs and words of support. It was an unexpected treat to see Lisa. She was the only one who knew Bruce since she and her husband had sailed with us and we often had dinner at each other’s house.
“I thought you were too busy to come.” I gave her a special squeeze.
When the embrace ended, she smiled at me. If you can make the time for book club, then I can definitely make the time!”
For the next several hours we did what we always did, share stories and laughter, complement each other’s cooking, and bask in the warmth of friendship.
Visits continued, with friends we saw often and those with whom we had lost touch. As with library cards, active membership in a friendship can lapse, but if it has been real and deep at one point, it can sometimes be reactivated. For Bruce, even lapsed relationships took on increased importance as his life drew to a close.
The next morning, Gary called to see if he and their mutual friend Paul could stop by. Gary and Bruce had been close friends for many years, first meeting when Bruce was the Town Planner for Avon and Gary was developing subdivisions in town. We had socialized since the 1970s, initially with Gary and his wife, later with a string of girlfriends, and finally with a long-term girlfriend who became his second wife. Over the years, from the time our children were young, our families had spent many good times together at the beach and each other’s homes.
Although I was sure Gary knew Bruce was sick, he had not reached out. A few years earlier, Gary’s closest friend had died after a short illness. Perhaps he wasn’t prepared to face the loss of another close friend. Whatever the reason, when Gary called, Bruce was delighted.
We sat in the living room, sharing what had been going on in our respective families and reliving old times. He and Bruce had been wild and crazy partners in crime—well, maybe just mischief. The two of them had been known to take a bottle of wine in the middle of a work day, to go pick strawberries, and sit on the bank of a stream. During one of our dinners out together, in the middle of laughing over some funny story, Bruce had abruptly fallen off his chair, mimicking a move that Justin had perfected as a young boy. Whereas Justin’s frequent chair episodes were accidental, Bruce’s were for comic effect and, egged on by Gary, he repeated the move several more times that evening. My fears that we were being too loud were proved unfounded when diners at a neighboring table stopped by on their way out to thank us for the entertainment.
It was a joy to laugh again with the Gary I remembered from days gone by, the perennial life of the party, and to experience his rapid-fire storytelling. But I sensed an undercurrent of disquiet, like being with Kylie’s family at Easter. Some people don’t know what to say or how to act around a person who is dying, and their discomfort is palpable. Gary’s love for Bruce was unquestionable, but there was no doubt he was not as comfortable as others who had been on this journey with Bruce since the beginning. I wondered if he brought Paul to act as a buffer. When he got up to leave, wrapping up another laughter-filled hour, Bruce and I got bear hugs that conveyed the significance of this last goodbye, lingering much longer than the gesture that we Americans have coopted as the new handshake.
My brother George had arranged to stop by with his eldest child, Bissy. Justin had been the ring bearer at her wedding; a cute but devilish seven-year-old in his light blue tux. We’d seen Bissy rarely after she moved to California, but she put a lot of importance on family and managed to keep in touch with letters and emails.
I brought a chaise lounge down from the pool for Bruce, and chairs for our visitors, placing them in a circle on the deck. It was a perfect day to welcome the month of June, sunny and in the low 70s. White bleeding hearts, yellow and purple irises and purple PJM rhododendrons in full bloom reminded us that spring comes every year, no matter what the winter has thrown at us.
We were expecting George, his wife Patty, and Bissy, but were glad to see that Heather and Monique, George’s daughters from his second marriage, were also with him. I’d always enjoyed Heather and Monique, but until now hadn’t appreciated how funny and lively they were. They must have gotten it from my brother, whose wry wit and jovial sarcasm I had come to appreciate over the years. They recounted hilarious stories involving family members in a way that made it easy for us to laugh at ourselves. It truly was the best medicine; my stomach ached from almost nonstop laughter.
A short time later, I was puzzled to see two women, who had been walking along the road, turn into our driveway. As they got nearer I saw it was my cousin Joyce, also from the West Coast, and a friend of hers. In town for her brother-in-law’s funeral, Joyce had just visited her Mother’s grave at the Canton Center Congregational Church and decided to walk up East Mountain to see if we were home. She was delighted to have happened upon this unexpected gathering of her cousins.
We saw Joyce rarely, but through the wonders of technology, were in communication by email. Even before Bruce was sick, she had been exceptionally good about sending us electronic cards and updates on family events. There is usually at least one person in a family who takes on that mantle. It has never been me, despite all my good intentions. For our extended family on my mother’s side, it was Joyce and I told her how grateful I was.
When Bruce started looking tired, I urged him to rest and our guests said their goodbyes. This day had been a whirlwind of visits, lifting his spirits and far outweighing the toll it was taking on his increasingly weakened body. Were we doing too much? I didn’t think so. This was not a time to ration visits. It was exactly the right time for family, friends, and love.
In the last two months, we had spent half our time with our children and grandchildren. Even when we were home, I could count on one hand the days we were not physically surrounded by love and friendship, and on those rare days there were cards and letters waiting in the mailbox, emails and calls, CDs, books, inspirational tokens, and deliveries of homemade food, all valued for themselves and for the gesture of care that they embodied. The value to Bruce of the compassion, comfort, and laughter of friends was obvious.
A reward of illness is discovering how much people care for you. In the warm glow of good will it was easy for me to forget why we were being blessed with so much affection. Even Bruce’s invisible internal reminders did not seem to diminish his joy. I wondered if this feeling of exhilaration would be sustainable over a long period of time or if it would become so routine that our appreciation of it would decline. For Bruce, it was a moot point. I took comfort in knowing that he would not have to answer that question. For him, it would last for the rest of his life.